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'Tiger Mother' Author Spells Out 3 Traits That Drive Success In The U.S.

Originally published on Wed February 5, 2014 4:48 pm

If you're a fan of parenting books or just raucous debates about parenting styles, then you probably know about Amy Chua. The Yale Law School professor kicked off a ferocious debate with her 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She took pains to point out that the book was tongue-in-cheek, but it still got much attention for her defense of a demanding parenting style that she traced to her Chinese roots.

Now Chua is out with another provocative book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. She co-wrote it with her husband and fellow Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld. They argue that eight cultural groups are poised for success in the U.S. because those cultures possess specific traits: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. The groups are (in no particular order of importance): Jews, Mormons, Indian-Americans, Iranians, Cuban exiles, Nigerian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans.

Chua and Rubenfeld spoke with Tell Me More's Michel Martin about the new book and what they want readers to take from it.


Interview Highlights

On what it takes to be successful

Chua: This is a book, in some ways, about what it takes to be successful in America today, in this very, very tough economy. One way of getting at that question is by looking at the groups that at this moment today are doing especially well in terms of these very conventional metrics: income, educational attainments, etc. And these three qualities that we talk about are actually open to anyone, of any background, any skin color. When you do access them, they propel you to success. It's like they generate drive.

On identifying three traits that drive success

Chua: We kind of looked around at the groups that seemed very different at first, and noticed that they actually all have these traits in common. It's the combination of simultaneously feeling superior and special, and insecure and not quite good enough that really generates motivation.

Let me just give you a concrete example. Take a lot of immigrants. There are immigrants who come from, I don't know, China or Ghana or Persia or [Greece], and they feel like they came from ancient civilizations, great civilizations. And maybe some of them had high status in their countries. And then they come to this country, and suddenly they are outsiders. They look different. They have a funny accent. You don't feel properly recognized. And that feeling of being almost a little bit resentful, you know, "I'm gonna show everybody," that can be an incredibly powerful motivator for success.

On whether America needs more "Triple Package" qualities

Chua: What we say about America as a whole is that after the 1990s, when suddenly it seemed like there was no more communism or rival — America was at the top of the world — there did come to be a sense of general, I don't know, entitlement or complacency. That, you know, we have all the answers. And ironically, now with the rise of China, with some of the unwon wars, with the financial crisis — it's actually an optimistic story. You know, maybe we haven't done some things right. Maybe we can be better. We shouldn't be so self-congratulatory.

So I do think that at the national level, we say that a little bit less of a superiority complex, a little bit more of a sense of "yes, we need to prove ourselves" — I define that as insecurity. And maybe a little bit more of impulse control — let's not just have a sense of immediate gratification — could be a good thing for the country.

On criticism that the book doesn't recognize civil rights activism or moral authority

Chua: We talk about this conventional success, this idea that you have to be successful based on income or education, or you have to be a certain kind of professional, almost as a downside — it's a pathology. And I understand it because a lot of people who are immigrants, they are insecure about survival. So if you just come from a country and you don't know if your kid can make it, you want them to be a professional, you're afraid for them to be an activist or a poet.

But what we say is, actually, that's a downside of some of these cultures. And the real kind of success, I think, is the ability to pursue success as you define it, including success defined by service to others. ...

If somebody said, "Look, I don't wanna read this book. I wanna read a book about activism," then that's fair. That's not the central thing. We're very interested in: Look, it's a hard economy right now. But look, there are still some pockets of society in America that are still, believe it or not, rising. What's the psychological mindset that makes some people overcome some of these obstacles, and what can we learn from them? And activism is certainly part of it. But, you know, I guess we're looking at the other half of it as well.

On how institutions play a role in an individual's success

Rubenfeld: These cultural factors are not sufficient in themselves. Institutions matter. Society matters. America has to change before the plight of many of its impoverished groups will change. That's true — we all know that; Amy and I believe that. That's just not what our book is about.

