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The secret of success

The building blocks of success hold a cult-like fascination among the American public. It’s little surprise then that the publication of a controversial new book extolling the virtues of certain cultural upbringings has re-ignited debate here about what exactly this recipe is in the world’s largest economy.

Written in collaboration with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, “tiger mom” Amy Chua’s new book, The Triple Package asserts that certain immigrant groups in America work harder, expect more from their children and have cultural qualities that help them succeed. The triple package, as she puts it is:

• Possessing a superiority complex

• Inherent insecurity leading to an inbuilt desire to prove themselves

• An ability to resist immediate gratification and tolerate hardship.

Chua identifies Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Jewish immigrants as possessing this “triple package”.

The interesting question is how much this theory stands up in a family business context. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are examples to both support and disprove the theory. All of the cultural groups mentioned have produced successful multi-generational business families, but so too have a myriad of other cultural groups.

One fourth-generation member involved in an operational business commented to me that for every example that supports Chua’s theory, he could think of five families that were living multi-generational proof of the theory’s flaws. These families come from backgrounds as diverse as the demographics of the country.

Nor can the factors that make for success be reduced to simply three must-have qualities. Says the fourth-generation family member: the “us versus them” factor Chua suggests can actually be not only an inhibitor of success, but also divisive within a family unit. Success cannot be sustained over multiple generations fueled by a constant insecurity complex and the goal itself cannot be as basic and unfocussed as simply “succeeding”.

Yet other successful families agree with what Chua says. One individual I spoke to who runs his own family’s office and is married to a member of one of the groups Chua identified said to me: “I’m in awe of the work ethic and culture. I had no idea what I was getting into!”

He says Chua’s three points are on the button and beautifully distilled: “If you talk to my father-in-law he is convinced his cultural upbringing has the edge over others.”

He says the inherent insecurity which Chua mentions comes from immigrating to a foreign country, and is an essential reason why some cultures try so hard when they get there.

“Even in the third generation of success, the culture is there to tolerate hardship and resist immediate gratification. If you don’t believe me, ask my kids how they spend their weekends!”

But that appears to be an exception: most model minorities have gone soft by the third generation, Chua argues, having assimilated into the culture of their home country. This has an interesting parallel with the rule of thumb that states most family firms do not last beyond generation three. So how can next gens connect with the success of their grandparents? It is a question family business leaders will be left wishing The Triple Package could have answered. 

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