Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.


So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Follow-up on Introvert-Extrovert

Introverts aren’t automatically shy; shy people aren’t always introverts. And there are shy extroverts, truly.

My articles on introversion-extraversion* seemed to have struck a nerve with many readers, particularly the introverts. Not a surprise, since by definition, introverts generally wouldn’t be compelled to speak up themselves. However, from various comments and conversations, I feel the need to clarify and distinguish between introversion and shyness. Of course, these two concepts overlap, but they are fundamentally different. In Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which has provided much of the material for my articles, she explains the differences, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Her distinction is further articulated by a neuroscientist, “Shyness is a behavior; it is being fearful in a situation. Whereas introversion is a motivation; it is how much you want and need to be in those social interactions.”


Many people seem to have equated their feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness in social situations during their teenage years with introversion. As teenagers, about to enter into the adult social world — wholly different from anything they have known – it’s natural to feel uncomfortable interacting with adults. To further complicate the teens’ internal struggle for their nascent identity, the social codes of peers can also make them feel like outcasts, sometimes even among those “popular” ones. All this can overlap with true introversion. However, ultimately, it’s the feeling of joy in a solitary environment that partly defines introversion. If a teen feels that she has to adapt to solitude, that alone isn’t sufficient to establish that she must be an introvert.

Our struggles through our teen years sometimes can lead us to label ourselves erroneously. For the longest time, I would tell people that I have a very bad temper. It wasn’t till I was in my 30s, working on my PhD, when a fellow graduate student – a good friend – looked at me with exasperation in his voice, and asked, “Where in the world did you get that idea about yourself?” I paused, and answered, “My family.” From that “aha” moment, I have never since allowed that image to define myself.

My point is that there are always many nuances behind social concepts, labels, or principles.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School, demystifies “5 Myths About Introverts And Extroverts.” They are:

  1. “Extroverts are better salespeople than introverts
  2. Extroverts are better networkers than introverts
  3. Extroverts are better leaders than introverts
  4. Introverts are plagued by public speaking anxiety
  5. Extroverts get energy from social interaction, whereas introverts get energy from privately reflecting on their thoughts and feelings.”

All but one of Grant’s explanations resonates with me; it’s the last one and I’ll come to it later.

Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

I have written about ambiverts being the best salespeople, and how the quieter and more understated level-5 leaders are more effective than charismatic or flamboyant ones; therefore, I need little convincing to accept that introverts can be quite effective in any social situations when they choose to. An introvert’s network may not be as extensive as an extrovert’s – and even this is debatable — yet the network offers diversity and quality connections, which are necessary for effective networking.

Feeling anxious in public speaking is more related to shyness than to introversion-extraversion. Susan Cain offers the example of Barbara Streisand as a shy extrovert and Bill Gates and a calm (or, non-shy) introvert. We can’t always tell the difference from appearances. A shy person may not feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting; an introvert simply may not feel compelled to speak in a meeting. Similar behaviors, but from different sources of being. I learned that the recently deceased David Bowie, whose groundbreaking stage performance was the equal part of his success as a rock star, for the longest time abhorred going on stage. His preference was to do the design and song writing but have someone else sing and perform. Who’d have thought?! Of course, there are countless examples of performers who have used performance to overcome their shyness.

The Quiet author, Susan Cain herself is both an introvert and a shy person, but you wouldn’t know from her TED talk – one of the top five most viewed. To overcome her anxiety for the TED talk, she employed a performance coach ahead of her scheduled talk, to teach her how to control her breathing, and critique her numerous trial runs. Now she’s one of the most engaged public speakers, traveling all over the world. And each presentation has helped her desensitize her fear and make her more at ease. So, one can overcome anxiety but one does not need to overcome and compensate one’s introversion.

