On the Ladder of Success

By Hannah Lee

Not shy about generating controversy after she initiated the Chinese Tiger Mom storm, Amy Chua is back and she’s taking on other cultural groups.

The post-World War II generations have enjoyed a life in this country that has been robust economically, militarily, and culturally in its influence around the world.  As a Chinese immigrant to the United States and now a member of the Jewish faith, I’ve been an eyewitness to two cultural groups that been ascendant in their prominence.  Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School and a married couple, have written The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.  Most of the successful groups are immigrants who defy the new myth that mobility no longer exists.  The authors bring their thesis to bear on how America will fare in the 21st century.

The authors coined the term “The Triple Package” to cover the three traits that they posit are essential for group success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.  I am familiar with the Jewish concept of being “the Chosen People” (chosen for the challenge of a Biblically-scripted life) and the Chinese view of the world from its central place as The Middle Kingdom (better translated as Center of the World or Center of Civilization).  It was fascinating to learn that all other groups that have thrived in this country, including the Mormons, Cubans, and Nigerians, have their own stories of exceptionalism.  The shock of becoming an alien where no one acknowledges their heritage can focus their energy into proving themselves special and noteworthy.

The second trait essential to success is a sense of insecurity.  Immigrants who have been uprooted from their lands have this in spades.  Fear of survival pushes them to forge new paths to success.  The interesting aspect of Jewish insecurity is that this has persisted as Jews have prospered in this country.  The history of persecution has a strong hold on the Jewish psyche and the impetus for acquiring an education that cannot be taken away from a person, who may have to flee to a new home.

The third essential trait for success is impulse control.  Asian immigrants foster a discipline for hard work, in part because they do not subscribe to the concept of being gifted.  A person achieves success through diligence, not talent or high intelligence.  One Chinese woman is quoted in the book speaking about watching her father and brothers starve to death in Cambodia, so that the sacrifices for a good education are easy by comparison.

A chapter in the book looks at groups that do not have the Triple Package for various reasons.  An interesting psychological explanation was provided by a new finding of the famous marshmallow  study that Walter Mischel conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s wherein children who waited to eat a marshmallow were rewarded with a second one.  In 2012, researchers expanded upon the test wherein some of the children first had an encounter showing the adults to be unreliable, such as a promise of art supplies not being realized.  After this kind of encounter, the children all “failed” the marshmallow test, in that they gobbled up the first marshmallow instead of waiting for two.  They were responding rationally to the fact that the adults who had promised a second treat had proven to be untrustworthy.  Chua and Rubenfeld wrote, “If people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded— if they don’t think that people like them can really make it— they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.”  I have no prescription for counteracting parental or communal cynicism.

When the authors turn to an analysis of the United States, we read about a “chosen-people narrative rivaling the Old Testament”, an insecurity fostered by the European nations, and a Puritan work ethic.  (I found it interesting reading of the tension between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.)  Zooming through time, the authors then address the contemporary ills of American society where self-esteem has become the communal goal and self-gratification our mark.  Affluence has eroded our need for restraint.  What remains is the notion of American exceptionalism, that we’re still the greatest nation on earth.

The crux of Chua and Rubenfeld’s thesis is impulse control and this is accessible to all, regardless of family or cultural background.  Even talent and inspiration need to be bolstered with much hard work.  Whatever your definition of success, I find it noteworthy that the discipline acquired in one realm translates well into the rest of one’s life, whether it is through classical music training, Talmud study, or Mormons serving a religious mission in a country where one is not fluent.

The authors make the case for American superiority based on tolerance, opportunity, and equality.  We’re still the only nation that has a generous immigration policy.   I think this welcome is returned a hundredfold with the tremendous achievements of these earnest strivers.   I cannot endorse inculcating a superiority complex or an insecurity neurosis— neither do the authors–  but I can heartily approve of working hard towards our goals.

Book Chat: The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity

By Hannah Lee

In the same way that I love cookbooks with a narrative — more memoir than
instructional manual — I found reading The Chinese Way to Wealth and
pleasurable in that I learned much about the culture of my own
people. The author is my brother, Michael Lee, and he sent me an early copy.
The fact that we grew up together does not preclude our separate areas
of experiences, with him being an expert in finance, a world traveler, and a
former student of martial arts.  This book is clearly and concisely
written with the lay reader in mind.  Speaking as an elder sister, I’m
finally realizing that there is much I can learn from my baby brother.

