11 March 2015
Amy Chua is also the author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. Although I haven’t read that book, in February 2011 I listened to most of its serialisation as BBC Radio 4’s “Book of the Week”. It was very entertaining, but sadly is not currently available on the BBC website.
The co-author, Jeb Rubenfeld is the Robert R. Slaughter Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and is also Amy Chua's husband.
Accordingly, when this book was published last year, given the subject matter, I had no hesitation in buying it and read it not too long afterwards. I felt a strong connection with it given my own background as an immigrant to the UK who over a lifetime moved from near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder to near the top.
It addresses a vital question. Why do some groups succeed in America while others don’t? Obviously here one is talking about the average level of success of group members, since almost all groups will have some people who are spectacularly successful and others who are rank failures.
The book is relatively short, 225 pages before the acknowledgments etc. I always like to start by looking at the table of contents.
While it is not possible to go into all the details that the authors give to support their conclusions regarding the key ingredients of success, I have summarised some key points below.
The introduction gives an excellent overview of the book.
“It is one of humanity’s enduring mysteries why some individuals rise from unpromising origins to great heights, when so many others, facing similar obstacles and with seemingly similar capabilities, don’t rise at all.
The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior. Certain groups tend to make their members feel this way more than others; groups that do so are disproportionately successful. This unlikely combination of qualities is part of a potent cultural package that generates drive: the need to prove oneself that makes people systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Groups that instill this kind of drive in their members have a special advantage in America, because contemporary American culture teaches a contrary message – a message of self-acceptance and living in the moment.
That certain groups do much better in America than others – as measured by income, occupational status, test scores, and so on – is difficult to talk about. In large part this is because the topic feels racially charged. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes. There are black and Hispanic subgroups in the United States far outperforming many white and Asian subgroups. Moreover, there’s a demonstrable arc to group success – in immigrant groups, it typically dissipates by the third generation – puncturing the notion of innate group differences and undermining the whole concept of 'model minorities.'
Ultimately the Triple Package is accessible to anyone. Its a set of values and beliefs, habits and practices, that individuals from any background can make a part of their lives or their children’s lives, enabling them to pursue success as they define it.”
In this chapter the authors summarise their proposition. They begin by pointing out some significant group differences.
“What do the current or recent CFOs or CEOs of American Express, Black & Decker, Citigroup, Dell, Fisher-Price, Deloitte, Jet-Blue, Marriott International, Sears Roebuck, Huntsman, Skullcandy, Sam’s Club, and Madison Square Garden have in common? They are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In 1980, it was hard to find a Mormon on Wall Street. Today, Mormons are dominant players in America’s corporate boardrooms, investment firms, and business schools.
After 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Miami, most arriving destitute. Initially facing hostility – NO DOGS, NO CUBANS signs on rental buildings were common – they crammed into small apartments and became dishwashers, janitors and tomato pickers. These Cuban exiles, together with their children, helped transform sleepy Miami into one of America’s most vibrant business centers. By 1990, the percentage of US-born Cuban Americans with household incomes over $50,000 was double that of Anglo-Americans. Although less than 4% of the US Hispanic population, Cuban Americans in 2002 accounted for five of the top 10 wealthiest Hispanics in the United States, and today are 2 ½ times more likely than Hispanic Americans overall to be making over $200,000 a year.
In 2004, two Harvard professors created an uproar when they pointed out that a majority of Harvard’s black students – possibly up to 2/3 – were immigrants or their children (as opposed to blacks whose families had been in America for many generations). Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries – such as Jamaica, Haiti, Ghana, Ethiopia and Liberia – are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but the most prominent are Nigerians. A mere 0.7% of the US black population, Nigerian Americans, most of them raised by hard-working, often struggling immigrant parents, account for at least 10 times that percentage of black students at America’s most elite universities and professional schools. Predictably, this academic success has translated into economic success. Nigerian Americans are already markedly overrepresented at Wall Street investment banks and blue-chip law firms.”
