The Controversial Recipe for Success

formula for success
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Want to be successful?

I can tell you what you need.

But I’m warning you—you might not like what you hear.

According to an article in The New York Times, “What Drives Success?” written by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (in advance of the publication of their book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Define the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America), the recipe for success does not consist of fun exercises to practice in the morning, motivational speeches, or daily inspirational quotes.

Instead, it’s a combination of three personality traits that go against what many of us have been raised to believe is “good” for us.

What are they?

1. Insecurity

I know I’m going to get some resistance here. No one wants to feel insecure. Don’t we tell ourselves every day that we shouldn’t feel this way?

Especially here in America, we’re terribly concerned about having low self-esteem. The New York Times article points out that, “feelings of inadequacy are cause for concern or even therapy; parents deliberately instilling insecurity in their children is almost unthinkable. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s rising groups; and consciously or unconsciously, they tend to instill it in their children.”

Many of the most successful groups are those who have immigrated to the United States. Because immigrants are trying to make a new life in an unfamiliar place and are often made aware that they are unwelcome, it creates a feeling of insecurity. People are against you. You’ve got to hold onto what you can. The article quotes a common credo within immigrant households: “They can take away your home or business, but never your education, so study harder.”

In this instance, it’s not about focusing on your insecurities and getting down on yourself. Rather, it’s about accepting that there are things and people that will stand as barriers between you and where you want to go. Then, in the face of those obstacles, working that much harder to succeed.

One example that I can think of is Lena Dunham. She knew she wasn’t Hollywood’s “type”, that she would have to constantly work against an industry that had, for so many years, favored one look. That’s enough to make anyone feel insecure, and I know from many interviews that Lena has felt this way. But what makes her unique and successful in the film/television industry (not to mention being on the cover of Vogue) is the fact that she saw what she was up against, knew that it was going to be hard, but believed that she was talented enough to make it.

It’s easy to imagine Lena Dunham as the self-conscious girl who can’t believe the awards she’s won, but it’s a little harder to see that she also has a superiority complex.

A superiority complex? Lena Dunham? Am I insane?

Nope, I’m not insane (well not too insane). She does have a superiority complex. She believes she is supposed to be in Hollywood. She believes it’s her rightful place. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

That leads us to the next trait.

2. Group Superiority Complex

By no means am I asking you to consider yourself a god… though I will say that it has worked out quite nicely for Kanye.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld “know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous, yet every one of America’s most successful groups tells itself that it’s exceptional in a deep sense. Mormons believe they are ‘gods in embryo’ placed on earth to lead the world to salvation. Middle East experts and many Iranians explicitly refer to a Persian ‘superiority complex.’ At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the ‘chosen’ people.”

You have to believe you’re capable of success in order to be successful.

I can’t help but think of this scene from the Jamaican bobsledding movie, Cool Runnings. In the scene, one of the characters doubts his strength and abilities. A teammate who has no problem with confidence trains him to believe he is powerful by having him stare at his reflection and repeat, “I see pride. I see power. I see a badass mada who don’t take no crap off nobody.”

Thinking you’re “worthy” of something will allow you to pursue it with unthwarted dedication.

And that dedication may have to last for a long time. The boys from Cool Runnings, and many other sports teams, give up “in the moment” fun for better sports results.

Think about it. Even college athletes practice this sort of self-control. They can party just as much as the next student, but (at least with the athletes I know) no matter how enticing the party theme is, there’s no way they’ll come out the night before an important race or game. The fun night isn’t worth a bad performance the next day.

Which leads us to…

3. Impulse control

This goes against the often praised “live in the moment” attitude toward life. It requires you to limit your immediate happiness in hopes of a greater happiness later in life. Sometimes years and years later.

Susan Cain touches upon this concept in her book Quiet. She quotes a young Asian-American man named Mike who is explaining his introversion and choice to stay in more often than many other young Americans. He tells her, “If I have a choice between doing something for myself, like going out with my friends, or staying home and studying, I think of my parents. That gives me the strength to keep studying. My father tells me that his job is computer programming and my job is to study.”

The New York Times article references a study conducted on more than 5,000 second generation children conducted by sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut. The study showed that a large portion of the children felt “motivated to achieve” due to a feeling of “obligation to redeem their parents’ sacrifices.”

I consider myself a pretty introverted person, and even gave up a few $2 Tuesdays in college to study for Chemistry exams, but the thought of giving them up every week has me crying FOMO!

And as you can see, I did not major in STEM nor did I pursue a career on Wall Street. Though my dad was skeptical on the whole majoring in Creative Writing thing, I never felt like I was letting him down or tarnishing my family’s honor (I don’t think we have any of that) by not striving for a high-paying executive job. Ergo, I allowed myself the immediate joy of cheap drinks and late nights and am not anywhere near what this The New York Times article would refer to as successful.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld reference Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment. If you’ve never heard of it before, a marshmallow is placed before a child. The adult in the room then tells the child that he or she can eat the marshmallow right away, but if they wait a while, they can have a second marshmallow. The internal struggle some of these children face is both hilarious and tortuous. The result of the test? The children who wait are rewarded with a second treat while the children who don’t must be satisfied with only one.

Remember that post a while back about whether or not you suffer from “Instant Gratification-itis”? Here it is again.

Do you have the ability to think far enough into the future to weigh your options and foresee the present and future consequences of your actions?

I immediately think of the movie Bedazzled. Brendan Fraser’s character is an insecure fellow who truly believes that he is the best and only man for his crush, Frances O’Connor. There we have both insecurity AND a superiority complex. BUT he can’t wait for her to notice him and so makes a deal with the devil (Elizabeth Hurley) to make it happen right away. The result? A comical series of fails and no love whatsoever from the object of his affection.

In order for this magical success equation to work, we need to have all three traits working together.

Is it possible to manufacture these traits in yourself?

I’m not sure.

We live in a culture that praises “living in the moment” and we’re obsessed with overcoming insecurities (Upworthy is basically an entire site dedicated to it). These traits are not exactly characteristics we look for in our “American Sweethearts.”

Still, we have to pay attention to how these characteristics work together to motivate a person, or group of people, to succeed.

Homework time! What do you think? Should a person try to emulate these personality traits in order to be more successful? If so, how should they go about it? If not, tell us why don’t think so.

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