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What drives success in America?

Updated: April 15, 2014 6:21AM



Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mother” who launched a thousand panic attacks among ambitious but lenient parents, is back with an almost-great book about why some groups achieve spectacular success in America while others languish. Written with her husband Jed Rubenfeld (both are law professors at Yale), “The Triple Package” examines a number of groups who’ve succeeded in this country and advances a thesis about why groups (and nations) prosper or decline.

The success of Asian-American immigrants is legendary. Less familiar is the bounding achievement of Nigerian immigrants. Though they account for only 0.7 percent of the black American population, they comprised 25 percent of the blacks at Harvard Business School last year. Nigerian immigrants are estimated to be 10 percent of America’s black physicians. The average family income of Nigerian immigrants is not only above the black average, but above the national average as well.

The statistics on Asian superiority are arresting. For the last five years, nearly 50 percent of the top prize-winners at the Intel Science Talent Search have been Asian Americans. In 2012, of the 141 top-ranked high school students in the country, those designated as “presidential scholars,” 48 were Asian-American. On the SAT, Asians score on average 143 points above the norm. Though only 5 percent of the college-age cohort, they represent 19 percent of the student body at Harvard, 16 percent at Yale, 19 percent at Princeton and, well, you get the idea. If there were not an unspoken quota on Asians imposed by universities, they would probably account for half of the students at the leading schools.

The high fliers academically and economically are not only immigrants. Mormons have recently been taking the top spots in the corporate and banking worlds. They have risen to the top at Dell, American Express, Sears, Roebuck, Fisher Price, Lufthansa, Black & Decker and many other companies. Goldman Sachs’ third largest office is now in Salt Lake City.

Cubans, Jews, Lebanese, Iranians, blacks from the West Indies and others also excel. Chua and Rubenfeld think they know why. It’s three traits that combine to drive achievement: 1) a sense of group superiority; 2) a feeling of insecurity and something to prove; and 3) a capacity for delaying gratification.

All of the groups that have excelled in America share all of these traits, though some are showing diminishing levels of these qualities. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of super-achievers do seem to slide toward the mean. Certainly, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have long since lost their dominant position in the American elite.

The Chua/Rubenfeld thesis is consistent with the latest social science trends. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania wrote an influential paper suggesting that grit, not IQ, was the best predictor of success. The authors cycle back several times to the “marshmallow” study, which found that small children who could resist eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes on the promise of getting another were more likely to have life success than their more impulsive peers. The authors’ insistence that Asian IQs are no higher than others is debatable. But they are certainly right to highlight the research showing that Asian students with an IQ of 103 get higher grades than white students with same IQs and to stress that Asians spend much more time studying and much less time watching TV or hanging out at the mall.

Chua and Rubenfeld are careful not to transgress politically sensitive topics, and their obedient liberalism leads them into some embarrassing mistakes, as when they misperceive President Barack Obama’s comments about American exceptionalism. Still, their willingness to bash the culture of “self-esteem” and immediate gratification that characterizes so much of American life today is welcome, as is their belief that America is, at its core, a “triple package” nation — if it can find its way back to the traits that made it great.



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