The authors briefly discuss how one defines success and then continue with their summarisation of the evidence of differential group success.
“Indian Americans [from India, not “native Americans” which is now the standard term for the indigenous inhabitants of America] have the highest income of any Census-tracked ethnic group, almost twice the national average. Chinese, Iranian and Lebanese Americans are not far behind. Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they’re being called the ‘new Jews,’ and many believe that tacit quotas are being applied against them. Its important to emphasise that even the children of poor and poorly educated East Asian immigrants – Chinese seamstresses, Korean grocers, Vietnamese refugees – outperform other racial minority groups and their white American counterparts.
Meanwhile, the actual Jews continue to rack up Nobel prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and hedge-fund billions at a rate wildly disproportionate to their numbers. In a nationwide study of young to middle-age adults, median American household net worth in 2004 was found to be $99,500; among Jewish respondents, it was $443,000. In 2009, although just 1.7% of the adult population, Jews accounted for 20 of Forbes’s top 50 richest Americans and over a third of the top 400.
Groups can also fall precipitously in their fortunes. In the early 1900s, when Max Weber wrote his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Protestants still dominated the American economy. Today, American Protestants are below average in wealth, and being raised in an Evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant family is correlated with downward economic mobility.”
The authors’ thesis is that “for all their diversity, America’s overachieving groups are linked together by three cultural commonalities, each one of which violates a core tenet of modern American thinking.” The authors give this combination of three cultural forces the name The Triple Package. They go on to explain the three components.
“This element of the triple package is the easiest to define: a deeply internalized belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority. This belief can derive from widely varying sources. It can be religious, as in the case of Mormons. It can be rooted in a story about the magnificence of your people’s history and civilization, as in the case of Chinese or Persians. It can be based on identity-defining social distinctions that most Americans have never even heard of, such as descending from the ‘priestly’ Brahman caste, in the case of some Indian Americans, or belonging to the famously entrepreneurial Igbo people, in the case of many Nigerian immigrants. Or it could be a mix. At their first Passover Seders, Jewish children hear that Jews are the ‘chosen’ people; later they will be taught that Jews are a moral people, a people of law and intellect, a people of survivors.
A crucial point about the Superiority Complex is that it is antithetical to mainstream liberal thinking, which teaches us to refrain from judging any individual or any life to be better than another. Everyone is equal to everyone else. And if individual superiority judgments are frowned on, group superiority judgments are anathema. Group superiority is the stuff of racism, colonialism, imperialism, Nazism. Yet every one of America’s extremely successful groups fosters a belief in its own superiority.”
As we will use the term, insecurity is a species of discontent – an anxious uncertainty about your worth or place in society, a feeling or worry that you or what you've done or what you have is in some fundamental way not good enough. Insecurity can take many different forms: a sense of being looked down on; a perception of peril; feelings of inadequacy; a fear of losing what one has. Everyone is probably insecure in one way or another, but some groups are more prone to it than others. To be an immigrant is almost by definition to be insecure – an experience of deep economic and social anxiety, not knowing whether you can earn a living or give your children a decent life.
That insecurity should be a critical lever of success is another anathema, flouting the entire orthodoxy of contemporary popular and therapeutic psychology. Feelings of inadequacy are a diagnostically recognised symptom of personality disorder. If you’re insecure – if you feel that in some fundamental way you’re not good enough – then you lack self-esteem, and if you lack self-esteem, you aren’t on your way to a successful life. On the contrary, you should probably be in therapy. And the greatest anathema of all would be parents working to instill insecurity in their children. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s most successful groups, and these groups not only suffer from insecurity; they tend, consciously or unconsciously, to promote it.
Note that there’s a deep tension between insecurity and a superiority complex. It’s odd to think of people being simultaneously insecure but also convinced of their divine election or superiority. Yet this tense, unstable combination, as we’ll discuss shortly, is precisely what gives the Triple Package its potency.