The myth that I struggle with is the one where introverts recharge by being alone while extroverts rely on social interactions. What Grant points out is that we are all social beings, and introverts can gain energy from social interactions as well. Grant elaborates further:

  • “Introverts spend about the same amount of time with other people as extroverts, and enjoy it just as much.
  • When people are randomly assigned to act extroverted or introverted, extroverts and introverts alike experience greater energy when they talk more.
  • Extroverts report the most energy when they’re being talkative and assertive–but so do introverts.”
It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Social beings need social interactions. True enough, then, what distinguish between introverts and extroverts? It’s the sensitivity to stimulation. So, all things being equal, introverts would get exhausted more quickly than extroverts in social interactions. Well…that negates all the points listed above. No? Personally, I question the application of the premise that “we are all social beings; we all fundamentally need to belong.” While the premise may be valid as a general principle, it does not necessarily hold for everyone, nor to the same extent.

Ultimately, regardless of one’s “types”– everyone possesses several — we aim to be at peace with ourselves.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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* According to Scott Barry Kaufman, “extrAversion” is more appropriate than “extrOversion” and accurate, most likely what Carl Jung would have intended. In principle, I probably should have used extravert, but that usage is almost non-existent, and so I will continue using extrovert. Academics!

Blending Cultural Spices

I certainly need an antidote to my recent posts, which were marked by too much negativity. And since I haven’t come across anything terribly exciting in my usual haunts, I’ll share a personal story.

Sometime after I received my PhD, I was invited by Simmons College to give a talk on diversity, detailed topic to be my own design. I decided to focus on “what it’s like to be a female immigrant in this country.” The organizer was concerned that this seemed a well-trodden topic, until I gave them my main points, whereupon they welcomed this different perspective. After all, it was about diversity, which to me is always about thought worlds.images

The talk was scheduled for early evening. I arrived early afternoon. After checking out the seminar room and talking with my hosts, I had plenty of time to spare. I decided to treat myself to a trip to the Art Museum. Armed with information for a taxi, I leisurely went through the museum. When I was ready to head back to the college and called the taxi company, I was told that given the traffic hour, they couldn’t predict when I might get a taxi…probably more than ½ hour. The public transit was jam packed, and I wasn’t sure which stop I’d have to get off. I started walking and asked at least a handful of people for directions. After the fourth response being the same “It’s a long walk,” I was about to kick someone. Even though I wasn’t in heels, I was wearing dressy shoes and a long march was not feasible.

While frantically thinking of other alternatives, I left messages left and right with the College that I might be late (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous).

Out of sheer desperation, I approached a standing car on the opposite of the museum, with a female driver, with a plea, “I am a guest speaker at Simmons College, but I am stranded here without any means to reach the campus in time. Would you mind giving me a ride, and I’ll compensate you?” The woman was clearly taken aback and strongly declined. I even showed her the content of my tote bag to assure her my lack of violent means. However, in a US metropolitan city, I understood her extreme reluctance, so I began to retreat. Just as I stepped back, she began to move her belongings on the passenger seat to the back. And the ice broke; I could have kissed her hand.

Here were the main points of my seminar:

  1. Chinese are taught to not stick out like a sore thumb. Be modest, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Yet, being a minority in this country and in most professional workplaces (at least then), most Chinese individuals would automatically be a “sore thumb,” commanding attention.
  2. Chinese culture emphasizes the collective. In fact, our language is telling. 人, ren, means people. We don’t have a direct word for “individual.” Instead, we add the “unit of one” in front of 人,個人, ge ren, to convey the notion of “individual.” This is key to understanding the cultural psyche. Every individual is defined by his/her networks of family, relations, and friends; without these networks, the person is to be pitied at best, distrusted or rejected at worst.
  3. What this individual-network nexus means is that Chinese rely on networks for just about everything, especially for solving problems, overcoming dilemmas or obstacles, or resolving conflicts. Cold calls are only for desperate persons.

In lieu of my seminar topic and thesis, you can see the irony of my side trip in Boston. I made a grand entrance to the seminar, 5 minutes late. I was the speaker and already by default the center of attention, but that entrance (with people worrying about my safety) totally nullified my point #1. I had no network to call for help while circling around the Art Museum. And finally, I made a cold call; I certainly was desperate. To cap it all, the lovely woman who gave me a ride was not American-born; she came from Dominican Republic.