On the costs of success

Chua: The book is actually trying to get people to see success in an honest way. Why are some people driven? Why are some individuals driven? Well, it probably means something's missing, you know, something's pushing them. I think the right way to read this book is not as a congratulatory thing but what is it that produces drive, and is it worth it? What are the costs of success?

On criticism that the book creates more distance between groups

Chua: For me, one of the interesting things is that our book, I think, debunks racial stereotypes. So one fascinating, very consistent finding in the research is that after a couple generations, Asian-Americans, for example, do not outperform anyone else in the country anymore. So it's very much an immigrant phenomenon, and it's very, very fluid. So it's not that there are, you know, innate differences across groups. But it's actually very much sort of a product of the institutions you face, and where you are in the immigrant trajectory.

I find the real thesis of the book is in some ways about breaking out from the prison of these expectations that the first-generation immigrants often impose on their children, and freeing them up, that, you know, in a way, if you can break away and define success as you want it, including through public service or helping others or artistic formats, that would be the ultimate goal.

On why they expected to be criticized for the book

Rubenfeld: I think anytime you talk about the fact that some groups are doing better than the American average in the United States, there's going to be sensitivity. And that's good. There should be sensitivity. People should demand to see the data. They should demand to see that everything you say is backed up by studies, which we tried very hard to do. There's going to be that sensitivity. But, look, we think the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes. We think the facts are actually very hopeful.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are a fan of parenting books or just raucous debates about parenting styles, then you surely know the name Amy Chua. The Yale law professor kicked off a ferocious discussion that played out in online forums and parenting groups and bookstores with her 2011 memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Although it was, as she took pains to point out, tongue-in-cheek in many ways, the book got much attention for her defense of a demanding style of parenting that she traced through her Chinese roots.

Now Amy Chua is out with another provocative book, this time co-authored with her husband, fellow Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld. In it, they argue that eight cultural groups, including Jews, Nigerians and the Chinese, are poised for global success because their cultures possess certain specific traits. And Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are with us now to talk about their new book. It's called "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America." And they are both with us from New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

JED RUBENFELD: Thanks for having us.

AMY CHUA: Thanks for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Professor Chua, let me start with you because we visited with you about your last book, your most recent book, "Battle Hymn." And you seemed very put out by the fact that people took the book so seriously. I mean, people called you abusive. And you said, look, this is not a prescription here. I'm just telling you about kind of my experience. So just to be clear here, you are not being tongue-in-cheek with this book, and you do expect to be taken seriously. And in some ways this is prescriptive. Is that correct?

CHUA: Well, it's a serious book, and it's backed by a lot of research. So you're absolutely right to that extent. I wouldn't say it's prescriptive in the sense of being how-to. But it's definitely a serious book.

MARTIN: What are you saying here that you couldn't say then?

CHUA: The two books are actually almost completely different. One is a memoir. This is a book, in some ways, about what it takes to be successful in America today in this very, very tough economy. And one way of getting at that question is by looking at the groups that, at this moment, today, are doing especially well in terms of these very conventional metrics - income, educational attainments, etc. And these three qualities that we talk about are actually open to anyone, of any background, any skin color. When you do access them, they propel you to success. It's like they generate drive.

MARTIN: Professor Rubenfeld, let's turn to you now. I'm curious, just briefly if you would, why did this subject interest you? You were previously an author, as well as of your law books, of thrillers.

RUBENFELD: It's interesting. It was really a combination of Amy's and my interest, which in some ways are very different. But in this case, they really came to overlap. She's been writing for years about ethnic minorities in different countries all over the world and why some of them are more successful than others. I write about how people can write the scripts of their own lives. And these two interests came together because living for the future turns out to be part of how these groups are succeeding in America today.

MARTIN: So let's get to your core thesis, the three success traits you identify are superiority complex, inferiority complex and self-control, or what you would say is impulse control. How did you arrive at this thesis? Why these three traits?

