What Drives You?

by Nan

When I was a young teenager, my mother told me that she thought my eyebrows were my best feature. I wasn’t very old, but even I knew that the poets were never going to write odes to a woman’s eyebrows. Still, in the years since I have made observation of others’ eyebrows and have come to no satisfactory conclusion regarding the exceptionality of my own. I know that when my friends have gone through phases of tweezing, clipping, waxing, etc., I haven’t done a thing to mine, for fear of losing something special they might perhaps add to my face as per my mother’s extremely weird compliment.

Ever since then, whenever I receive one of those compliments that isn’t really a compliment, I pause for a moment and think about eyebrows. One such moment occurred some weeks back when I was reading a short magazine article [1]. It was a brief interview given by Sophia Chua-Rubenfield, a Harvard student who is marginally famous for being the daughter of the Tiger Mom.

She keeps a blog called “New Tiger in Town” where she attempts to balance what people assume about her (based on her mother’s memoir) with who she really is. Chua-Rubenfield and the interviewer were discussing her mother’s new book: an equally controversial accompaniment to the first in which she discusses why some minority groups in the US outperform others.

The author writes, “According to her parents’ book, Jews and the Chinese are two American minorities that are enjoying ‘disproportionate success’—others include Mormons and Igbo Nigerians—because they exhibit three traits: insecurity, impulse control and a superiority complex.”

Wow. Just wow.

There is so much to process there, just as there was when I spent years coming to terms with eyebrows-as-my-best feature. First of all, it is gratifying as an LDS person to be promoted in the past generation or so from outlying-cult to minority-cultural-group. There has been increased understanding in recent years that Latter-day Saints, collectively, are easier to fathom in the context of being culturally separate and not merely being a religion.

But let’s get past that great leap forward to the three traits that Tiger Mom refers to as “The Triple Package” (also the book’s title). The Tiger Cub succinctly describes them, “You need to have this chip on your shoulder to get ahead, but you also need to have no doubt that you can do it.”

In recent weeks I’ve asked myself many, many times if this describes me, my culture, or the way I am parenting, though I would not call myself a Tiger Mom. I share my perspective below, demonstrating both how I agree with Ms. Chua, but how these same cultural traits can actually be detrimental if not tempered with gospel principles.

Insecurity: There are times in my life when I have felt driven to succeed because I didn’t want to see myself as not being good enough, and I especially didn’t want others to see me as not good enough. I have felt, from time to time, an intense desire to compete, not just with myself but with others, too. The broader question is, “To what do I attribute my insecurity?” Is it an inherent personality thing or is this a systemic cultural problem? We emphasize a standard of continually striving for perfection even as we remind ourselves how often we fall short. Does our focus need to shift from self-reliance to grace, or at least should we present a paradigm that better balances these two important principles?

Impulse Control: The same magazine, some years ago, told of a study in which children who were able to delay the gratification of eating a treat (a marshmallow) later experienced much more life success than those who were not able to wait [2]. The study was cited in a 2010 talk by President Uchtdorf who used it as a springboard for talking about patience [3]. Many of our uniquely understood commandments are aimed at sacrificing immediate gratification for something down the road—a prohibition on sexual relationships before marriage, taboo substances that provide temporary highs, tithing that engenders frugality, etc. What Chua calls “impulse control” we might just as easily see as subjecting the flesh to the spirit. As I have gone back to work this year, I have had to be very careful that my true long term goals have stayed foremost in my mind: as much as I desire to be very successful in my work, my greater desire is to have a happy family. Sometimes the work must be put away so that my children and husband might be the priority instead. Our most important work isn’t always work. Perhaps we need to get better at controlling the impulse to be perpetually busy.

Superiority Complex: This might be the one that is truly culturally ingrained. When a child is raised with the twin narratives of being the offspring of deity and a member of the “only true” Church, it can be easy to mistake this knowledge as exclusive privilege rather than as a lifetime of commitment and service. How can we better balance a true understanding of our nature while fostering humility at the same time?

Though success is both individually defined and individually striven for, I think that Chua is right in pointing out that our cultural context powerfully shapes who we become. Does her “triple package” analysis resonate in any way with you? And whether it does or not, what cultural attributes do we have as LDS people that either encourage or even inhibit self-actualization, particularly for women?

 

[1] Marantz, Andrew. “The Tiger Cub Speaks,” The New Yorker. February 10, 2014.

[2] Lehrer, Jonah. “Don’t!” The New Yorker. May 18, 2009.

