Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The two paths to success

The recent WSJ article on the supposedly Chinese style of parenting has generated a lot of interesting discussion. The most amusing commentary comes from The Last Psychiatrist, who also points out that Amy Chua, the "Chinese" mother, was actually born in America. There were also claims that the WSJ misrepresented her views, which may or may not be true, but is ultimately irrelevant since it's the ideas that are being debated.

Here's the part of the article that interests me:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something -- whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet -- he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

She has two main points here: 1) Learning is not fun and 2) It's important to make kids dependent on praise and admiration.

One of the problems I've faced throughout life is that I'm kind of lazy, or maybe I lack will power or discipline or something. Either way, it's very difficult for me to do anything that I don't feel like doing. If I try to force it, my energy disappears, and I hate life. Furthermore, not only were my parents not Chinese, but they had five kids, so there wasn't time for Amy Chua's style of parenting. I kind of had to figure it out on my own.

My strategy can be reduced to two rules: 1) Find a way to make it fun and 2) If that fails, find a way to do something else.

For example, I didn't really like school, and I especially hated homework, so I turned it into a game to see how little time and effort I could possibly waste on it while still getting "good enough" grades. I barely made it into the top 10% of my public high school class, so I probably wouldn't be accepted into whatever college Amy Chua has picked out for her kids, but I find that I really don't care. Instead, I went to a "good enough" college, slept through most of my classes, then got a "good enough" job after graduation. Meanwhile, I taught myself how to program and build all kinds of things, which to me was much more fun than school.

I'm not going to claim that my approach is superior to Amy Chua's, or that it will work for everyone, but I do think it provides an interesting contrast.

Amy Chua's approach is based on extrinsic motivation. Children must do exactly what they are told to do, and they must not be happy unless an external authority gives them praise and admiration. They must learn that their own internal motivations and judgement are worthless and not to be trusted. They are successful when an external authority, such as an Ivy League school, tells them that they are successful.

The extrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person you are told to be, and put all of your energy and drive into fitting that mold.

The approach I stumbled into is based on intrinsic motivation. To the greatest extent possible, do whatever is most fun, interesting, and personally rewarding (and not evil). External constraints, such as the need to go to school or make money are simply obstacles to be hacked. Be skeptical of external authorities, as they are often manipulating you for their own benefit, or for the benefit of the institutions they represent (often unknowingly, as they were already captured by the same systems which are attempted to ensnare you). Your identity comes from within -- external recognition such as degrees and awards are only of tactical importance -- don't allow them to define who you are.

The intrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person that you are, and put all of your energy and drive into being the best possible version of yourself.

Of course this leads to the question, "What is success?" Someone who spent his life working 80 hour weeks, living in hotels, and fighting his way up the corporate ladder to become VP of toilet paper marketing would probably consider himself more successful than a sandwich shop owner who spends his nights and weekends playing with his kids and working on hobby projects, but maybe the sandwich shop owner would be happier and healthier. Ultimately, it is up to each person to decide what success means to them, but I think it's important that everyone be mindful of the decision they are making. 

It's often said that people become entrepreneurs because they can't handle a regular job. Perhaps these people are simply too "defective" to fit into any mold, or maybe they lack the extrinsic motivation necessary to care about bosses, performance reviews, and other things which are so important for success in the corporate environment. However, what they do have is the creativity and natural sense of direction necessary to run their own business. I doubt that this is a coincidence.

As explained in this TED talk by Dan Pink, extrinsic motivation is a great way to get people to do boring and repetitive tasks, but it actually harms performance on more creative tasks. Creativity is a surprisingly fragile thing. It comes from deep inside, and external concerns (most especially, "What will people think?") seem to scare it away. But that's a topic for another time.

Of course, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation isn't a completely black and white distinction, and we probably can't survive entirely on one or the other (I aim for 90% intrinsic). I also doubt it's possible to simply "switch" from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. It's a skill like anything else. It takes time to find your internal voice, learn when to trust it, and stop fearing outside opinion (closely related: ego-fear).

Amy Chua's book was about parenting. Her style is based on extrinsic motivation. How do we raise successful, intrinsically motivated children? I'm sure someone will leave book recommendations in the comments -- Alfie Kohn comes to mind. However, I suspect that one of the most important factors is how we live our own lives. If we demonstrate that work and creativity can actually be fun and enjoyable, that at least sets an example. If we first solve the puzzle for ourselves, we have a better chance of helping others to find their answer.