Paul Prather: Essay shines light on traits that can lead to success

Contributing columnistFebruary 9, 2014 

In an op-ed piece on the New York Times’ website, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld recently examined why some national-origin, ethnic or religious groups achieve the American dream at far greater rates than others do.

Their essay, a preview of their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, is insightful and informative.

Yet their findings also raise questions for me. More on that later.

Chua and Rubenfeld are married; she’s the author of the controversial 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

They’ve exhaustively studied remarkable patterns of success.

Indian-Americans earn nearly double the national median household income.

Other groups similarly perform well on various measures of accomplishment: Iranian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mormons. So do immigrants from Jamaica, Ghana and Haiti.

“Over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites,” the authors write.

(For the record, these over-achievements tend to disappear after a group has spent a couple of generations in the good old U.S.A.)

Chua and Rubenfeld aren’t the first to notice such disparities. And others have proposed theories for why the disparities exist.

For instance, it might be that some immigrant groups come to this country from highly educated, highly motivated social classes back home. They start with a leg up.

Chua and Rubenfeld dispute these ideas. They argue that those groups who succeed hail from across the spectrum of economic and educational backgrounds, not to mention the spectrum of religion, race and geography.

The authors claim to have isolated three striking — and I think, potentially troubling — traits that transcend all the super-successful groups, whether their members were born wealthy or poor, or in Nigeria or China or Utah.

In their words, “The first (trait) 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.”

High achievers, then, are convinced that their groups, or at least they themselves, are intrinsically better than those they’re competing against. They’re entitled to be stars. At the same time, they feel marginalized, underestimated and threatened. They often see themselves as outsiders with something to prove. They’re scared they’ll fail.

Finally, they’re driven. They postpone pleasure today to obtain wealth or status in the long run. They’ll study around the clock, forgo a social life, hold down multiple jobs.

“But this success comes at a price,” Chua and Rubenfeld acknowledge. “Each of these three traits has its own pathologies.”

That’s what bothers me: To be consumed by egotism, insecurity and an inability to enjoy today seems like a mad psychiatrist’s recipe for misery and dysfunction.

I don’t remotely mean to imply that all Iranian-Americans, Chinese-Americans or Mormons are emotional basket cases, any more than they’re all tycoons or Harvard Ph.Ds.

Chua and Rubenfeld are speaking of group norms, not of individuals.

Still, as I read their essay, I remembered reading, and writing a 2003 column about, Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Lucille Ball, Ball of Fire.

The iconic star of I Love Lucy, Ball also was a pioneering TV producer and studio executive, one of the most powerful women of her day.

Kanfer wrote that Ball’s childhood was marred by “the loss of her father, poverty, frequent family moves, rejection, a tragic gun accident and illness.” The little girl who struggled so terribly developed into a scarred, neurotic adult.

“Yet in her nervous accommodations with the past, she came to regard this period as the Making of Lucille Ball,” Kanfer says. “Looking around at the celebrities of business, entertainment, and politics, she concluded that society’s followers were the ones with happy beginnings. Its leaders were those who had endured early emotional and physical misfortune.”

From Ball’s individual life to Chua and Rubenfeld’s ethnic and cultural groups, we see that achievement often is born of crippling difficulties or unhealthy extremes.

If you’re a parent, you naturally, almost viscerally, want your child to do well.

But what if the surest formula for promoting that successful offspring involves you becoming a tiger mom or helicopter dad? What if you have to create an arrogant, fearful, hyper-serious kid who can’t just relax and be a goof? What if you’re preparing your child to become a wounded, stunted adult?

Would you rather raise someone who becomes a self-effacing, happy and loving adult, but doesn’t achieve much else, or a Nobel Prize winner who still thinks he’s a sad failure (when he’s not preening about his own genius)? Which type of person would you rather be yourself?

I know, I know. The choices aren’t that stark. There’s a balance somewhere.

There probably are billionaires and prima ballerinas who are perfectly humble, secure, joyous, compassionate people. I just can’t name many of them.

It’s blasphemy, but I wonder whether our striving for the American dream doesn’t too easily derail into destructive extremes.

Maybe we tend to overlook far more valuable achievements. Maybe the greatest success is to learn, and teach our children, to live simply, contentedly and spiritually.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at 

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