Tiger Mum’s triple formula for success

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 5:38pm

The Triple Package, What Really Determines Success has caused a publishing furore in America. Chinese-American Tiger Mother Amy Chua and her Jewish husband Jed Rubenfeld investigated why certain cultural and ethnic groups in the US are more successful than others.

Both authors are law professors at Yale. It’s all very politically correct, but when they say Asian-Americans it usually means those of Chinese origin. This group does spectacularly well, making up about 5 per cent of the US college-age population, and 19 per cent of Harvard undergraduates, 16 per cent at Yale and 19 per cent at Princeton. And at the California Institute of Technology, which admits students by test results only, a massive 40 per cent are Asian-American.

Racist accusations

Predictably, even though Chua is Chinese and her husband is Jewish, asking the questions triggered a torrent of accusations of racism before the book was even printed. It was branded a “a despicable new theory” of “racial superiority” by Salon, as espousing a “racist argument” by The New York Post and accused of harbouring “uncomfortable racist overtones” by Forbes magazine.

These guys can say things other writers would baulk at, such as: “Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they are being called the ‘new Jews’.” They are taking slight advantage of the situation: an ethnic outsider could hardly be so bold.

Chua wrote the bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about strict Chinese parenting styles. This new book widens the net to consider Chinese, Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Jews, Indians, Lebanese and Iranians – groups who all do disproportionately well.

It’s a shame that Americans are so quick to shout racism and stereotyping about questioning the links between ethnic background and success, when the findings shed light on many interesting issues.

In short, Chua and Rubenfeld set out to explain why Chinese, Jews and Mormons among others do much better than everyone else.

Three components for success

They put it down to three things: you need a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. These three must be present together: one or two is not enough.

Too much superiority and you make no effort, like the British aristocracy of the Victoria era. Too much insecurity and your doubts cripple you. And if you lack impulse control or self-discipline, you can’t concentrate on anything.

If you have the “triple package, Chua and Rubenfeld argue, you have a puritan mindset long ago forgotten by white Protestant Americans – a group that is now much less successful than in the past and now has below-average wealth. But certain immigrants still possess these attributes, which give them an edge. While other have some but not all: the Amish have great impulse control; but they don’t aspire to conventional materialistic success.

Geography counts

There are big differences depending on where you come from. Indian Americans have the highest income of any ethnic group, almost twice the national average.” Nigerian Americans, while accounting for 0.7 per cent of the US black population, have 10 times that percentage of black students at university. Mormons make up 1.7 per cent of the population, and own “10 times more Florida real estate than the Walt Disney Company. In 2008, the authors say, the Church of England was worth US$6.9 billion. Ten years earlier, the Mormon Church was worth four times as much.

Although not immigrants in the traditional sense, Chua and Rubenfeld find Mormons have the same mix of innate superiority that comes from believing themselves “chosen” ones. They are big on self-denial and are motivated by feeling as if they are outsiders, something shared by many immigrants. They excel: the evidence is all over Wall Street where the big bosses at Marriott, American Express, Citigroup, Deloitte, Sears and Roebuck are all Mormons. The authors think Mormons could be sensitive to scepticism about their religion and are spurred on by wanting to prove themselves.

None of this seems particularly racist. In fact, most of it seems fairly obvious. But oh dear, it doesn’t last. By the third generation people have settled in and the initial hunger is gone. “America,” the authors write, “is the great wrecker of impulse control.” You only have to walk past a fast food restaurant to see that’s true. And let’s be honest, if money and wealth stayed in the hands of the same driven few for ever, the gap between rich and poor would be even wider than it is. It’s a good thing the third generation can generally be relied on to squander their father’s and grandfather’s wealth – how else would anyone else ever get their hands on any of it.

Not just due to tiger mums

When it comes to why the Chinese are so successful in America, it’s not because they come from an “education culture” with pushy Tiger Mums – but due to Chinese kids being typically raised on a diet of stories about “how Chinese civilisation is the oldest and most magnificent in world history.” That’s the superiority bit.

Critics of the book say the authors’ ideas are lightweight and not sufficiently academic. The triple package is thought-provoking nevertheless. The authors say: “Assimilation and success weaken the insecurities and other cultural forces that drove the first and second generation to rise.”

So whatever money you make, you might as well spend it yourself. Not much point saving it for the third generation to fritter away.