The case for swagger: Canadians have a lot to be proud of May 22 2018

May 22, 2018 (Globe and Mail)

As a German immigrant to this country, there is one thing that has always confused me about Canadians.

The best way I can explain it to you is with a story from the early days of Shopify, the software company I started in 2006. We were a group of friends, crammed into our first office on top of a coffee shop. Our team was still small enough to sit around a table and share a pizza while we worked late into the night. We were solving problems that had never been solved before. The energy was exhilarating.

In those startup days, every waking hour was ripe with problem solving, bursts of creativity, iteration, and more progress than any one of us could keep on top of alone. To stay aligned as a team, we needed everyone to self-report on their work. The trouble was, we couldn’t get anyone to share their accomplishments. Even though it sounds like a simple task, it absolutely wasn't. We had no idea why.

My co-founder (incidentally, another German) and I decided to try and fix this. After a lot of failed attempts, including persuasion and bribery, we decided to fall back on our ability to build software. We created an internal tool that allowed people to share their work without having to stand up in front of the entire company to do so.

But no one used the tool. No one posted their wins, and we still couldn’t understand why. We almost gave up on the idea, then decided to make one last change. Instead of asking people to share their contributions, we asked them to thank others for what they had done. The tool’s usage exploded.

That's when it dawned on us. It wasn’t that our colleagues were forgetful about what they’d worked on. It was that sharing accomplishments, even with the people who really wanted to hear them, was considered un-Canadian. What we had done was taken a tool that ran counter to Canadian culture, and turned it into something that was very much in line with that culture, which is to be grateful to others.

After noticing this within our company, I started seeing it everywhere. It's an underexposed topic of conversation. Academia is quiet on it. Why do Canadians sell themselves short? I've never been able to answer that question.

What I do know, however, is that Canada has every right to be proud of its accomplishments. Turns out, the modern world is built on Canadian inventions. From canoes to lightbulbs, from telephones to stem cells, from velcro to the first radio transmission of the human voice. From fibre optic cables (the backbone of the internet) to machine learning (the backbone of the current tech industry), much of the foundation for these innovations was laid on Canadian soil.

And yet, Canadians are too humble to tell anyone.

This is a paradox to me. What could be more Canadian than working hard to figure out something new, and sharing it with the world? The world wants to hear from us! A study last year from Ipsos found that out of every country, Canada has the most positive influence on world affairs. But because we have been too hesitant to speak up, we have completely confused the world and ourselves about our own competitiveness.

Luckily, I'm not the only one who has noticed. Earlier this month, I sat on stage with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Shopify Unite, our annual conference. "We just need to have a little more swagger as a country," he said.

And there it is. In one word, he summed up the thing that has confused me about Canadians for years. Why don't we have more swagger? No one benefits from us not taking credit for our successes. There is no virtue in allowing kudos to go unclaimed or elsewhere. Just imagine: if someone waved a magic wand and rid Canadians of their inferiority complex, what would be possible?

There’s one example where the answer to this is clear. During the 2010 Olympics, the entire country rallied behind the Own the Podium campaign. We went for gold. We knew we were world-class, but more than that, we told people we were. The result? Our athletes broke the record for most gold medals won in any Winter Olympics. That was an incredible moment for Canada, and a notable attitude shift.

We are at our best when we are at our proudest. Canadians need to harness that confidence in every arena, not just the ice rink. The maple leaf stands for quality, thoughtfulness, and innovation, so let's brand it proudly on the things that we've invented, created, and figured out. Let's own our successes, and inspire ourselves to go for gold — because that's what we do.

It's time to dial down the humility, Canada, and dial up the swagger.

 - tobi