Superiority, Insecurity, and Impulse Control: The Triple Package

I promised to review The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (2014) by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld after I ended up talking about it on The Katie [Couric] Show in February. In case you missed it, Katie Couric’s producers found my blog on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) by Amy Chua and called me to discuss Chua’s new book on the show. They realized that I fit one of the cultural groups (Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) represented in The Triple Package.  They wanted my commentary on the traits these cultural groups use to achieve success because of my criticism of the tiger mother parenting style. I represented what Chua and Rubenfeld call in the new book, “the child made miserable by internalizing too much parental pressure” (p. 155).

So today’s post is that promised review of The Triple Package. I read it on the airplane on my way to be on the show in New York City. I approached the book with a healthy dose of skepticism. I had heard media reports about its controversial theories and perpetuation of stereotypes. However, once I read it, I realized that Chua and Rubenfeld had done their homework and backed up their research (as all good scholars do) with other research. Additionally, they had been careful not to make sweeping claims about different groups. Instead, they were trying to tease out the patterns that make people successful and how those patterns show up in particular groups because of circumstances. In the introduction, they explain that their “topic feels racially charged,” but that the cultural traits described in the book can be empowering to anybody, regardless of their cultural background (p. 2).

the triple package cover 2

Each chapter includes a section on each of the different U. S. cultural groups the authors chose to highlight. These include Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, and Jews. The three traits they call “the triple package” are a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. A superiority complex “is antithetical to mainstream liberal thinking, which teaches us to refrain from judging any individual or any life to be better than another” (p. 9). Instead, cultural groups might see themselves as special or as God’s chosen people. Much of the discussion of this trait reminded me of American exceptionalism, which they address in the last chapter. We all tend to see our own communities as special or superior in one way or another. This is a trait that can spur achievement and success.

Rubenfeld and Chua call insecurity, the second trait, “discontent—an anxious uncertainty about your worth or place in society . . . a sense of being looked down on” (p. 9). They explain that immigrants often feel this way, as if they must prove themselves. It seems like insecurity and a superiority complex would be contradictory; however, the authors explain that “insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s most successful groups” and that “there’s a deep tension between insecurity and a superiority complex” (p. 10).

The third trait is impulse control, which is “the ability to resist temptation, especially the temptation to give up in the face of hardship or quit instead of persevering at a difficult task” (p. 10).

Impulse control is something that runs deep in my own religious culture. Members of the LDS Church obey the Word of Wisdom, which tells us to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea, and to eat healthy foods and in moderation. (I guess I strayed from this with my grilled cheese hamburger last week!) We learn from an early age to resist these “temptations.” Additionally, in my home growing up, I learned early on what it meant to persevere and stick with a task, even when I hated it. At my first piano competition, I played what we started calling “baby songs;” this embarrassing first showing led to increased practice times and learning to compete at higher levels within a few years. We weren’t going to be “shown up” and I wasn’t going to fail at playing the piano. Many kids would likely have given up, and their parents would have let them, but I was taught to work harder and be better.

Impulse control is also described as “inculcating habits of discipline from an early age” (p. 11). This is exemplified by my piano experiences, but I also remember planning in middle school for the Sterling Scholar competition, something I would compete in during my senior year of high school. We were always years ahead when it came to preparing for these very public competitions. My experiences were a product of the three traits. My mother wanted to prove to everybody that we were superior, and this was motivated by a very deep feeling of insecurity. Her grandparents were immigrants from Spain who worked as fruit pickers and in the canneries of California. My mom was the first in her family to graduate from college, and she made sure that her children would do the same. Rubenfeld and Chua call this “a goading chip on the shoulder, a need to prove oneself or be recognized” (p. 11). They note that “[c]ultivating impulse control in children—indeed in anyone, at any age—is a powerful lever of success” (p. 119). I’ve certainly seen the fruit and the consequences of my own impulse control grooming from a young age.

Now these traits might strike you as generalizations, especially when applied to certain groups and not to others. However, the authors assert that “Group generalizations turn into invidious stereotypes when they’re false, hateful, or assumed to be true of every group member. No group and no culture is monolithic. . . . within every culture there are competing subcultures” (p. 14). They reiterate this point throughout, which is what helped me to see past the controversy of the book and to just read it for informational purposes.

I did have fun reading about my own religious cultural group in the book. Chapter 1 begins with a list of fourteen major companies and the background that all of the CEOs or CFOs share, and it was their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From my perspective, the authors did a careful and unbiased job of representing my religious culture. I told them so after my appearance with them on the show, and they told me that one of their research assistants for the book, an Asian American woman, was a Mormon as well. They asked her to help them find some Mormons to help work on the book, as they wanted their information and research to be accurate and well represented, and she said something like, “I’m also Mormon.” They thought it was serendipitous and funny.

I was pleased to see a chapter on the “underside” of the triple package. It isn’t always a good thing to be raised with these traits, as I pointed out on the show and as I’ve written about here on my blog. For me, the underside has been personal. For others, it can be ethical. “At the extreme, the longing to rise can become desperate or monomaniacal, oblivious to law, ethics, or the harm caused to others” (p. 165). It can leave one with “a sense of not having lived your own life—of having spent your whole life striving for goals you didn’t even want” (p. 16). The triple package is ultimately about “not feeling good about yourself—or not feeling good enough” (emphasis in original, p. 151). A person with these traits might achieve a lot or become successful, but they may not be happy, fulfilled, content, or able to enjoy those achievements.

