As parents of two middle schoolers (eighth grade and sixth) my husband and I spend time attempting to help them develop characteristics that we believe are useful and good.
Looking others in the eye when talking, a firm handshake and the ability to carry on a conversation are just a few of these skills. We encourage them to work hard and do well in school. We put emphasis on them working hard and doing their best, rather than the outcome or the grade itself.
Like most parents, we want our children to be successful. A recent New York Times article, "What Drives Success," by two Yale Law School professors and the authors of the forthcoming book "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America," has given me pause. Are we helping them develop the traits that will lead to success?
According to Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, three key traits drive success. While all Americans might have equal opportunity to become economically successful, the authors point out that the statistics of group success (and failure) provide evidence that opportunity does not necessarily translate into a given outcome.
"Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America's most recognizable companies. These facts don't make some groups 'better' than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life," they wrote, "But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy."
"Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States' adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates," they point out.
"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," they conclude.
The superiority complex provides the belief that success is possible, and insecurity is the engine that drives the behavior to work harder than others. The combination of the two is powerful. Impulse control allows for continued focus on the end result (whether completion of a task, a project or achievement of a goal) rather than being distracted into doing something frivolous and unimportant.
The authors point out that these traits not only drive success in individuals and groups, but also in nations. "The United States itself was born a Triple Package nation, with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality, a goading desire to prove itself to aristocratic Europe (Thomas Jefferson sent a giant moose carcass to Paris to prove that America's animals were bigger than Europe's) and a Puritan inheritance of impulse control."
It's not only our heritage as a nation, but our continued belief in our exceptionalism as a nation, that propels us forward. Every generation has it's own form of insecurity based on the external threats from other nations.
The one trait that seems to be the most useful is the ability to control impulses. Impulse control is a self-reinforcing mechanism, if hard work is actually rewarded with a good outcome. It's harder to acquire this trait if hard work is not rewarded or if a reward is given for no work at all.
If these traits are important to driving success, then how might they be instilled in more people? Is it possible for multiple groups to believe that they each are superior to the other? Instead of instilling a sense of fairness and equality, and ensuring a confident child, should we intentionally instill a little doubt, to make sure that the feeling of insecurity drives them to work a little harder?