Why some people are more successful than others has always been a matter of great interest to many of us. In The Triple Package, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld explore the cultural traits that explain the outsize success of certain cultural groups in America. Chua and Rubenfeld, both law professors at Yale, are married to each other. They have also written several other books individually and Chua is probably best known for her controversial best-seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger mother.
The Triple Package refers to three traits which the authors believe are responsible for the disproportionate success of groups such as Mormons, Jews and immigrants from China, India , Nigeria , Iran, and Lebanon. They identify the traits as a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. The first two might seem contradictory to each other but Chua and Rubenfeld make a good case for their premise.
They postulate that members of these groups feel superior to others either because their religion has always taught them so or because they came from privileged circumstances in the countries of their origin. In America, shorn of reasons to feel superior, they work harder to regain their cachet while suppressing their feelings of insecurity vis-a vis their more settled neighbors. Impulse control is an essential attribute for success because it enables people to defer gratification as they strive mightily to get ahead. Even as these traits lead to success, they can also be the cause of future heartache. Superiority can lead to arrogance, insecurity to neuroticism and impulse control carried to extremes may prevent the enjoyment of success. Another negative is that Triple Package cultures focus on material, conventional success and prestige and close off other paths of achievement. There is a telling anecdote about the Taiwanese- American filmmaker Ang Lee whose father had wanted him to become a businessman. When Lee won an Oscar, his father told him there was still time.” You’re only 49″, the father said. ” Get a degree, teach in universities and be respectable.”
Perhaps the most perceptive part of The Triple Package is that American society dilutes and ultimately destroys the traits that lead to the success of Triple Package cultures. As these groups assimilate with the American mainstream, they lose the very attributes that made them successful. Taught that all people are equal, they lose their superiority complex. As they taste success they become secure and less capable of delaying gratification.
The premise of the book is fascinating and it has several interesting sidelights. I knew of the successes of Jews and Asian Americans but not that of the other groups. The Mormons have always been a low key group and it took me by surprise to read that, even with far fewer adherents, the Mormon Church is three or four times as rich as the Catholic Church in America. I didn’t know either that Nigerians- Americans account for the great majority of black Americans admitted to Harvard and that they are prominent in medicine and law.
Other issues The Triple Package touches upon: that success cannot be traced to “education cultures”, “family values” or ” thrifty cultures”. That America was for a long time a Triple Package nation but that this has changed in the last 50 years. That blacks are hurt by negative perceptions and low expectations rather than the lack of the Triple Package. The dynamics of Jewish families. That Appalachia does not have a Triple Package culture but its problems are due to geography, history and the ” resource curse”.
The Triple Package is a well written, well researched book and I found myself nodding in recognition as I turned its pages. There were two points, however, where I found myself in disagreement. In trying to refute the idea that Jewish success is because it is a ” learning culture”, the authors put forward the example of ultra-orthodox Satmar Jews who are yet one of the poorest groups in the nation. However, this is a specious example because the Satmar community dedicates itself to Talmudic study to the exclusion of everything else; this is hardly a foundation for academic success. It also seemed to me that the authors were on the wrong track when they write about the importance of caste in present day Indian society.
The Triple Package tackles a complex subject and it could have been a difficult read. Thanks to original research, groundbreaking statistics and lively anecdotes it is exactly the opposite… a book that is difficult to put down. Highly recommended.
The Triple Package. Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld. The Penguin Press (N.Y) 2014.