My audience was impeccably kind and warmly received my talk. Many in the audience were either Chinese immigrants or American born Chinese. And several came up to me, after the talk, to thank me for verbalizing their feelings.images-1

Truth be told, I was never a typical Chinese even when I was in my birthplace, Taiwan. I just happened to manage to stick out like a thumb, although without being sore, most of the time. My talk actually made me more aware of the beauty of being an immigrant in this country: I can “choose” elements from different cultures to create who I am. I’ve always thought that America’s “melting pot” is not so much about melting various cultures into homogeneity. Rather, it is more about letting every individual “meld” various cultures within herself/himself. In such a context, the concept of “culture” transcends boundaries, be they national, professional, organizational or almost anything else you can think of. Spices in life, or food, make for interesting taste. Don’t you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Spend On A Dress Or A Dresser? — A story of near-sighted and far-sighted

A decidedly unfashionable computer mouse prototype.

A decidedly unfashionable computer mouse prototype.

One man’s ego and antics are finally catching up with him and causing his own company to struggle and decline in a “complicated” industry. Another man’s strong will and principles are keeping his company afloat in a declining yet highly competitive industry.

It took more than a decade for the board of directors to take note of Dov Charney’s (founder and former CEO of American Apparel) misbehavior and mismanagement. In contrast, John Bassett III has spent more than a decade fighting for his company, Vaughan-Bassett Furniture, his workers, and his principles, and rallying a whole industry to take on the country of China. Alas, the jury is still out on the fate of Vaughan-Bassett’s furniture company. Vaughan-Bassett is a separate entity from the original Bassett furniture company, which has closed many factories and laid off thousands of employees, and is now only a shadow of itself in its glorious early days. The original company is publicly owned and has to answer to shareholders, while Vaughan-Bassett employs 700+ people and is privately held.

The US furniture-making industry has been declining since the beginning of globalization. We still need furniture, but few are willing to pay higher prices for American-made products; the price difference between imported and domestic furniture may be hundreds of dollars and more per item.   The price difference between imported and domestic items in the fashion industry is much less than in the furniture industry. Thus it is much tougher for owners or CEOs in the furniture industry to compete against imports than it is for the fashion industry. Both American Apparel and Vaughan-Bassett have been using strictly American produced materials, and both seem to care for their employees. Yet…

Mr. John Bassett III fought and won an unprecedented anti-dumping action against China for underpricing furniture. To file this complaint, he had to organize more than 51% of the US industry players — who were all being squeezed to narrow or nonexistent profit margins by competition from cheap imports — to speak with one voice and to share legal fees. In order to prove that China was stealing Vaughan-Bassett furniture designs and practicing dumping with state sponsorship, Mr. Bassett III and his son themselves did some undercover work in China. (He first sent his son on the mission to discover those factories responsible for the dumping, and his son wasn’t to return till he accomplished the mission. Then, Mr. Bassett himself went to China and had a “chilling” meeting with the culprit.) When the US furniture industry finally won the case, Vaughan-Bassett was awarded $46 million of which Mr. Bassett used the majority to provide workers with modern tools and resurrect an empty factory. The original Bassett company received $17.5 million dollars and used most of it to “buttress the retail expansion.”

For some background stories, you can find them here, here, and here. For interested readers, Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” was just released.

