Speaking with Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, authors of The Triple Package
What is the Triple Package?
JR: The thesis of our book is that when three distinct traits come together in a group’s culture, they propel that group to success. The first trait is a Superiority Complex – a deep-seated belief in your own exceptionality. The second is practically the opposite of the first – Insecurity. The third is Impulse Control – the ability to resist temptation.
It might seem odd to think of someone feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. But it’s precisely the unlikely combination of these traits that generates drive: a need to prove oneself that makes people systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.
Any individual, from any background, can have the Triple Package. But some groups tend to instill these qualities in their members more frequently than others, and research shows that these groups are enjoying greater success. Indian Americans earn almost twice as much as Americans overall ($90,000 per year household income versus $50,000). Chinese American kids – even the children of poorly educated restaurant workers – outperform others academically. Mormons have suddenly become leaders of corporate America in the last thirty years, holding CEO or CFO positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. Nigerian Americans, less than 1% of the U.S. black population, make up a quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School. Jews have won a third of America’s Nobel Prizes, and they’re only 2% of the population. The Triple Package is the secret behind these groups’ success.
It’s important to note that any one of the Triple Package qualities in isolation would not be enough to generate this kind of success. Impulse Control by itself, for example, could turn a person into a religious ascetic. It’s only when all three elements of the Triple Package come together that they become an engine for drive, what Tocqueville called the “longing to rise” and success.
What drew you to this subject?
AC: I’m the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Growing up in the Midwest, I remember my parents raising my three sisters and me with a mindset very different from everyone else. First, there was enormous ethnic pride. We had to speak Chinese at home, and we were told that we came from the most ancient and greatest civilization. But at the same time, my parents conveyed a sense of insecurity. Basically the message was: “You need to do well at school or you’re not going to have a future – and you’ll disgrace the family.” The expectation was that we had to get straight As and be the best students. At the time, it often felt harsh. But it had the effect of motivating us, giving us a kind of toughness, getting us to do our best. And it turns out, based on our research, that all of America’s disproportionately successful groups – from Nigerians to Mormons to Indian Americans – do pretty much the same thing.
JR: To me, the Triple Package is very American – it’s something America was born with, but that we’ve fallen away from in the last fifty years. I wanted to write about how American culture turned against Triple Package values – and what we can do to regain the edge it once gave us.
How do you define group success?
JR: Like everyone else, we’d heard stereotypes about some groups supposedly being more successful than others. So first we wanted to see if those stereotypes had any truth. We looked at all the available data on income, net worth, executive positions, test scores, academic achievement, and so on. And it turned out certain groups in America really are doing much better, according to these measures, than others.
But we don’t equate success with wealth. Success can be defined in many ways, and economic success does not guarantee a meaningful or well-lived life. In fact, one of the pathologies of the Triple Package – and there are many that we discuss in the book – is that it can make people too focused on prestige and money. It can make them too concerned with external measures of their own worth.
Amy, your last book, The BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER, sparked a heated debate about “Chinese” parenting and the cultural value of self-discipline. In THE TRIPLE PACKAGE, you look at successful groups including Asian immigrants. Is there any relationship between the two books?
AC: Actually, we started writing this book in 2010, before Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out, but then we were interrupted by a . . . global firestorm! The books are very different. One is a memoir—it was about a personal journey—and it was written partially tongue in cheek. By contrast, The Triple Package is based on years of research. But of course there is some overlap in themes. One question The Triple Package raises is: “Are we in America today, with our emphasis on immediate gratification and self-esteem over discipline, sending the wrong message to ourselves, and to our kids?”
You’re not only co-authors, you’re husband and wife. Separately, you’ve written several books but was this the first time you’ve collaborated in this way? How was it working together?
AC: Yes, this is the first time we’ve collaborated on a book. We have very different skills. I love digging in and researching things. I love facts, especially about different cultures. We include many different groups in our book from the Amish to Persian Americans. Jed, by contrast, is very analytical; he organizes things logically and thinks about the big picture. Sometimes we’d annoy each other. He’d say, “That makes no sense.” And I’d say: “You make no sense.” But in the end it worked out.