"As we’ll use the term, impulse control refers to the ability to resist temptation, especially the temptation to give up in the face of hardship or quit instead of persevering at a difficult task. No society could exist without impulse control; as Freud speculated, civilization may begin with the suppression of primal sexual and aggressive instincts. Nevertheless, against the background of a relatively permissive America, some groups decidedly place greater emphasis on impulse control than others.
Impulse control, too, runs powerfully against the grain of contemporary culture. The term ‘impulse control’ conjures up all kinds of negative connotations: ‘control freaks,’ people who are ‘too controlled’ or ‘too controlling,’ people who can’t be ‘impulsive’ and enjoy life. People who control their impulses don’t live in the present, and living in the present is an imperative of modernity. Learning to live in the here and now is the lesson of countless books and feel-good movies, the key to overcoming inhibition and repression. Impulse control is for adults, not for the young, and modern culture is above all a youth culture.
As we increasingly disrespect old age and try to erase its very marks from our faces, we correspondingly romanticize childhood, imagining it as a time of what ought to be unfettered happiness, and we grow ever more fearful of spoiling that happiness through excessive restraints, demands, hardships, or discipline. By contrast, every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood and of impulse control in general, inculcating habits of discipline from an early age – or at least they did so when they were on the rise.
Because all three elements of the Triple Package run so counter to modern American culture, it makes sense that America’s successful groups are all outsiders in one way or another. It also makes sense that so many immigrant communities are pockets of exceptional upward mobility in an increasingly stratified American economy. Paradoxically, in modern America, a group has an edge if it doesn’t buy into – or hasn’t yet bought into – mainstream, post-1960s, liberal American principles.”
In this chapter the authors present more data to demonstrate the differential success of some groups, particularly identifying the following groups:
For three of the groups being discussed, Jews, Mormons and Cuban Americans, the authors explain why that group considers itself to be superior.
They also discuss the inferiority complex that dominant white American culture has in the past sought to impose upon groups such as Native Americans, Black Americans, Chinese and others, sometimes successfully and sometimes (as with the Chinese) unsuccessfully. They also cite evidence showing that absorbing a negative stereotype can adversely affect your performance.
The authors refer to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous book Democracy in America.
“It’s been almost 200 years since the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a peculiar difference between America and Europe. There were places in the ‘Old World,’ he said, where the people, though largely uneducated, poor, and oppressed, ‘seemed serene and often have a jovial disposition.’ By contrast, in America, where ‘the freest’ men lived ‘in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world,’ people were ‘anxious and on edge.’ They were ‘insatiable.’ They never stopped working – first at one thing, then another; first in one place, then another. Americans suffered, said Tocqueville, from a ‘secret restlessness.’
The anxiety Tocqueville described was not spiritual; nor was it a mere wanderlust, a craving for new experiences; much less was it what a future era would call existential. It was material: Americans wanted more. ‘All are constantly bent on gaining property, reputation, and power.’ They ‘never stop thinking of the good things they have not got,’ always ‘looking doggedly’ at others who have more than they. This thirst for more prevented them from enjoying what they did possess, distracting them from the happiness they ought to have felt, placing them under a ‘cloud.’ Ultimately, Americans’ anxiety was connected to their ‘longing to rise.’
In short, Tocqueville was describing a people in the grip of insecurity in precisely the sense we have in mind: a goading anxiety about oneself and one’s place in society, which can in certain circumstances become a powerful engine of material striving.”
Jewish insecurity, particularly created by mothers, is of course legendary. The book has some good Jewish jokes and I found the following one particularly funny:
“A Jewish girl becomes president and says to her mother, ‘You’ve got to come to the inauguration, Mom.’ The mother says, ‘All right, I’ll go, I’ll go. What am I going to wear? It’s so cold. Why did you have to become president? What kind of job is that? You'll have nothing but tsuris.’ [Yiddish for troubles, woes] But she goes to the inauguration, and as her daughter is being sworn in by the chief justice, the mother turns to the senator next to her and says, ‘You see that girl up there? Her brother’s a doctor.’”