CHUA: We kind of looked around at the groups that seemed very different at first and noticed that they actually all have these traits in common. It's the combination of simultaneously feeling superior and special and insecure and not quite good enough that really generates motivation. Let me just give you a concrete example. Take a lot of immigrants. There are immigrants who come from - I don't know - China or Ghana or Persia or Greek, and they feel like they came from ancient civilizations, great civilizations, and maybe some of them had high status in their countries. And then they come to this country, and suddenly they are outsiders. They look different. They have a funny accent. You don't feel properly recognized. And that feeling of being almost a little bit resentful, you know, I'm going to show everybody, that can be an incredibly powerful motivator for success.

MARTIN: Professor Chua, I do have to say that some of the people who've been most critical this point are fellow Asian-Americans. And one of their arguments is you define success very narrowly. But you also ignore the kind of civil rights activism that gives people the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. A kind of moral authority doesn't seem to be discussed at all. Can you just speak to that?

CHUA: We talk about this conventional success - this idea that you have to be successful based on income or education, or you have to be a certain kind of professional - almost as a kind of downside. It's a pathology. And I understand it because a lot of people who are immigrants, they are insecure about survival. So, you know, if you just come from a country and you don't know if your kid can make it, you want them to be a professional. You're afraid for them to be an activist or a poet. But what we say is, actually, that's a downside of some of these cultures. And the real kind of success, I think, is the ability to pursue success as you define it, including success defined by service to others, as you mention.

MARTIN: Professor Rubenfeld, what do you have to say about that? In essence, some of the folks here are saying, or the people who are criticizing the book, are saying that what you're really advancing is a nation of smug know-it-all's who don't care about anybody but themselves. Some people feel that this is just an exercise in self-congratulation writ large, that there is not an appreciation of, for example, the very real kind of vicious kind of racism, the codified inferiority that certain groups have been subjected to in this country and not others and that the activism that led to efforts to provide equal opportunity to those groups advantaged other groups, including immigrants who came after them and that there's not an appreciation of that. Professor, can you speak to that?

RUBENFELD: It's just not true that we don't talk about the other causes of poverty. We're just saying that there's a cultural element that can get added to it and that for other groups, helps them succeed.

CHUA: If you somehow don't trust the system - if you look around and say, look, my family's been working hard for so long, and we have not been rewarded, then of course you're not going to defer gratification. So you need the institutions. And our book actually supports all of those people calling for very, very early intervention, you know, and also for institutional reform. I mean, you could have all the triple-package qualities you want, and if there are people who will not employ you because of discrimination, then it will get you nowhere.

MARTIN: What about, Professor Chua, as I mentioned earlier, some of the more pointed critiques so far have come from other Asian-American writers and thinkers and people particularly with a background in sociology. And part of their criticism is that this book creates more distance and opposition between groups in a way that just isn't productive.

CHUA: For me, one of the interesting things is that our book, I think, debunks racial stereotypes, right. So what fascinating, very consistent finding in the research is that after a couple of generations, Asian-Americans, for example, do not outperform anyone else in the country anymore. So it's very much an immigrant phenomenon, and it's very, very fluid. So it's not that there are, you know, innate differences across groups, but it's actually very much a sort of a product of the institutions you face and then where you are in the immigrant trajectory.

So it's also fascinating. I find the real thesis of the book is, in some ways, about breaking out from the prison of these expectations that the first-generation immigrants often impose on their children and freeing them up that, you know, in a way, if you can break away and define success as you want it - including through public service or helping others or artistic formats. That, you know, would be the ultimate goal.

MARTIN: But this is where again people kind of, I think, are a little bit confused by the book. On the one hand, you're saying that there are ways in which each trait can be taken to toxic extremes. On the other hand, you both seem to have this kind of tone of lament that the U.S. was a triple-package country but now has somehow lost its edge. So I find myself confused by - which is it? I mean, are you - are you suggesting that we need more of these qualities or that some people need more and some people need less? What is it?

