Amy Chua on Success and ‘The Triple Package’

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Amy Chua, bestselling author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, studied eight cultural groups in the United States that have achieved success and identified three characteristics that they say account for this success. Wharton management professor Adam M. Grantrecently interviewed Chua about their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, when she visited campusas a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series. In this interview, Chua debunks the biggest misconception about the ‘Triple Package’ and discusses how anyone, regardless of background, can benefit from the traits she and Rubenfeld write about.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Adam M. Grant: Tell us about the “Triple Package.”

Amy Chua: The “Triple Package” refers to three qualities that propel individuals and groups to high achievement and disproportionate success. The first element is what we call a superiority complex. That is a sense of your specialness or exceptionality. The second is the opposite of that. That is a sense of insecurity, a feeling that you or what you have done is not good enough. The third is impulse control, by which we mean self-discipline, self-control and the ability to resist temptation.

It is really the combination of the first two elements that I think is so unusual and interesting. How does somebody simultaneously feel superior and insecure? Yet that’s really the key. That is what generates drive: This feeling like I’m not respected enough. I need to show everybody. I need to work harder than anybody else, so I can get this recognition that I deserve.

Grant: I wondered about that when I read the book. How do you hold these two beliefs simultaneously? Where does the sense of superiority and inferiority come from, and how do they hang together?

Chua: If you interview or read the bios of very successful people, it is amazing how often it comes up over and over, from Henry Kissinger to Alexander Hamilton. They had this enormous sense that they could change the world, that they were brilliant…. That can be instilled by a parent…. [Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor] said it was her grandmother who gave her this sense that she was destined for great things.

“How does somebody simultaneously feel superior and insecure? Yet that’s really the key. That is what generates drive….”

If you just have the sense of superiority, then you could be complacent. You are much more likely to [say], “Hey, I’m great.” It is only when that sense of superiority is combined with a sense of, “Hey, I’m not being respected enough. I don’t quite fit in.” That sense of insecurity can, in the case of groups, come from being an immigrant. If you are an immigrant … you are the quintessential outsider. People are making fun of my accent. I’m insecure about whether I can make it in this country. I’m insecure about whether I can be accepted. [When you feel] very proud about … your group or about yourself, you have a strong sense of self. But when you combine that with a little edge, just a dash of insecurity, then that’s when you get this goading, the catalyst that motivates people.

Grant: You use that lens to explain the rise of some cultural groups. How did you end up connecting these qualities to culture?

Chua: We actually worked the other way. We started looking at the most successful groups in America by just very conventional metrics: income and professional and educational attainment…. We isolated eight groups that seem to be really hitting it out of the park right now. They include two nonimmigrant groups, Jews and Mormons, [as well as] Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Chinese, Nigerian and Cuban Americans.

We thought we were going to write about different cultural pathways. Once we put together this research team — it took us three years — we found something surprising, a really remarkable pattern, which is that all these groups actually share these three qualities. [First,] a deep sense of their exceptionality, whether it’s a chosen people narrative, or Mormons have a very powerful sense of both religious and moral superiority. Or my own group, Chinese Americans: My mother always said, “We come from the greatest, oldest, most ancient civilization. We invented everything.” There are other sources, too. In many of those cases, the insecurity comes from being an outsider, whether from being a persecuted minority or of, again, being an immigrant.

Grant: How much does it matter if the sense of superiority is at the group level or the individual level? Do I have to be part of some larger narrative? Or can it just be I think I have the potential to be really great?

Chua: It’s absolutely at the individual level. That’s the biggest misunderstanding about the book because people are focused on these groups. At the end of the day, any individual of any background can have the Triple Package. If you look at Barack Obama, by his own language he almost describes this insecurity, a chip on the shoulder that pushed him, and his mother who made him get up at five in the morning. A lot of self-discipline.

But what’s so interesting about the book is the most exciting applications are for America’s poorest groups because the Triple Package is very, very fluid. One of the things we found is that groups rise, and then they fall very predictably. Usually after the second generation, we see a very sharp fall-off, with Jews being the only exception. The Triple Package explains that persisting insecurity from a long history of persecution and then the Holocaust.

