Amy Chua: What Really Determines Success

A mission to discover what generates drive in individuals, groups, and businesses.

Amy Chua isn’t one to shy away from saying something not everyone will like. Chua’s most recent book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, co-authored with her husband and Yale colleague Jed Rubenfeld, introduces the thesis that being successful, as an individual, nation, or business, is connected to three distinct traits.

Chua, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School became known to a wider audience as the “Tiger Mom,” after her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about strict Chinese upbringing, became a bestseller. In her fourth book, Chua wanted to explore why some cultural groups, such as Mormons, Nigerians, Jews, or Indian-Americans seem to be disproportionately represented at the top levels of American society. Her findings on success were also the topic of her speech at the annual Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki.

“We discovered three qualities accessible to anyone that generate disproportionate success,” Chua explains. Anywhere there is a group, this dynamic applies.

Three elements that lead to success

The first is a superiority complex. A superiority complex means that a person has a “deep-seated sense of exceptionality.” This breeds confidence and nerve. The second element is a sense of insecurity or an inferiority complex. People must feel like they aren’t quite good enough, and that they have something to prove. This is opposing the superiority complex, and that’s the way it should be, Chua says. The third element of the triple package is impulse control; a person must have self-discipline. When explaining impulse control, Chua mentions the Finnish word “sisu”; a compound of bravado and bravery, ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.

How do superiority and inferiority go together?

It’s common to be slightly taken aback after learning that a successful person is supposed to feel superior and inferior. How does that work? “It’s the combination of those two things that generates drive,” Chua says. People who are simultaneously superior and insecure have a chip on their shoulder and are driven to work hard to get recognition and respect. Steve Jobs is an excellent example of the triple package. “No matter how successful he was, he had to keep working harder and harder,” she says. Jobs was known to be a perfectionist who had no problem being ruthless to innovate. Framed this way, seeing examples of how superiority and inferiority work together isn’t that hard. Thinking about successful athletes, actors, politicians and artists and the triple package traits are often clear to see.

Can a superiority complex be a good thing?

There are great dangers in a superiority complex, and parents should never encourage arrogance in their children. But in The Triple Package, Chua makes the argument that some forms of superiority – for example, if rooted in a work ethic, good morals, or self-control – can have a positive impact in a person’s life. In immigrant families, people tend to foster a sense of superiority based on hard work. “You can bootstrap yourself, so you feel exceptional,” Chua says. “You exercised grit and discipline and got yourself to the point of success that others can’t.”

Working to understand success

Chua and Rubenfeld coined the term ‘the triple package’ after studying groups in America today and realizing there were three common traits in successful groups. It didn’t matter how different the groups were, the traits were the same – and brought success. For their research, Chua and Rubenfeld defined success by income level and other outward markers of success. The groups who are successful now aren’t permanently successful and haven’t always been successful.

“There is nothing innately successful in a group,” Chua says. “Groups in America rise and fall after two generations.” Success isn’t easy to pin down, and it isn’t easy to achieve. Chua says that The Triple Package doesn’t sugar coat the truth, like other books about success, sometimes do. “We wanted to write an honest book about the price of drive,” she explains. “Sometimes drive isn’t great.” Too much superiority leads to arrogance and narcissism. Being too insecure can be paralyzing and lead to neuroses. A heavy dose of impulse control can lead to a life that lacks spontaneity and joy. In the same breath, The Triple Package cites studies that show being able to delay gratification is essential to success.

The triple package and business

Looking off the stage, Chua speculates that many in the audience work at small companies. In industries filled with giants, smaller companies have to be smart and agile to survive. “You have to do more with less, and that’s where the triple package can be helpful,” Chua advises.

There’s a lot of talk about corporate mission. Why does it matter? It helps instill a sense of exceptionalism into employees and makes them feel like they’re part of something important. That’s the superiority complex.

Companies should also have an atmosphere of constant learning and striving to do better. That’s the inferiority complex.

Impulse control must start at the top and move down to the employee level. Chua says that to be successful in business you have to invest in the future, which means taking risks, failing, and trying again. All of that requires patience and dealing with short-term pain (the opposite of instant gratification). “Impulse control is the secret sauce of productivity,” she says.

With notifications and apps always vying for our attention, impulse control must be a choice. And, luckily, impulse control can be cultivated and strengthened with training. In the same breath, Chua encourages everyone not to forget to experience joy, too: “Don’t look so far into the future that you forget what makes life worth living.”


This article is a part of the Executive Summary of Nordic Business Forum 2016. Get your digital copy of the summary from the link below.

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