Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Jews, Mormons, and Immigrants Prosper: Three Essential Traits

Yale Law School professors (and spouses) Amy Chua (of Tiger Mother fame) and Jed Rubenfeld say in this NY Times article that Jews, Mormons, and immigrants are among those with the greatest upward mobility in the US. All successful members of these groups share three traits, some of which can even seem "un-American."
"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."
Chua and Rubenfeld emphatically state that one or two of these traits is simply not enough to drive success. It requires all three. A lack of one or two of these factors or an improper balance of the three can lead to pathological behavior that would be antithetical to real prosperity.

Let's consider each of these three traits.
  • Superiority. The authors note that Jews have a deep history of seeing themselves as God's chosen people. Mormons do as well, considering themselves to be heirs with God. And although Mormon history is less than two centuries old as opposed to four millennia for the Jews, Mormon theology finds the religion's roots in a premortal life long before the earth existed. Many immigrants see themselves as exceptional compared to their cohorts in the old country. While superiority can be narcissistic and dangerous, "The United States itself was born ... with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality," so it should be a familiar American trait.
  • Insecurity. While insecurity is "anathema in American culture," it "runs deep in every one of America’s rising groups; and consciously or unconsciously, they tend to instill it in their children." The children of many immigrants are taught that failure to excel would dishonor the sacrifices of their elders. Despite their successes, Mormons are regularly the subject of popular derision. They also have a history of severe persecution in the 19th Century. Jews have been persecuted for millennia and were tortured and murdered by the millions in mid-20th Century Europe. While "In combination with a superiority complex, the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator," pressure to succeed can also make children feel like they can never please their parents.
  • Impulse Control. Self discipline — putting off immediate desires for long-term rewards — "runs against the grain of contemporary [YOLO] culture.... The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children’s happiness with excessive restraints or demands. By contrast, every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age — or at least they did so when they were on the rise." Both Jews and Mormons, for example, have restrictive dietary doctrines and Mormons take chastity and service very seriously. Immigrants often feel pressured to work hard and save.
The culture in which one is raised is important (but not essential) to success. Culture can foster a general rise among the group or it can stifle such mobility. The authors state:
"Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success."
But "groups rise and fall over time." Some groups that were once prosperous have stagnated while others that once struggled have risen. "The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences" the authors claim.

Moreover, today's prosperity can sew the seeds of decline for future generations. To "the extent that a group passes on its wealth" by inheritance "without hard work, insecurity or discipline," the group is "likely to be headed for decline." An old proverb states that a rich man's son is seldom a rich man's father.

Not to worry, the authors say. In America "prosperity and power had their predictable effect, eroding the insecurity and self-restraint that led to them. By 2000, all that remained was our superiority complex, which by itself is mere swagger, fueling a culture of entitlement and instant gratification. Thus the trials of recent years — the unwon wars, the financial collapse, the rise of China — have, perversely, had a beneficial effect: the return of insecurity."

This is actually a good thing, the authors argue. "America has always been at its best when it has had to overcome adversity and prove its mettle on the world stage. For better and worse, it has that opportunity again today."

Still the authors warn that the success they are discussing revolves chiefly around material measures. Focusing too heavily on "external measures" of worth such as "prestige and money" may not lead to the kind of success that breeds happiness, which is what each of us really wants in life. On the other hand, despite our human longing for comfort, complacency and mediocrity might not lead to real happiness either.

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