CHUA: What we say about America as a whole is that after the 1990s, when suddenly there were - it seemed like there was no more communism or rival, America was at the top of the world, there did kind of come to be a sense of general - I don't know - entitlement or complacency that, you know, we have all the answers. And ironically, now with the rise of China, with some of the un-won wars, the financial crisis, it's actually an optimistic story, you know.

Maybe we haven't done some things right. Maybe we can be better. We shouldn't be so self-congratulatory. So I do think that at the national level we say that a little bit less of a superiority complex, a little bit more of a sense of, yes, we need to prove ourselves - I define that as insecurity - and maybe a little bit more of impulse control. Let's not just have immediate gratification, could be a good thing for the country.

MARTIN: Professor Chua, how do you want people to read this book?

CHUA: The book is actually trying to get people to see success in a - in a more honest way. Why are some people driven? Why are some individuals driven? Well, it probably means something's missing, you know, something's pushing them. I think that the right way to read this book is, is not as a congratulatory thing, but you know, what is it that produces drive? And is it worth it? What are the costs of success?

MARTIN: What about you? Are you willing to talk about yourself? Who are you in this story?

CHUA: Well, I was raised by very, very, I think kind of triple-package-y parents. I mean, they - I have to tell you, as a minority, it's actually very difficult to have a superiority complex in this country. I was the only Chinese kid in a town, you know, school in Indiana. And I remember some guy was, when I was seven, making fun of slanty eyes. And I went home, and I was very upset. And my mother said, why do you care about what that person thinks?

You know, we come from a very old culture. We know who we are. Forget what that person is. So for me, this, you know, sense of what we're calling a superiority complex, was more of a defensive armor. It was like, don't let them get to you. Prove yourself by working harder and being better. So that's kind of, like, where I come at it - not superiority as a sense of smugness, but how minorities can turn being an outsider into a source of strength.

MARTIN: I want to argue with you on one point which is to say there's a very deep body of research that demonstrates how people are treated differently according to their physical appearance, particularly which disadvantages people who have darker skins. And researchers have demonstrated over and over again that darker people, particularly African-Americans, are even less likely to receive as aggressive treatment in the hospital when they present with the same symptoms as a white person. That's nothing to do with grit. That has nothing to do with you impulse control.

RUBENFELD: These cultural factors are not sufficient in themselves. Institutions matter. Society matters. America has to change before the plight of many of its impoverished groups will change. That's true. We all know that. Amy and I believe that. That's just not what our book is about.

MARTIN: But again - and I understand this is not the scope of your book - you still give short shrift to activism, to achieve that kind of more fairness for everybody. And I think, I think, that that is the disconnect between how you see your book and how other people see you. Do think that might be fair?

CHUA: I think that is fair, you know. If somebody said, look, I don't want to read this book, I want to read a book about activism, then that's - that's fair. That is not - that's not the central thing. We're very interested in, look, it's a hard economy right now, but look, there are still some pockets of society in America that are still, believe it or not, rising. What's the psychological mindset that makes some people overcome some of these obstacles? And what can we learn from them? And activism is certainly part of it, but, you know, I guess we're looking at the other half of it as well.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, why do you think - and you alluded to this in one of the previous interviews that you did, that you both did - that you expect to be criticized for this book? And I just wonder why you think that is, why you think that your work, your recent work - 'cause you have other work, too, your legal scholarly work, too - pushes people's buttons this way?

RUBENFELD: Well, I think anytime you talk about the fact that some groups are doing better than the American average in the United States, there's going to be sensitivity. And that's good. There should be sensitivity. People should demand to see the data. They should demand to see that everything you say is backed up by studies, which we tried very hard to do. There's going to be that sensitivity. But look, we think the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes. We think the facts are actually very hopeful. So we knew that there would be a lot of sensitivity and criticism. But we think the book's very worthwhile anyway.

MARTIN: Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, in addition to being professors at Yale Law School and spouses, are co-authors of the new book "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America." And they were with us from New Haven. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RUBENFELD: Thank you.

CHUA: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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