A Cultural Package That Sorts Winners from Losers

Published May 28, 2014


It’s an annual spring ritual.

In colleges and universities across the country, commencement speakers aim to please: they verbally stroke the new graduates, praising their brilliance, idealism, and passion. Celebrities and political notables alike take to the podium to assure students (and their tuition-poor parents) that this particular crop of graduates—whether from Princeton, Boise State, or Adelphi—is uniquely poised for success. America’s First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, told the graduates of New Orleans’ Dillard University that, “No dream is too big, no vision is too bold…there is nothing, graduates, nothing, that we cannot achieve.” Almost everywhere, newly minted graduates hear that they have the ‘right stuff’ to succeed—and even to change the world—as long as they believe in themselves and follow their dreams.

Nice sentiments, of course. But are they true?

America’s feel-good gurus appear to think so. Popularized by progressives in education, entertainment, and politics, the modern cultural script reads something like this:

  • Everyone’s a winner.’ (Translation: Equality and inclusion matter more than excellence.)
  • Feeling good about oneself drives success. (Don’t make me feel bad…or I’ll blame you for my mediocrity.)
  • Live for today. (Nothing’s worth waiting for.)

Practically speaking, the script explains why a youth soccer team gives trophies to everyone and a middle school cancels ‘Honors Night,’ lest low achievers feel excluded; why teachers strive to boost students’ self-esteem as the antidote to falling test scores; and why students, immersed in the ‘get it now’ world of smartphone apps, video-on-demand, and ‘Google’ research (generating 42,000,000 results in .33 seconds) come to expect instant gratification as they pursue knowledge, sex, wealth, and status in the adult world.

This is the modern promise fueling the new American dream—the belief that success comes from ‘being who you are,’ finding and pursuing your passion, and living in the moment.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have a problem with that.

In their recent book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Chua and Rubenfeld argue that the American dream is realized not by those who follow the ‘feel good’ script, but by those who possess “the triple package.” A politically incorrect set of propositions, the ‘triple package’ is a combination of “three distinct forces” found in the culture of America’s highest-achieving groups. These cultural forces propel group members, on the whole, to achieve outsize success, at least until the strength of those cultural forces becomes diluted by assimilation, time, and the group’s own success.

In a nutshell, the ‘triple package’ that drives success—measured by money, achievements, and position—consists of: 1) a group superiority complex, rooted in religious belief, historical memory, or ethnic tradition; 2) personal insecurity, or the need to prove oneself in the face of high expectations; 3) impulse control, or the disciplined ability to delay immediate gratification in favor of long-term gains.

Some have it and some don’t. Certain groups, defined by religious or ethnic identity, “are starkly more successful than others,” say the authors. Marshaling statistics and examples to support their theory, Chua and Rubenfeld note the disproportionate success of groups like the Mormons, Jews, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Nigerians, Iranians, Lebanese, and Cubans. Young people who belong to these groups, say the authors, are more likely to acquire the triple package, which in turn makes their eventual success more likely.

Theirs is a provocative argument—not surprising, given that Amy Chua has a demonstrated knack for throwing figurative hand grenades into polite company. Chua’s previous work, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, extolled the superiority of rigid, demanding, Chinese-style parenting as the best way to produce successful children. While ‘Tiger Mom’ generated controversy (and sales), it’s debatable whether she inspired converts.

This time, perhaps sensitive to the criticism Chua received for defining “success” in narrow, material terms, Chua and Rubenfeld acknowledge early on that while The Triple Package defines success in economic terms, others describe success differently, according to broader visions of a meaningful life. They freely admit that triple package thinking carries its own “pathologies,” which can render a person outwardly successful—and inwardly miserable. (One wag re-styled the ‘triple package’ mindset as the “self-glorification, self-loathing, and self-effacement” often reflected in Asian stereotypes.)

The authors offer several important caveats: first, not all members of these cultural groups acquire the triple package; and second, individuals who don’t belong to these particular groups can acquire the triple package in other ways and become successful. “The Triple Package isn’t members-only,” they write. “The way in—not that it’s remotely easy—is through grit: by making the ability to work hard, persevere, and overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority.” Far from being an inherited guarantee of perpetual group success, the authors suggest that triple package thinking is difficult for groups to sustain over the long haul. Within two or three generations, groups become less consistent in transmitting the triple package, which leads to declining group success.  Success too often breeds contentment and “people just [get] lazy.” Thus the subtitle: The Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (emphasis added).

Caveats notwithstanding, by categorizing some groups as successful and others as not, the authors effectively struck a match and threw it on the woodpile of America’s race, class, and ethnic divides—with predictable results.

(Hint: Don’t expect Chua and Rubenfeld to be commencement speakers at any progressive universities any time soon.)

Scorching reviews by progressive critics accuse The Triple Package authors of racism, “cherry-picked” statistics, and historical ignorance. That’s just for starters. The book’s premise—that some succeed and others don’t, by dint of hard work, self-control, and pure grit—deeply offends those whose American narrative is a woeful tale of victimization, stigma, oppression, and countless –isms.

On the other hand, conservatives as well as progressives have raised concerns over the authors’ “methodology, or lack thereof,” as Kay Hymowitz writes in Commentary magazine. The Triple Package analysis, for example, seems to minimize the impact of radically different immigration and social histories. An African-American whose forebears stepped ashore in chains or were barred by law, for generations, from certain schools, jobs, and neighborhoods faces an arduous—and very different—trek up the mountain of success than a recent immigrant from India who deplanes with an engineering degree in his back pocket and a network of relatives ready to provide a helping hand. The book sails breezily past such concerns.