Switching to a different industry, and thanking Mr. Charney for generating controversial ads, juicy stories, and prime examples of “how not to run a big and growing company.” I have to admit that I only recently learned about the name “Dov Charney” from the New York Times article by Joe Norcera on Mr. Charney and his company. However, American Apparel’s board of directors has no such excuse; they have been intimately familiar with Mr. Charney’s bad-boy conduct. There have been several sexual harassment lawsuits against Mr. Charney, some of which were bogus but with two ending in out-of-court settlements. Charney has been known to personally choose his own employees for ads, and some were quite sexually charged. The images might offend some people, but more importantly, in such an atmosphere, how can we “expect the office to be run like a convent,” as Norcera aptly points out. Equally important is Mr. Charney’s horrible record of management. Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Charney might have been talented in the startup phase; however, he has demonstrated neither knowledge nor talent, and definitely no humility, in managing a maturing company. Since American Apparel went public in 2007, Charney has gone through several “talented” executives. (Personally, I can’t believe all these executives were truly talented, but in the absence of long tenure, it’s easier to attribute talent to them.) As Norcera documents, “[Charney] told The Wall Street Journal that the man he hired [as the chief financial officer] was a ‘complete loser.’ Which of course caused the man to quit.”

Computer mouse prototype 2, still no sense of fashion.

Computer mouse prototype 2, still no sense of fashion.

Further, Mr. Charney committed the classic error of many entrepreneurs, expanding too fast. A 2009 immigration audit lead to the company’s laying off half of its factory work force, and resulted in “delayed shipment, and an expensive hiring and training program.” The company’s stock has been steadily declining since then. However, it still took the board till June of this year before finally forcing out Mr. Charney. Of course, the fight isn’t over.

The lesson I draw – and I am sure there are other lessons – is that, be they entrepreneurs or CEOs, manager-leaders need a healthy network of colleagues, associates, and friends to get things done, to grow, or to do anything. By “healthy” network I mean not just the size of the network but also the quality, especially in the diversity of thinking. The board of directors of American Apparel is not unlike most other boards, comprising mostly people who side with the CEO, people of like-mindedness. While Mr. Bassett sounds like a curmudgeon, or a benevolent despot, he has been more than willing to ask for help when he needs to, as in the anti-dumping case. Both Charney and Bassett III love the enterprises they built, but they took different paths to grow their businesses. It’ll be interesting to see which enterprise has more sustaining power.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Counter Culture, Counter Intuition: Sometimes it makes sense


One of the cases in my dissertation study offers two important lessons, or principles: 1. the weakness of strong ties, and 2. the competitive advantage of being the first deviant. “First move advantage” is easy to understand, but conceiving that “first” isn’t so easy. Some people undertake an unconventional move out of desperation, and many who strategically create something new bear the “high risks” to hopefully gain that “high reward.” But “first move advantage” is not guaranteed; we award the “advantage” label in retrospective rationalization of those attempts which succeed.

The particular case in my study was about how a single Chinese mother, Yien, who revamped her ordinary little eatery in a major metropolitan Chinatown to become one of the best cafes, not just in the Chinatown but in the city. Yien’s endeavors did not start with a clear vision, strategic planning, methodical plotting, or neat execution. She had ideas that gradually unfolded as she learned from experience. Along the way, there were strong forces in her Chinese family and social network that made her life more difficult rather than being helpful.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

Yien was compelled to turn around her restaurant, which was a hole in a wall on the edge of this city’s Chinatown. It could seat about 40 people, and served three meals a day with equal emphasis on coffee between mealtimes. A few years before I stumbled upon her café, she went through a divorce, and her then husband was the only cook. The end result of her divorce was that she gained the custody of her three young children, but lost her cook. What’s more (or, rather, less), her ex-husband couldn’t provide much alimony. The restaurant at that point was a typical decent Chinatown restaurant. On her own, Yien had to do something dramatic to increase her income. Her history degree from a Taiwan university was not likely to be of much help and her English was just adequate.

First, Yien had to secure a chef, a perennial headache for all restaurant owners, but particularly thorny in Chinatown owing to fierce competition. Once she managed to hire a good chef, she had turning-point in her thinking. She said, “When I looked around at the Chinatown restaurants, all menus looked alike, busy and confusing, with more than 100 dishes to offer! I decided that I wanted to simplify the menu, make fewer but good dishes, and offer something unique. I wanted to make the coffee stand out. I also decided to replace all the ugly serving ware.”

chow mifenShe bought a coffee system from Taiwan that’s based on an elaborate siphon system. She invested in Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and exquisite teas for the new menu. The replacement serving ware was simple but elegant, and all teas and coffees were served with a bite-size sweet, all presented on a personal-size tray. The food menu combined Taiwanese and mainstay Chinese dishes (such as dumplings), with some elements of Japanese flavoring and presentation.

