12:35pm

Thu January 30, 2014
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

Defining Success Beyond The Dollar Sign

Amy Chua is known as the Tiger Mom. Ever since writing a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about raising her daughter according to the strict — and very high — expectations of her own Chinese-immigrant parents, she's been a lightning rod for controversy about parenting and our notion of success in this country.

Now Chua, along with her co-author Jed Rubenfeld has published an op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times called "What Drives Success?" that is sure to reignite discussion. Chua and Rubenfeld present what they call "The Triple Package" as a way to understand why certain cultural groups in the United States — including, they say, Mormons, Jews and Americans of Indian, Iranian, Lebanese and Chinese backgrounds — outshine others.

Chua and Rubenfeld write:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first 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.

These ideas deserve scrutiny. But that's not what I want to do in my post today, because I think something even more fundamental has to happen first.

We need to ask: Why do Chua and Rubenfeld equate success with money and fame?

My second time reading through "What Drives Success?" I jotted down a list of the ways that the authors either define success or allude to it by way of example:

  • Annual earning power
  • Leadership in corporate America
  • Serving on the Supreme Court, winning a Tony Award or being named a Nobel laureate
  • Gaining entrance, based on standardized test scores, to selective public high schools that are major "feeders" for Ivy League colleges

Wow.

It's nice to see the arts and sciences represented on the list, in the form of Tony and Nobel awards.

But I wonder, how many of us are feeling successful right now?

Of course, that question only carries significance if we cede the power to Chua and Rubenfeld in defining success. And because I'd rather not do that, I created a matching list of my own for what also counts as success:

  • Doing a job that we find satisfying and meaningful: teaching children or working to save animals; writing poetry or playing in a symphony orchestra; fixing cars or making furniture, even though the salary may not be significant
  • Taking on leadership in non-corporate America: making a difference by working on issues of poverty, hunger, mental health, human rights, animal welfare and others related to social justice
  • Taking part, whether as participant or spectator, in local community affairs, including at libraries, performances of community choral and theater groups or science events at museums and universities
  • Finding an educational path that helps us to achieve the goals that matter to us

If we look at success in this more expansive way, might it shift who we see as achievers?

I am not the only one to notice and question Chua and Rubenfeld's metric of success. After I tweeted about this op-ed on Sunday, a friend sent me the link to a piece from The Huffington Post by Jie-Song Zhang. Among the critical points Zhang makes is that the triple-package thesis "attempts to assess the value of human communities based on income and test scores — this is shallow and simple-minded."

Ensuring that our children understand that their success (and ours) isn't defined through dollar signs? To me, that's a fabulous measure of success.


You can keep up with what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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