The authors explain that this covers two related but slightly different concepts. One is the ability to keep going after initial failure, and the other is the ability to defer gratification.
“If you ask successful people why they’re successful, it’s striking how often they’ll bring up episodes of failure. ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career,’ Michael Jordan once observed. ‘I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over, and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’
How people respond to failure is a critical dividing line between those who make it and those who don’t. Success requires more than motivation, more even than a deep urge to rise. Willpower and perseverance in the face of adversity are equally important.
Led by social and developmental psychologists such as Roy Baumeister, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth, a large and growing body of research has demonstrated that the capacity to resist temptation – including especially the temptation to quit when a task is arduous, daunting, or beyond one’s immediate abilities – is critical to achievement. This capacity to resist temptation is exactly what we mean by impulse control, and the remarkable finding is that greater impulse control in early childhood translates into much better outcomes across a wide variety of domains.
This finding was first made – stumbled on, actually – by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in his famous ‘marshmallow test’ of the late 1960s. Trying to determine how children learn to resist temptation, Mischel began putting treats in front of 3 to 5-year-olds. The children were told that they could either eat their chosen treat (often a marshmallow) or, if they waited a few minutes, get another one too. Children who held out for 15 minutes received a second marshmallow.
A majority ate up; only a minority held out. The great surprise, however, came years later. Although it wasn’t part of his original plan, Mischel followed up on the roughly 650 subject children when they were in high school. It turned out that the children who had held out were doing much better academically, with fewer social problems, than those who hadn’t.
Now confirmed by numerous studies, the correlation Mischel discovered between impulse control and success is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Kids who ‘passed’ their marshmallow test, waiting the full 15 minutes, ended up with SAT scores 210 points higher than those who ate up in the first 30 seconds. For college grades, impulse control has proved to be a better predictor than SAT scores – better even than IQ.
In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers in New Zealand tracked over a thousand individuals from birth to age 32. Controlling for socio-economic status, intelligence, and other factors, the study found that individuals with low impulse control as children were significantly more likely to develop problems with drugs, alcohol, and obesity; to work in low-paying jobs; to have a sexually transmitted disease; and to end up in prison. Those with high impulse control were healthier, more affluent, and more likely to have a stable marriage, raising children in a two-parent household.”
Impulse control has always been an important part of my personality as illustrated by two examples that come immediately to mind:
The book is very enjoyable to read as well as being informative and insightful.
It made me reflect upon my own life. I can understand how both superiority and insecurity can be combined.
Even though we were very poor and near the bottom of British society when I was growing up, my parents instilled in me the belief in our superiority as a result of our being Muslims and having the right moral behaviours compared with the many failings of the non-Muslims around us such as drinking alcohol, womanising and over-spending.
Conversely the sources of insecurity in my life were obvious. In addition to being very poor, as a young child I was acutely aware of my dependence upon my parents as I had no other relatives in Britain. It is quite different from growing up in a large extended family and being conscious that there are many uncles and aunties around who can take care of you if you lose your parents.
Impulse control I have discussed above. Again in childhood it was obvious that I needed to work hard at school so that my life could be better than that of my parents. Accordingly deferring gratification came naturally to me. Despite that, I still had a very happy childhood with a very large amount of play with my friends. The allocation of my time between study and play was always down to me; being illiterate my parents were in no position to determine how much homework I should or should not be doing.
These same features were present in many of the young Pakistanis that I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s and a very high proportion of them went on to university at a time when only around 5% of white Britons went to university.
The book also points out how immigrant groups change over time.
In my view the growth of the British Pakistani population, and its much stronger diasporic connections with Pakistan due to easier international travel have severely attenuated the insecurity factor and the impulse control factor. Accordingly while many young British Pakistanis growing up today will become very successful, my perception is that the average likelihood of success is distinctly lower than for those who were growing up in the 1950s.
Kindle edition above