Most importantly, she doubled her prices. I dimly remember that the Blue Mountain coffee was $7 a cup. 90% of her Chinese customers disappeared. However, her American customer base grew and younger Chinese became some of her regulars.

For a few years, all her three children helped in the café, but as they grew up and moved on, Yien had to find alternatives for help. In the fiercely competitive Chinatown environment, her counter-cultural practice was initially the target of tongue wagging, scorn, sabotage, and eventually, envy. Some people mistook her quiet and reserved mien as weakness. While Yien might not speak much about her strong feelings, she was determined and steadfast (or, stubborn).

My dissertation topic focuses on networking, and Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” provided a foundation for my research approach. As his title implies, we gain considerable insight and assistance, whether for job hunting or innovation work, from the weak network ties that connect us to others who might not have otherwise been available. When we hang out with similar others – and the majority of us do all the time – we don’t easily get many wildly different ideas and perspectives. Those in our network whose shoulders we only tap occasionally, the weak ties, have vastly different networks than our own. And sometimes, these “weak ties” connect us to the right people at the right time and at the right place for the “ah Ha!” breakthrough.

Most Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs, by default, have to rely on their relatives and best friends to establish their starting businesses. And often, they stay on the same track for decades, copying each other’s business practices. Yien broke away from that tradition, paid a social price in the Chinese community circle, but gained respect elsewhere. However, it was particularly disheartening for me to learn the negative impact on her business and social life inflicted by some family members and other Chinese. Her own mother’s insatiable material demands alone caused years of financial struggle for Yien. Her children did not always appreciate the challenges she faced. After she established the reputation for her café, and managed to stabilize her financial situation with the price increase, many Chinese did come around to welcome her back into their circle, albeit often with hidden agenda.

jiao zi

Yien would be the first to admit that when she began on her new direction, she had no crystal ball to assure herself of the success of this direction. I contend that not only is it difficult to go against the prevailing trends, but also it is especially grueling to proceed counter to the strong bonds in the Chinese community and culture. I considered Yien, then, and still now, to be enormously courageous. Yet, she’d correct me, “I didn’t have much choice. I just had to close my eyes and keep plowing on. It’s not courage; it’s desperation.” Don’t get me wrong; Yien has many flaws, some almost ruinous. I had my “quiet quarrels” with some of her ways (within my internal dialogue; after all, I was doing research), but she taught me many valuable lessons. Besides, were it not for Yien, I might still be searching for that one more Chinese for my study.

Today’s entry begins my journey on “innovation and creativity” that may take the next few weeks.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Viscerally Annoying, Cerebrally Dissatisfying – my reaction to “The Triple Package,” part II

The authors of “The Triple Package” have been on the talk circuit, as part of the heavy marketing and promotional strategy for their book.  As a result, there is no shortage of reviews and critiques from the main street media.  Most of the sentiment from the “pundits” ranges from mixed to unfavorable; a good portion of “regular” readers think the authors are “brave” to say the unsay-able and resonate with their thesis.  A few critics downright accuse Chua and Rubenfeld of racism.

To recap:  “Triple package” refers to the three key factors that propel certain minority groups to be more successful than the rest in their host country.  These factors include: superiority, insecurity, and impulse control.

My triple package of flowers: Calla lily.

My triple package of flowers: Calla lily.

