William Irwin Ph.D.

Plato on Pop

The Triple Package and Nietzsche

A potent explanation of individual success

Posted Feb 14, 2014

Amy Chua is best known as the controversial author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book in which she discusses the ways she pushed her daughters to excel. Chua’s latest book is The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. This time her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, joins her as coauthor. Chua and Rubenfeld both teach at Yale Law School where they noticed a disproportionately high number of Mormon students. A little digging revealed that Yale Law School is not unique in this regard. In recent decades Mormons have achieved a disproportionate level of success in business and politics.

What is the secret of their success? According to Chua and Rubenfeld, Mormons have a triple-package culture, characterized by a superiority complex (Mormons believe God has revealed himself to them), a sense of insecurity (Mormons were persecuted and forced to flee west where they have lived on the margins of American society), and impulse control (Mormons are supposed to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and premarital sex; most also go on intense two-year missions as young adults). The superiority complex sets high expectations; the sense of insecurity is a chip on the shoulder that inspires hard work; and the impulse control facilitates perseverance.

If these three traits were found as a package only among Mormons, we might wonder if they really had much explanatory power. Chua, however, finds the same triple package in the culture of Chinese immigrants, and Rubenfeld finds the triple package in his own Jewish American culture. It doesn’t stop there. Other triple package cultures include the following immigrant groups in America: Cubans, Indians, Iranians, Koreans, Lebanese, Nigerians, and Vietnamese. Of course not all members of these groups achieve success and not all people who succeed in America come from triple-package cultures. Chua and Rubenfeld are appropriately nuanced in making points such as this throughout the book. I cannot vouch for all of their research, but their claims are much more modest than many negative reviewers suggest.

Triple-package culture may bring great success, but the culture tends not to endure. For example, whereas the children of Chinese immigrants greatly outscore the general population on standardized math exams, third generation Chinese Americans show no significant advantage on standardized math exams. Triple-package success is thus cultural, not genetic. It also tends to fade across generations as a sense of insecurity and drive diminish. The much-vaunted Protestant work ethic, for example, is clearly a thing of the past. One group still holding on is the Jewish American population, having maintained their triple-package culture across generations, but even that might be fading.  

We should note that the success Chua and Rubenfeld consider is professional and financial success. They are quick to recognize that success is not the same as happiness. In fact, triple-package people are at a disadvantage in achieving happiness inasmuch as their insecurity and drive make it difficult to enjoy success.

Raised as an Irish Catholic, I do not come from a triple-package culture, but nonetheless I identify with the triple package as the root of my modest success. Of course Chua and Rubenfeld recognize that there are plenty of triple-package people who were not raised in triple-package cultures or even families. Justice Sonia Sotmayor is one example they discuss in the book. Indeed, I would suggest that the triple package is more potent as an explanation of individual success than cultural success.

So where do triple-package individuals come from if not from groups? The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a triple package individual if ever there was one, a fact that Chua and Rubenfeld acknowledge in passing. Nietzsche’s superiority complex is legendary. His autobiography Ecce Homo includes chapters such as “Why I Am so Clever” and “Why I Write Such Excellent Books.” Yet Nietzsche did not derive his superiority complex from his German heritage. In fact he was highly critical of German culture and argued for the importance of superior individuals rather than superior races. This alas was a fact completely ignored by the Nazis who twisted his words to suit their own purposes. And just to be clear, Chua and Rubenfeld readily acknowledge the potential danger of cultural superiority complexes, as witnessed to most catastrophically by Nazi Germany.

Beneath Nietzsche’s bombastic self regard was undoubtedly a sense of insecurity. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was panned by the academic establishment and none of his other books sold well or garnered much acclaim in his lifetime. Professionally unsuccessful, Nietzsche was a dismal failure with women as well, and, despite his iconic mustache, was physically unimposing. Nonetheless he persevered and had impulse control. Due in part to a weak and fragile physical constitution, he abstained from alcohol and tobacco and watched his diet carefully. Nietzsche suffered from migraines and insomnia, often unable to read and write for protracted periods. Still, with his emphasis on the importance of the will, Nietzsche lived the philosophy encapsulated in his claim, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Nietzsche’s philosophy gave birth to the twentieth-century school of philosophy known as existentialism: a philosophy that reacts to an absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person. We do not need to be outsiders or immigrants to adopt the triple package. Being human is enough. Existentialism is the triple package for me. We can all find something superior about ourselves to focus on, whether it be size, beauty, intelligence, athletic ability, or practically anything else. The frailty of the human condition with the inevitability of death is enough to cause insecurity in anyone. And the existentialist message of self-creation through acts of will is sufficient to inspire an individual to develop impulse control and perseverance.

Of course we may still wonder whether it’s worth it. Who really wants success if it is purchased at the price of happiness? The Triple Package suggests we can have both. Chua and Rubenfeld remind us of Viktor Frankl the Austrian-Jewish existentialist-psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps and endorsed the Nietzschean wisdom that “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Frankl suggests that meaning is what is most important. Happiness simply occurs as a common byproduct of meaning. In the end, what more can we ask for? 

William Irwin Copyright 2014