But what we are hearing from educators around the world, including two of the country’s largest inner-city charter networks, is, “I can’t believe it. These three … qualities are exactly what we are trying to instill in our underprivileged kids….

The most interesting thing is where does that sense of exceptionality come from? It’s … not based on belonging to a certain group or a certain religion, but rather a sense of pride that any individual can take from hard work and persevering and beating the odds and overcoming life’s challenges. That’s what you see a lot of these schools trying to do. They are having great success with incredible graduation rates.

“At the end of the day, any individual of any background can have the Triple Package.”

Grant: The impulse control part is probably the least controversial piece of The Triple Package, right? The superiority and insecurity piece is the trickier part of the equation. I’m reminded of some research on self-esteem that psychologists have been doing over the last few decades. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues had this great review where they essentially asked if high self-esteem is associated with anything good. [The answer was] not really, maybe a little bit with happiness, but it doesn’t buy you a lot for success, interpersonal relationships, or much else.

If we combine superiority and insecurity, do we get people who not only have high self-esteem but unstable or fragile self-esteem where they are constantly protecting themselves and shielding themselves from the slings and arrows of life, as opposed to just developing a realistic sense of obligation or duty to try to do something meaningful with their lives?

Chua: This captures one of the most important parts of The Triple Package. We have a whole chapter exploring the underside. The book isn’t just the celebration of success and the Triple Package because we deliberately chose these terms. We could have called it, “You just need confidence and grit and big dreams.” But we chose a superiority complex. That negative concept shades into intolerance. Insecurity, that’s clearly a negative term.

A couple of important points…. Our Asian Americans have the lowest reported self-esteem, but they have the highest achievement in terms of at least grades and test scores. What that shows is that if you feel that you’re just perfect, you’re amazing, there’s nothing more you need to prove, you’re not going to work hard. You need that little edge.

But the dark side is so important, right? That feeling — I’m not good enough yet, I have to prove myself, whether to society or to my parents — can be incredibly unpleasant. We have all these interviews and quotes in the book from Amy Tan, the famous novelist who is incredible successful. She said, “I was miserable all my childhood. I felt I could never, ever please my parents. There were times I wanted to die.” She had to break free from the Triple Package. Her parents wanted her to do the typical academic things. She had to break free of that. Ang Lee, the director, said the same thing. His dad kept wanting him to be a professor. He wasn’t even happy when [Lee] won the Academy Award.

The sense of exceptionality “[is] not based on belonging to a certain group or a certain religion, but rather a sense of pride that any individual can take from hard work and … overcoming life’s challenges.”

There are downsides because this need to prove yourself to society or to your family or to the community tends to channel people into conventional forms of success. Now that’s not necessarily bad if it makes you happy. But if it’s not what you want to do with your life, it can be very imprisoning.

Grant: That’s a totally fair point. As the last word on this, you mentioned parenting a few times. What is the role of tiger mothers, and maybe also Lombardi dads, in The Triple Package?

Chua: The Triple Package is definitely not a parenting book, but there are some overlaps. In some ways, both books are about how you motivate your children. How do you inspire your children? In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, that was supposed to be a self-parody memoir. It was supposed to be funny. Just my own story. But I ran up against … individual personalities, a second daughter who just didn’t want to do what I wanted her to do. The lesson in the book, in some ways, is you have to find how to harness her strengths and her confidence, but allow her to apply it in a way that fits her personality and fits her dreams. It’s still a work in progress actually. We’re really good friends, but it’s never easy. It’s never easy.

That’s the thing about The Triple Package. It’s a book that tries to be honest about what it takes to be successful, even in a conventional way, what it takes to have drive. If you think about it, to be driven, something has to be missing. Something has to be pushing you. If you just feel completely perfectly fine, you don’t need anything more. I think we would all love to feel that way. But why would you then wake up at six in the morning? Why would you work till seven? Why do you write another book? Something has to be pushing you. We are trying to figure out that balance and how we can combine that in a way that allows this person to thrive and be happy and be healthy and have meaning in their lives but also achieve goals.

If you were to ask me what is the definition of success, it’s very simple. It is to achieve your goals, whatever those goals may be, whether it’s writing a novel or making a film or becoming a doctor…. Combined with friendship and generosity, the Triple Package can help people achieve their goals.

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