After absorbing a wide range of readers’ and critics’ perspectives, I still feel torn about this book.  I welcome “bold” opinions, or studies that provide counter-conventional ideas.  However, these ideas still need to be based on facts and evidence.  This is what I find most troublesome regarding “The Triple Package” (henceforth referred to as “3 pkg”).  As I mentioned in the previous post, the authors provide plenty of economic data, but all statistical data are subject to interpretation.  It wasn’t until I ran across the most convincing critique, penned by a law professor at USC and published in, that I found my anchor.  Daria Roithmayr not only provides a more balanced analysis but also offers alternative and grounded explanations to Chua and Rubenfeld’s arguments.  Roithmayr’s essay helps me solidify the various conflicting emotions and thoughts swirling in my head after reading “3 pkg.”

First of all, I never remarked that “3 pkg” is a “trade book for trade press” till reading Roithmayr’s article.  In other words, “3 pkg” intended audience is the general public.  I don’t quarrel with that, but this particular book lacks rigor in presentation, especially in terms of theoretical foundation and methodology, the 80+ pages of footnotes not withstanding.  Granted that most readers would just bypass the boring academic jargon – who can blame them? — the authors could have easily provided academic rigor in appendices for those of us who are curious.

2nd element: hibiscus

2nd element: hibiscus

Several critics have also noticed the weakness of methodology.  Most of the critiques, though, tend to use anecdotal stories to refute Chua and Rubenfeld’s thesis.  All of the critics’ stories have valid points, and perhaps Chua and Rubenfeld should have paid more attention to similar exceptions.  Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is as weak as what “3 pkg” has to offer.

According to Daria Roithmayr, the major, and glaring, flaw of “3 pkg” thesis is its dismissal of the role of history.  Most of the “successful” immigrant and minority groups have “first wave” advantage.  For instance, the first wave of Cuban exiles were from the educated elite class. The first wave of Mormons acquired land (through their wealth) and political power to establish a stronghold in Utah. While the early Chinese immigrants were of laborer status, most of the next wave came to pursue higher education.  The point is that these “waves” are usually bounded by certain characteristics.  Most of the south Asian Indians came to this country, either to pursue advanced degrees or for professional work.  As has been pointed out, if the Mexican government had forced out most of their educated class, the Mexican immigrants in this country might have a very different status.

In other words, if “3 pkg” accurately describes causal factors determining the success of the chosen successful immigrant groups, it should apply to them regardless of the time they came to the States.  History, or context, matters.

Further, there is another important factor, networking, that underlies much of the immigrants’ push for advancement.  Immigrants’ networks provide valuable information, opportunities, loans that might not have otherwise been available, and other large and small assistance and resources.  The authors address this aspect only in passing.

In addition to some of these major glaring holes in the “3 pkg,” the authors often cherry pick examples to support their overall arguments.  They are savvy enough to provide some counter arguments to their claim; they even devote a whole chapter to “the underbelly of the triple package.”  For instance, a group that latches onto its “superiority” too strongly invites backlash.  The perpetual emphasis on material gain, which is based on insecurity, leads to greed.  They use Bernie Madoff as an example.  Really?  That would apply to all the Wall Street sharks, wouldn’t it? Yet, did these “greedy” people all start with “3 pkg?”

In the end, the most troublesome aspects of “3 pkgs” are two fold: one concerning the content and the other the authors.  The content strongly implies causality; that it is because of the “3 pkg” that certain minority groups have succeeded.  One of the thorniest aspects in social science is the issue of causality; it is rare when scholars ascertain causality, certainly not without numerous studies and over a long period of time.  So, for these two authors to make such a claim – without even a strong methodology — reveals their lack of humility.

3rd: interesting even if I forgot its name.

3rd: interesting even if I forgot its name.

Having said all this, I think our society can and should have open and honest discussions about whether the United States is still a leader in creativity, innovation, and economic growth.  We need to critically examine our systems, in education, social mobility, career opportunities, R&D, etc.  If we keep screaming that “we are exceptional,” without doing anything to prove or bolster that statement, then we are doomed to be delusional.  Angela Duckworth (a psychologist and a 2013MacArther Fellow), who researches and coins the term, “grit” – resilience, determination, persistence — shows a promising direction.  Duckworth’s work is what we need to move our conversations forward.  While Chua and Rubenfeld’s work maybe stirring, and is certainly provocative, it is not, however, generative nor contributory.  Best-selling books are not necessarily great works; just as often, profound, thoughtful and well-researched books aren’t usually the best sellers.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Some Sobering Points Regarding “Wildly Successful People”

I often get impatient with my own social scientist’s penchant for “it all depends…”  But seriously, how do you define “success” in your profession?  And is that definition truly applicable to you yourself?  Does this definition change with times?

