Amy Chua: Impulse control is the secret sauce of productivity

A superiority complex. Insecurity. Impulse control. This is the so-called triple package that Amy Chua believes can not only explain the success of individuals and groups, but also businesses.

Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, gave a talk at the Nordic Business Forum describing how this recipe of confidence, uncertainty, and self-discipline creates fertile ground for achievement.

“It is precisely that unlikely, even unstable combination that generates drive,” Chua said. “This feeling, almost like a chip on your shoulder, that you need to work harder to prove yourself and to be recognized, to gain the respect you feel you deserve, to show everyone,” she said.

Chua argued that both insecurity and impulse control were essential to creating a successful corporate culture. “You don’t want a corporate culture that is smug or complacent,” said Chua. “You want everyone in the firm to want to do better, to want to improve, to be open to change, to feel that they are not necessarily good enough yet.”

She said that some of the most successful firms, such as McKinsey & Company and Goldman Sachs, in the world actively look for insecurity in the people they hire. “A little insecurity is what propels you forward,” said Chua. Firms that continuously reassess their performance succeed, in her words. Chua said that small businesses in particular could harness this “underdog mentality” to their benefit.

Of the three traits that comprise Chua’s triple package, it is self-discipline that is the greatest indicator of positive outcome.

“Impulse control, or grit, is better for predicting success than IQ or innate talent,” said Chua. She said that in businesses, impulse control has to start at the top. She cited Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, who reinvested all profits back into the company during the firm’s first 10 years, as an example of this kind of discipline.

And especially in the era of constant distraction, Chua argued that at the employee level, “impulse control is the secret sauce of productivity.” She said that impulse control can be cultivated and strengthened with training, and that more companies in the US are teaching their personnel to improve their impulse control and self-discipline. “I think Donald Trump needs a crash course,” she quipped.

Chua cautioned however that drive, ambition, and business success can come at a price. “We all know highly ambitious, driven people who are miserable,” Chua said. “This feeling of always trying to achieve can be extremely unpleasant;” she said. “Don’t forget to let yourself experience joy once in awhile,” Chua continued. “Don’t always be delaying so much gratification and looking so far in the future you miss what makes life worth living.”

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