Overall, the authors promote these traits as a way for others (everybody of any background included) to achieve success. The book seems to be an effort to reveal the “secrets” of success. They tend to criticize current American values of self-esteem and individualism. Although they recognize the complex nature of a triple package, and of claiming that only certain groups may or may not possess it, they ultimately argue for it. They do not see anything wrong with working hard and achieving much. Neither do I, but I disagree with a type of parenting that belittles children and strips them of identity. While we might disagree on that, although Chua ultimately learned from her own children that her parenting style may have been too harsh, we can agree on this: “There is something deeply fulfilling, even thrilling, in doing almost anything difficult extremely well” (p. 224).

23 thoughts on “Superiority, Insecurity, and Impulse Control: The Triple Package

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  1. Congratulations on the Couric appearance! I find Chua odious but I have to read this book. I’m not from one of the exalted groups, but when I was a teen I looked at my surroundings and decided, “I’m better than this.” Superiority, insecurity and impulse got me off the stoop, educated, and one more rung up the ladder. My child will continue the ascent. Thanks for a great review.

  2. Your review was very thoughtful. I also read The Triple Package and thought it was well-researched. I feel it got a lot of unfair criticism in the media — probably from people who hadn’t actually read it but had some sort of misguided idea that it espouses racist ideas.

    1. Yes, I agree. That is exactly what happened. The media didn’t read it before they reported on it. That said, it made for a good surprise in reading it for me! I know the authors were a little upset about all of the mischaracterizations as well. They just kept saying, “People need to read it…” and the misconceptions will be cleared up.

  3. I find it so hard as a parent to know when to push and when to step back. I do want my kids to be successful in life, but I have always defined being successful as liking what you do and being happy. I think it would be hard to be happy if you are always feeling insecure, and like you should be doing better. It’s also way too easy to go in the other direction, making things too easy for your kids. I cringe at the thought of my children feeling entitled.
    Sounds like the kind of book that could lead to some deep thought and discussion!

    1. Yes, this one definitely could spur some conversation. I struggle with knowing when and how to push my kids as well. I want to reject a lot of what I experienced as a child, yet when I see other moms pushing their children more than I am, I wonder if I’ve stepped back too much. It is so hard to find the right balance! Let me know if you discover the “secret.” Of course, if you do that, you’ll have to write a bestselling book about it!

        1. I struggle with the same thing…especially when I feel so different from my “race group” (one of the ones profiled in this book)! My son invited his best friend to splash around in our inflatable pool together on Memorial Day but his friend had to stay indoors to work on his math 😉 My biggest concern is how to strike the right balance between impulse control and enjoyment of life. My mother was very strict with us on things like not ordering drinks at restaurants or doing ALL our work before any kind of break on weekends. I grew into an adult who feels perpetually guilty and who is unable to have fun (without guilt) so I need to find the right balance…

          1. Striking the right balance is probably different for everyone, but equally hard to find for everyone, too. Something else, for me (and probably many others), is that my husband and I have different opinions on this for ourselves and for our children. I’m more likely to want to live for the present and have a little fun. He’s more likely to want to plan for the future and teach the kids to do the same. So, on top of striking a balance for ourselves, there is also a balance to find within our marriage and parenting practices that we can both feel happy with. In fact, now that I’ve written this down, I am surprised anyone ever manages this! 🙂

          2. Wow. His math, huh? I used to do stuff like that, but I’ve relaxed a lot. I want my kids to be accomplished, but normal and happy. Is that a thing? 🙂

  4. I’m always pushing myself to work harder and do more. I haven’t had any parental pressure — I have a really supportive mother — but I feel like I sometimes put too much pressure on myself. I think self-esteem is important too! Yes, it feels great to be successful but it also feels great to be happy and material success (money, job title…etc) doesn’t always bring happiness.

    1. You’re right. What makes us happy isn’t always the type of success we see as most useful or important. Other types of success can make us happy as well. I put pressure on myself too, but I’m glad you have a supportive mother.

  5. Emily, good post and thoughtful as usual. I prefer to stay away from generalizations and if we must, we should look more to circumstances. People that grew up in the depression are more diligent savers because of what they faced. This would impact any ethnic group or race. People who immigrated to the US with nothing are much more were willing to do what ever it takes to succeed. This translates across multiple points of origin.

    I love Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective on this. In “Outliers” he notes success comes from four traits – being smart enough, working very hard, recognizing opportunity and seizing opportunity. He notes that European immigrants to New York between the wars, became an integral part of the “piece goods” business as that was what they were used to. So, while they were moderately successful, their children were hugely successful, as they saw their parents’ example. So, I would argue that your circumstances influence what you do and become.

    That and $2.09 will get you a cup of coffee. BTG

    1. Yes, I completely agree! I would say the authors agree with you too, although they have chosen to look at cultural backgrounds as a circumstance. Anyway, it is an interesting book. I like the connection you made to Gladwell. I haven’t read Outliers, but I’ve been thinking about it. I enjoyed his book Blink.

      1. Emily, thanks for the clarification. I have enjoyed all of Gladwell’s books, so let me know what you think of “Outliers” which is probably my favorite one. BTG

  6. Hmm, I’m still not convinced! It sounds like this book is the *start* of a conversation, and should be read with a grain of salt. The three traits mentioned in the book seem like a recipe for success, it’s true—but a very unhappy kind of success.

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