JR: We got along great. When she threw books at me, it was almost always paperbacks.
The successful groups that you look at are, by and large, immigrant groups. Why do you think that is?
AC: I think being an immigrant is almost by definition to be insecure. You’re insecure about whether you can make a living, whether people will accept you – whether you’ll be able to survive in a strange land. So immigrant parents not only tend to save more and work longer hours; they also tend to impose more discipline and higher expectations on their children – because they feel their survival depends on it. At the same time, Americans may not realize it, but many immigrants come to this country with a superiority complex. Some come from ancient civilizations that they are extremely proud of – Persian Americans, for example, or Greek Americans, or Chinese Americans. Others had high status in their home countries; they were doctors in Cuba or top students in India. But in the United States they’re suddenly outsiders, looked down on. They have accents, the wrong skin color. And that combination – feeling like you’re being looked down on, not properly recognized for who you are – can be a very powerful motivator and engine for success. It generates a kind of “I’ll show everyone” mentality.
In general, America tends to attract immigrants with Triple Package qualities. If you think about it, what kind of person dares to go to a strange country where he or she doesn’t know anyone and may not even speak the language? Typically, it’s individuals with some drive and grit, and maybe something to prove. I think that’s part of the reason for America’s vibrancy. JR: Of course there are many poor immigrant groups too, and we also look at many groups without the Triple Package. Our book is not an explanation of poverty in America – poverty has many causes besides culture – but basically, if you belong to a group that America has treated as second-class citizens, and subjected to discrimination for many generations, it’s hard to maintain a superiority complex. At the same time, if society doesn’t reward you for discipline and hard work – if you don’t believe that the system is going to treat you fairly and if you don’t see people like you making it -- you’re not going to have much reason to exercise impulse control. So institutions matter. Bad institutions, poor schools, lack of economic opportunity: all that can grind the Triple Package out of people; you see that in America’s inner cities, in parts of Appalachia, as well as in some of America’s poor immigrant groups.
Tell us about your research for the book.
JR: The book is based on almost five years of research. We compiled original data and also relied on the latest, most comprehensive psychological, empirical, and sociological studies (there are over 1000 endnotes).
AC: Some of the findings are really striking. For example, it turns out that feeling good about yourself does not lead to better performance at school. Asian American students have the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, but they get the highest grades and SAT scores.
The latest studies on impulse control are also really striking. It turns out that children who can exercise self-control grow up to be healthier, more affluent, and more likely to have a stable marriage. Impulse control is a better predictor of success than IQ.
JR: A recent impulse control study is especially interesting. Researchers re-ran the famous marshmallow test – where kids can either eat a marshmallow right away or, if they can wait fifteen minutes, get two marshmallows – but first they subjected one set of kids to a broken promise. The kids were promised something fun to play with, but the adults didn’t follow through. Those kids all failed the marshmallow test but when the adults did follow through on the promise, almost all the kids passed the marshmallow test. That shows that impulse control isn’t innate. Family and society affect it. If you don’t trust that the system is going to reward you, you have no reason to exercise impulse control.
By looking at the success of groups, do you risk reinforcing stereotypes?
JR:Just the opposite. The facts of group success in America actually debunk racist stereotypes. There are black and Hispanic groups in the US outperforming many white and Asian subgroups. Nigerian Americans and Cuban Americans, for example, are doing extremely well. Although less than 4% of the U.S. Hispanic population, Cuban Americans in 2002 accounted for five of the top ten wealthiest Latinos in the U.S.; all three Latinos elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 were Cuban American.
More important, Triple Package success disappears in most groups after a few generations, which punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or of groups succeeding because of innate, biological differences. Third-generation Asian American kids, for example, do no better academically than any other kids.
But when there are differences among America’s groups, we come out and say so. It’s not just a stereotype that Mormon teenagers are less likely to drink or do drugs than other American teenagers; it’s a matter of statistical fact. The children of Asian immigrants spend more hours on schoolwork than American kids overall, and their grades and test scores show it. If political correctness prevented us from talking about facts, we wouldn’t be able to understand the world we live in – or understand what the true levers of success in this country are.
