In their book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld make extraordinary claims about the secrets that drive success—extraordinary because they seem to contradict each other and to fly in the face of common American wisdom.
The book is highly controversial because its purported goal was to explain why some ethnic groups thrive in American soil while others falter—a goal that some believe is inherently racist. But what the authors report they found transcends ethnic background: Successful Americans, they argue, have three things in common:
People who have the courage to succeed—sometimes despite enormous obstacles—have a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. They believe they have something unique and important to bring to the table, and they will not rest until they do. This seems to be inconsistent with the prototypical American belief in equality. Yet equal need not mean "we are all the same." It can and should mean that we all have equal rights and protections under the law, and that we should be given equal opportunity to succeed. Instead, the authors define this trait as the pride an individual takes in his or her own strength of will.
Successful people also fear that they or what they have accomplished so far is not good enough. This trait not only seems to contradict the first, but also flies in the face of a pop culture truism--that insecurity is something that holds us back from achieving our goals. But upon reflection, you can see that it doesn't and needn't mean that. People who believe they have something exceptional to offer but have not yet made their mark are highly motivated to work harder, reach higher, and accomplish more. Without this worry that one hasn't yet accomplished enough, a superiority complex can lead to idle arrogance, which does no one any good. They point out that America as a nation has always been at its best when it has had to "prove its mettle on the world stage."
Impulse control is simply the practice of keeping "eyes on the prize" rather than grabbing at every opportunity without thought of their long term consequences. A superiority complex coupled with insecurity can lead to toxic competitive overdrive. But impulse control serves as a counterweight to keep us on track. This, again, seems to fly in the face of common wisdom to "live in the moment" and seize opportunities as they arise. Wisdom comes from learning to discern which opportunities should be seized and which are better left alone.
While the authors argue that different cultures embrace these traits to different degrees, they also emphatically state that these traits are learnable, teachable, and present in all cultures. The role of the environment in seeding and nurturing such traits can't be overemphasized.
Take the last of these—the ability to delay gratification. Most of us are familiar with the famous marshmallow experiment in which researchers tell a child that they can have two marshmallows if they don't eat the one on the table in front of them while the researcher leaves the room. The results showed that children who exercised impulse control went on to live more successful lives. These results were interpreted to mean that self-control and the ability to delay gratification were keys to future success.
But it turns out that these children may not have been showing individual differences in impulse control. Instead, they may have been showing researchers what they had learned about the reliability of authorities. Researchers at the University of Rochester recently reran the study with one crucial difference: The adults in the study either could be trusted to keep their word or were untrustworthy. The children were told by an adult that they would be given the opportunity to play with a new art set. For some children, the adult made good on their promise. For others, the adult reneged. The results were quite stark: Sixty-four percent of the children in the trustworthy adult group (9 out of 14) passed the test, while only one child (out of 14) in the untrustworthy adult group did. Even when the children gave in, kids in the reliable environment waited four times longer (12 minutes) than those in the unreliable environment (3 minutes). Keep in mind that twelve minutes is an eternity for a five-year-old, especially when a tasty treat is so tantalizingly within reach.
In other words, these studies show that kids are rational decision-makers. In unreliable environments, they learn to "eat dessert first." In reliable environments, they learn that delaying gratification actually pays off. A video clip of this study can found here.
More about the book can be found here.
Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 14, 2014
Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.
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