In our economy, who would want to learn about getting rich slowly?  However, the financial crisis of this  country is mostly attributable to the “get-rich-quick” mindset of
many Americans.  Here’s Michael’s remedy for this malaise: utilize the human capital that is in each and every one of us and apply his eight time-tested strategies for achieving financial success.  There are no short cuts and you have to learn to defer gratification.

In the Introduction, Michael retells the allegory attributed to the founder of Temple University, the preacher Russell Conwell:

a prosperous farmer who desires diamonds so badly that he
sells everything he owns and runs off to find his fortune.   After a  lifetime of trying, he dies without having achieved his goal.  Meanwhile, the person who purchased his house discovered a rich diamond mine on the very property that was sold.  The searching man would have found his diamonds if, instead of seeking his fortune elsewhere, he had dug in his own backyard.  He would have found his Acres of Diamonds, as Russell Conwell entitled his work. [p.4]

Being a preacher, Conwell must have been familiar with the Bible, but I
wonder if he knew about the parable that Jews tell about the Jew from Lublin
who dreams of a treasure near the Imperial Palace in Prague and journeys to
seek it.  He meets a soldier there who tells of his own dream of
treasure under a humble Jew’s floor in Lublin and scoffed at his likelihood
of success, whereupon the Jew returns home, digs under his floorboards, and
unearths his treasure.  The point of both stories is to draw upon our
inner resources, our innate human capital.  Michael wrote this book to
show others that they too can apply these culturally based principles that
have served the Chinese so well, both in their homeland as in the diaspora.

One illustrative chapter is the one on “Obtain “Kung Fu” in Education,” in which Michael
extolls the Chinese value of education. In January 2011, Amy Chua published a
provocative piece in the Wall Street JournalWhy Chinese Mothers are
,” (giving advance guard to her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) and sparked a public debate about parenting styles.  Around the same time, an international study was also  published, which is of far greater significance.

The OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, a major nongovernment institution based in Paris, released the latest results in its influential Programme for International Student Assessment study.  This triennial study assessed the reading, science,
and math skills of 15-year-olds from public schools in all 34 OECD member states, as well as in a host of other nations.  The results were not encouraging for U.S. taxpayers and must have been very disappointing for the U.S. Department of Education.


That’s because in these OECD rankings, the United States, the world’s most economically dynamic and prosperous country by far, could rank no higher than thirty-first in the world in mathematics.  This dismal showing for American mathematical skills has by now become repetitious and
expected.  But to me, there was a slightly surprising outcome in the science rankings, in which the United States finished twenty-third.  Imagine, the powerful United States, home to the mighty MIT and Cal Tech, ranked essentially in the high minor leagues in the science scorecard.


…The list of the top 10 countries for all subject matters was
striking in its composition.  The city of Shanghai took first place, while South Korea took second, Hong Kong fourth, Singapore fifth, and Japan eighth. [pp.10-12]

These places all owe a cultural legacy to Confucius (Kong Zi), the
“Teacher of 10,000 generations.”  His teachings form a
“complete moral philosophy for leading a proper life,” a belief
system “in a right and wrong way to live and provides for the governance
of human relations on earth.”  Furthermore, “Confucianism may
be unique in its exclusive focus on becoming “good.”  In place
of a deity, liturgy, or intrinsic forms of worship, there is the teaching of
obtaining virtue, and only that.  This is known as Confucian moral

The earth-shattering moment occurred to me when I read: “the main
reason why education holds the esteemed position it does in the Chinese and
Confucian societies is that education provides the very and sole means of
becoming fully human.  Education for its own sake just doesn’t cut
it.”  Equally compelling for me was when Michael calls for a return
to civic education, for building an institutional movement toward the
creation of “good” people.

Also interesting to me, Michael points out the common fallacy in equating kung
with martial arts.  Kung fu actually means “mastery,” while wushu better describes what Americans think of as martial arts.  Furthermore,

some in martial arts circles believe the word shifu
to be the equivalent of the word sensei in Japanese…But there’s a word of difference between the two words.  Sensei means simply “teacher”…shifu refers to one who has mastered something.   Almost anything would be included– art, painting, physics, engineering…To be linguistically correct, one does not know kung fu; one has kung fu. [pp.23-25]

I cannot give away the secrets of this tightly constructed book, so I urge
you to get your own copy.  You’ll learn some crucial principles for
financial health and you’ll have a ball learning about the Chinese people and
its culture.