The “triple package,” as the authors anatomize it, is a cluster of traits that enables groups, individuals and even nations to get ahead materially. Specifically, the three traits are: (1) an innate sense of superiority co-existing simultaneously with (2) feelings of situational insecurity and powered by (3) impulse control so that gains made through concentration, hard work and thrift are not dissipated by transitory urges and appetites.
This “recipe for success” hardly comes as a surprise to most of us. In fact, it seems little more than an update of Ben Franklin’s bootstrapping wisdom. But what the authors add to what we’ve already been told or surmised are study-supported insights into how these traits emerge, change and disappear within populations and what the consequences are.
It bears noting that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are married to each other, both law professors at Yale and both offspring of ethnic groups that have flourished by activating the triple package. Chua, whose parent were impoverished Chinese immigrants, set talk shows and op-ed pages buzzing in 2011 with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she argued for a more rigorous and disciplined approach to educating children, offering her own kids as examples. Here, however, Chua and Rubenfeld forswear the first-person approach, electing instead to present more generalized evidence to undergird their conclusions.
In examining how Asians, Jews, Nigerians, Mormons, refugees from Cuba and other sub-groups have risen to the tops of their professions, it would have been easy to simply stereotype. But the authors point out repeatedly that triple-package virtues are not endemic to any particular race or religion nor embraced by all members. Rather, these qualities are inclined to blossom and wither according to external circumstances and tend to weaken or even vanish in succeeding generations. Moreover, they promote “success” only in a narrow, material sense. They don’t promise satisfaction or happiness.
The authors use their last chapter to argue that America has abandoned the triple package formula that once made it the envy of the world. And they blame a number of factors, from the lack of thrift to a mindless embracing of the self-esteem movement that teaches people, especially children, that they have a right to feel good about themselves without having achieved anything by their own efforts. “With those . . . elements [of insecurity and impulse control] gone,” they lament, “what remained was superiority and the desire to live in the present—a formula not for drive, grit, and innovation, but for instant gratification.” Time will tell if they’re right.