Though there is much to be admired in traits that drive people to realize economic success, you also point out that the Triple Package has a downside. Please explain.
AC: I think most books about success are unrealistic – they sugarcoat. (“You just have to believe in yourself and dream big, and you can achieve anything!”) Our book tries to be more honest about the psychological cost of success. To be driven, something has to be pushing or pressuring you. You have to feel like you’re not good enough, or you haven’t done enough, which is not a very nice feeling.
For example, Vera Wang, who is one of my idols – she’s a much admired designer who created wedding dresses for Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Clinton among others– speaks movingly about never being able to meet her parents’ expectations. She says she’s never fully confident and always focuses on what she’s done wrong, which is really striking because objectively she’s so successful. And yet she feels inadequate.
In extreme cases, the result can be genuinely traumatic. The novelist Amy Tan says, “I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents. . . . It’s a horrible feeling.” She says that “the pain was so enormous” at one point that she thought she was “going to die.”
JR: On the other hand, it’s not true that strict Asian parenting leads to more psychological problems. You can find a statistic cited all over the Internet saying that Asian Americans – especially Asian women – commit suicide more often than white Americans. In fact studies show the opposite. The Asian American suicide rate is about half the white rate.
But all the elements of the Triple Package have a dark underside. The Superiority Complex might be the most dangerous of the three. Some of history’s worst atrocities were committed because one group believed themselves superior to everyone else. We devote a whole chapter to the pathologies the Triple Package can carry with it.
You say America was once the quintessential Triple Package country. How? Why no longer?
AC: Look at our Founding Fathers. Most of Ben Franklin’s best known proverbs are about impulse control. No gains without pains; diligence is the mother of good luck; a man can achieve anything through patience. Thomas Jefferson was constantly trying to prove to Europe that America was just as cultured – and of course politically and morally superior. But we were an underdog back then, and indeed for most of our history. America has always been at its best when it had to prove its mettle. During the Cold War, when we were competing with the Soviet Union – that’s when we put a man on the moon and passed the Civil Rights Act. We wanted to be better than the Soviet Union economically, scientifically, and morally. Today, ironically, with all the mistakes revealed by the financial crisis and the rise of China, this could be just what America needs to get back on track.
JR: For a long time America was the hardest working country in the world. Perseverance, striving, grit – these were classic American virtues. But toward the end of the twentieth century, something happened in American culture. Maybe the bottom line is that we got too prosperous and too powerful. We lost our sense of insecurity. The 1990s in America saw one of the greatest wealth explosions in the history of mankind. American culture became more and more oriented toward instant gratification and self-esteem. That’s the opposite of Triple Package impulse control and insecurity. The financial collapse was basically a Triple Package implosion. Wall Street bankers were raking in short-term billions heedless of the long-term consequences; ordinary Americans stopped saving and started borrowing way beyond their means. Meanwhile the national debt exploded. America failed the marshmallow test, and is paying the price.
What are the main take-aways from your book?
AC: First, that anyone – from any background – can have the Triple Package. Even if you’re not from a Triple Package group, there are Triple Package families and Triple Package individuals. The way in is through grit: making the ability to work hard, persevere, and overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It doesn’t come from being a member of a group at all. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will and his own accomplishments.
JR: Another implication of our book is that the adversity of recent times may have a silver lining. The horror of 9/11, the unwon wars that followed, the rise of China, the financial collapse – all this has had, paradoxically, one beneficial consequence: the return of insecurity. Historically, the United States has risen to its greatest achievements when Americans have felt the call to prove their country’s mettle, morality, and ability to win out over grievous challenges. Americans did just this after Pearl Harbor, when the country had not only suffered an attack on its soil but had barely emerged from the deepest depression in its history. For better or worse, America has that opportunity again today.
Of course the Triple Package comes with trade-offs. It doesn’t guarantee anyone happiness. Feeling like you’re not good enough can be terribly painful. But a life that doesn’t include hard-won accomplishment may not be a satisfying one. We all need something greater than our own instant gratification, to contribute to. The Triple Package allows people to seize the reins of time—to live not only in the present but also for the future, to devote their full capacities to changing themselves or the world, in small ways or large.