The book also inexplicably ignores family structure and its impact on individual success. Devoting pages and pages to ‘group culture,’ the authors barely mention (aside from anecdotes) the major institution—the family—that typically mediates group culture to the individual.

Surely it’s important to consider what—if any—relationship there might be between family structure, group culture, and the absorption of Triple Package characteristics. How do marriage and divorce rates, and percentages of single parent families, for example, compare between triple package and non-triple package groups? The 2014 Index of Family Belonging and Rejection, compiled by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, reports that, “Family belonging is strongest among Asians (65 percent) and weakest among Blacks (17 percent).” (Family belonging describes the situation of a child raised by both biological parents, married to each other.) Are such statistical differences relevant to the Triple Package theory?

Given that children of divorce or those raised by single parents are statistically more likely to experience negative outcomes in areas that impact later adult ‘success’ (high school graduation, substance use, etc.) didn’t the authors at least wonder if or how family structure might factor into Triple Package theory? For example, does family structure, as a general matter, affect the ‘take-up’ rate or the ‘stickiness’ of triple package qualities? Is there a relationship between triple package cultures and the prevalence of particular family structures? Perhaps an analysis of possible connections between family structure and Triple Package success would yield nothing useful, but it’s a serious flaw to leave the question unexamined.

Chua and Rubenfeld, of course, anticipated pushback from many sides. (Some suggest they banked on it). They deserve credit for opening the conversation on a topic Americans generally find “uncomfortable” to discuss: the uneven records of success and upward mobility among various religious, ethnic and national-origin groups. The authors wisely refuse to play the racial or ethnic ‘blame game,’ though, and specifically reject the idea that “native-born American blacks have only themselves to blame for their economic position.” They argue instead that, “the United States did everything it could for centuries to grind the Triple Package out of African American culture—and is still doing so today.”

Indeed, The Triple Package’s message on the value of impulse control and hard work generally resonates well in progressive as well as conservative quarters.

Columnist Keli Goff of The Root, for example, criticizes the authors’ “privilege,” “extremely condescending” attitudes, and criteria for success, observing that groups which don’t fit the triple package profile nevertheless have produced “artists and musicians who have forever changed the face of American culture.” And yet Goff validates the authors’ focus on impulse control. “The need for greater impulse control is certainly not a race-specific characteristic,” she writes. In fact, “poor impulse control” leading to “unhealthy food choices” contributes to many “health woes” among African-Americans.

Still, there’s an enemy to be named, and Chua and Rubenfeld point fingers at the soft and indulgent culture of modern America. With its vapid emphasis on self-esteem, odd obsession with youth, and destructive “live-in-the-moment” mindset, America appears to suffer from “instant gratification disorder,” say the authors. Rather than empowering our youth, our culture is crippling them, handicapping their ability to achieve success. Their conclusion: as a nation, we’ve lost our triple package, and it’s time to recover it.

Perhaps this book’s greatest value lies in its critique—by way of contrast with the triple package—of America’s prevailing cultural attitudes towards adolescents and young adults. The examples of hard-won immigrant success, shaped by high parental and group expectations, ought to inspire parents to raise the bar for their own children, rescuing them from the enervating climate of self-indulgence, shallow thinking, and instant gratification.

However, as a blueprint for ‘success,’ the book falls short on several counts.

First, although the authors’ delineation of triple package qualities is interesting, its prescriptive value is less clear. How exactly does a parent—or a group culture—instill a ‘superiority complex,’ along with a sense of ‘insecurity,’ unless they already belong to the Triple Package club? Even the labels—superiority and inferiority—smack of the same feeling-laden motivation that, without more, is incapable of sustaining serious pursuit of one’s goals. Scratch off the labels, however, and the authors’ triple package attributes look a lot like repackaged virtues.

Virtues—once identified and deliberately cultivated—do have prescriptive value. For example, the sense of ‘personal insecurity’ that the authors describe as the second element of the triple package looks, on closer examination, more like several virtues working together. Maybe the child’s sense of ‘something to prove’ grows when parents instill the virtues of humility, duty, honor, and gratitude. (Those are good things in themselves, by the way, unlike a superiority complex or a deep sense of insecurity.) Parents intent on building virtue also don’t need to shame or demean children, contrary to the practices in some triple package cultures, in order to give them a reason to work hard and pursue excellence.

Or consider impulse control. As the authors define it, impulse control looks more like an amalgam of perseverance, fortitude, industriousness, and self-control. The long trajectory of childhood and adolescence affords parents plenty of opportunities to cultivate those virtues, in deliberate fashion, following a logical sequence, using concrete circumstances—and for the right reason.

The child who works on self-control in order to “be” a certain kind of person is less vulnerable to giving up than the child whose impulse control depends on him “trust[ing] the system” to deliver the promised reward.

Goals matter. And perhaps that’s the take-away for graduates and strivers everywhere.

It makes little difference how fast we drive or how well we handle the curves, if we’re headed up the wrong mountain. And that’s the biggest flaw in The Triple Package: it’s a signpost to the wrong mountain. It promotes an unsustainable vision of ‘happiness-as-material-success,’ the accumulation of money, influence, status, and achievements. Success—in Triple Package terms—is not only a goal out of reach for those with less talent, drive, and support, it’s also a goal that’s destined to disappoint. As Chua and Rubenfeld themselves point out, the ultimate risk of the triple package is “the pathology of drive itself.”

Work, and work harder, but why? And for what?

The answers won’t be found in The Triple Package.

Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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