Saturday, February 1, 2014

The triple package of success

Jan 31, 2014

Three cultural factors explain the success of ethnic and cultural minorities in American society: a belief that the group one belongs to is exceptional; a goading sense of inferiority; and impulse control.

By Amy Chua And Jed Rubenfeld

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly US$90,000 or S$115,000 per year in median household income versus US$50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top jobs in many of the most recognisable US companies.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 per cent of the adult population in the US, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents' socioeconomic or educational background.
Take New York City's selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders.

For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardised entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others - as measured by income, test scores and so on - is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana and Haiti, are climbing America's higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians.

Nigerians make up less than 1 per cent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence.Meanwhile, some Asian- American groups - Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example - are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

Most fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elites have been declining for decades.

In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 - including a 63-point edge over whites - a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

[There is a Chinese saying, that family fortunes are lost within three generations. This seems to support that saying.]

Three traits for success

IT TURNS out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in the United States today share three traits that, together, propel success.

The first is a superiority complex - a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite - insecurity, a feeling that you or what you've done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

It's odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it's precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control - the ability to resist temptation - and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.

Ironically, each element of the triple package violates a core tenet of contemporary American thinking.

We know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous, yet every one of America's most successful groups tells itself that it's exceptional in a deep sense. Mormons believe they are "gods in embryo" placed on Earth to lead the world to salvation; they see themselves, in the historian Claudia Bushman's words, as "an island of morality in a sea of moral decay".

Middle East experts and many Iranians explicitly refer to a Persian "superiority complex". At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the "chosen" people.

That insecurity should be a lever of success is another anathema in US culture. Feelings of inadequacy are cause for concern or even therapy; parents deliberately instilling insecurity in their children is almost unthinkable. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America's rising groups.

A central finding in a study of over 5,000 immigrants' children led by sociologist Ruben Rumbaut was how frequently the kids felt "motivated to achieve" because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem their parents' sacrifices.

By contrast, white American parents are found to be more focused on building children's social skills and self-esteem.

In a study of thousands of high school students, Asian-Americans reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, even as they racked up the highest grades.

Plus, being an outsider in a society - and America's most successful groups are all outsiders in one way or another - is a source of insecurity in itself. Immigrants worry about whether they can survive in a strange land, often communicating a sense of life's precariousness to their children.

Cubans fleeing to Miami after Fidel Castro's takeover reported seeing signs reading "No dogs, no Cubans" on apartment buildings. During the 2012 election cycle, Mormons had to hear presidential candidate Mitt Romney's clean-cut sons described as "creepy" in the media.

Finally, impulse control runs against the grain of contemporary culture as well.

Countless books and feel-good movies extol the virtue of living in the here and now, and people who control their impulses don't live in the moment. The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children's happiness with excessive restraints or demands.

By contrast, every one of America's most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age - or at least they did so when they were on the rise.

In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone, a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive
and what Tocqueville called the "longing to rise".

Flip side of success

BUT this success comes at a price. Each of the three traits has its own pathologies. Impulse control can undercut the ability to experience beauty, tranquillity and spontaneous joy. Insecure people feel like they're never good enough. "I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents," recalls the novelist Amy Tan. "It's a horrible feeling."

Recent studies suggest that Asian-American youth have greater rates of stress (but, despite media reports to the contrary, lower rates of suicide).

A superiority complex can be even more invidious. Group supremacy claims have been a source of oppression, war and genocide throughout history.

Even when it functions relatively benignly as an engine of success, the combination of these three traits can still be imprisoning - precisely because of the kind of success it tends to promote. Individuals striving for material success can easily become too focused on prestige and money, too concerned with external measures of their own worth.

The good news is that it's not some magic gene generating these groups' disproportionate success. Nor is it some 5,000-year-old "education culture" that only they have access to. Instead their success is significantly propelled by three simple qualities open to anyone. The way to develop this package of qualities - not that it's easy, or that everyone would want to - is through grit.

It requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn't ethnically or religiously exclusive. It's the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.

The US itself was born a triple package nation, with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality, a goading desire to prove itself to aristocratic Europe (Thomas Jefferson sent a giant moose carcass to Paris to prove that America's animals were bigger than Europe's) and a Puritan inheritance of impulse control.

But prosperity and power had their predictable effect, eroding the insecurity and self-restraint that led to them. By 2000, all that remained was America's superiority complex, which by itself is mere swagger, fuelling a culture of entitlement and instant gratification. Thus the trials of recent years - the unwon wars, the financial collapse, the rise of China - have, perversely, had a beneficial effect: the return of insecurity.

Those who talk of America's "decline" miss this crucial point. America has always been at its best when it has had to overcome adversity and prove its mettle on the world stage. For better and worse, it has that opportunity again today.

[There are 3 criteria for Success according to this article, and their upcoming book. So while Americans never lost their sense of "American Exceptionalism" and so their sense of superiority has always there, the authors suggest that their recent failures have brought "the return of insecurity".

However there is a third element in their hypothesis for success: impulse control.

I do not see that happening.]


The writers are professors at Yale Law School and the authors of the forthcoming book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain The Rise And Fall Of Cultural Groups in America.

Amy Chua is the author of the controversial book on parenting, Battle Hymn Of A Tiger Mother, published in 2001. Jed Rubenfeld is her husband.

This is excerpted from a longer article in the New York Times.

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