My kind of success.

My kind of success.

One of the articles on “LinkedIn,” yet another social network, titled The 5 Traits of Wildly Successful People” caught my attention.  The author starts with the premise that hard work alone is insufficient to lead to success.  From his research on some “wildly successful people,” he identifies five traits (my interpretations in parentheses):

1.  Chase the School Bus (Determination).

Sugar Ray Leonard did not ride the school bus with his siblings; he ran after it.

2.  Stray from the Pack (Deviate from the norm).

By following trends, a business is likely to just coast along at the survival level.  So, Tim Ferriss, owner of an online supplier of sport nutrition products, demanded prepayment for shipments instead of following the industry practice of receiving payment 12 months after shipment.

3.  Create Corkboards (Assemble Facts/Data).

Peter Guber, former CEO of Sony, started his career by paying attention to the documented facts of industry talent instead of relying on word of mouth and connections.  He created corkboards detailing factual data on talents to be considered, in his office.

4.  Get on “Qi Time” (Squeezing More Time out of 24 hours).

Mr. Qi Lu, of Microsoft, was dismayed with “wasting” time on sleep.  He wanted more time to read and learn.  Mastering qi gong, a technique combining breathing exercises and meditation to regulate one’s body, Mr. Lu trained his body to sleep only four hours a day.

5.  Play the People Game (Networking).

Steven Spielberg placed a premium on cultivating relationships with directors and stars in Hollywood…since his college days beginning at 19.  He arranged his class schedule around his meeting times with movers and shakers.

By themselves, each of these traits has some merit, except #4 which I will come to later.  However, just simply following any or even all of them doesn’t automatically lead to success. I think it is axiomatic to say that by not doing/acquiring any of these traits, one is certain to not succeed.  But ultimately, the key question is:  How, and when, do I know that I am not on a fool’s errand?  In other words, I can strongly believe in my goal and I can pursue it doggedly for years, but at what point does it become a quixotic pursuit?  “Taking risks” does not mean doing something headlong without care; it still requires forethought.

Firey and wild sky.

Firey and wild sky.

As for breaking the norms, I am all for the general principle.  However, there is an art to being a deviant:  you can’t be too deviant. Dan Pallota, former CEO of TeamWorks, achieved wild success in raising an unprecedented amount of money for charity causes by breaking norms, and he got burned eventually.

Networking is one of the crucial traits in any entrepreneurial undertaking, but not necessarily for all professions.  Besides, are introverts doomed to be left out of the “wildly successful” league?  Furthermore, Mr. Spielberg lived in a different era and had a different social background.  I am sure these days if any Joe or Mary approaches a big-name director or movie star to do lunch (which was one of Mr. Spielberg’s aims), s/he is either blocked by the gorilla guards or hauled off for suspicious behavior.

As for Mr. Lu’s Qi Gongi, literally, more power to him.  However, I consider his practice a bit extreme and his view myopic.  To consider sleep a waste of time?  And he’s from the culture that introduced us to Ying-Yang dynamics!  Sleep and rest recharge us to make our wakeful activities more effective.  Yes, if he can get away with 4 hours of sleep a night, good for him.  But to regard sleep time as a waste? Yes, yes, sometimes, we wish we could have more wakeful hours, but not on an everyday basis, nor on a long-term basis.

Listicles tend to make me batty.  Isolated traits may inform us, but none of these traits is definitive.  I prefer a different take on striving for accomplishment (same as “success?”):  “When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”  — from psychologist, Anders Ericsson, Florida State University.

What are some of your examples of “wildly successful people?”  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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