[3] Uchtdorf, Dieter. “Continue in Patience.” Ensign. May 2010.

 

 

 

6 Comments on “What Drives You?

  1. I loved your post. I will have to think about your question for a few days. But I always wonder why people think that Mormons are so successful when every study I have seen puts us in the middle of America, and bellow other religious communities. I am not sure how these stats are collected and if they take into account women who do not work, but I always wonder about that. Do you know if there is any good data that shows mormons across the US are high achievers. I know Mitt Romney got a lot of press and there were books about the Mormon effect, but I just dont see it.

    I live outside the US and I think the church inhibits a lot of people here because it does not understand the class system or the education system.

    As to me personally I felt that the church taught me to give everything up for my husband and kids, at a very high personal cost.

  2. Wow, what an awesome post! I think I definitely have pieces of this, but I don’t necessarily ascribe them to my LDS upbringing. But, perhaps I need to revisit my opinions; lots to think about.

    (Also? My Mom told me that my best characteristic was a symmetrical face…which, for the record, is about as helpful as having good eyebrows.)

    xox

  3. This is a thought provoking entry that I really appreciate. Like Jessica, I will also have to think about it for a few days. First I do resonate with insecurity…but I’m not sure how much of that is cultural vs my own family dynamics vs being a female vs my own stuff. I do think it’d be helpful to have the women leaders in our church be less perfect. I mean, I KNOW they aren’t perfect but they sure hide it well! How about having some improv in their talks at General Conference? Or at least vary the intonation of their voices! But perhaps that is a separate rant.

    I agree with your points about impulse control. I think a lot of the gospel is about self-mastery (word of wisdom, fasting, tithing, waiting till marriage for sex etc). So I think that feels like a true statement.

    Regarding superiority complex, I also resonate with that. I felt growing up not that I was SUPERIOR but that I had a duty, being given something that others didn’t have, to SHARE that incredible gift and truth with others. But I DO hear, what I perceive, as harmful messages perpetuating in primary about our children learning that their non-LDS friends aren’t going to heaven like they are. I think explained THAT way, it does breed a superiority complex and creates harmful biases and judgments about others of different faiths!

    Thanks for giving me things to think about!

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one who will need to think on this one!

    In response to your final question, in my opinion, our culture/programs give youth and young adults opportunities to learn a lot of skills that many people don’t learn until their thirties (or older).

    The ones from my personal experience that stand out the most are that I learned to set goals, to lead, and to speak in public from a very young age. These are not only skills that will help us to build the kingdom, but that are transferable to our professions and to our service in the community.

    I see a lot of people in the workforce who are just learning to set goals or who are speaking in public for the first time in their life. I feel like growing up as an active member of the Church gave me an advantage that I didn’t appreciate until I was much older.

  5. Jen – I know a lot of debate coaches who kept track of the kids from Mormon families, to catch them before they got caught up in too many other things. You just can’t train good speakers in a high school class the way the church does between kindergarten and 9th grade. 😉

    I certainly understood that a lot of the other “naturals” in impromptu and extemporaneous speaking, were other Mormons, although I was the only Mormon *girl* with a state ranking. Thinking back, I think part of why I was such a novelty at the time was because there were only three girls in the top 10, although 6 of us were Mormon. (This was in Oregon. Not sure what current numbers are but we hovered at just under 20% of the state population at the time. )

    On the other hand, coming home from a three day tournament, and having a member of the bishopric assume I would love to give a talk for someone who hadn’t shown up, got a little old, very fast.

    For the rest of it, I think that the feeling superior part probably depends on where you grow up and your parents, as much as being members of the church in general. My siblings who went to BYU, (I was the only one who didn’t) seemed to feel this way about the rest of Mormons who didn’t go there, and not just me in particular. I think it has helped some more than others, and when you break it down, my cohort from seminary are doing pretty well in things people attribute to success, (money, stability, owning their homes and/or second homes) although only half of us are active in the church. If you add in those who didn’t graduate from seminary, for my whole cohort, that gets closer to 70% not members or deeply inactive.

    Of those who have completely left the church, only one has parents who are not active. The group of those not members or deeply inactive includes people who are gay, (some with partners, some unwilling to deal with the assumptions that come with heterosexual norms being taught) although one is active and going the “miserable for the rest of his life” route, at least for now.

    I don’t know how Tiger Mom would feel about a gay child, but the other groups don’t seem to have great mechanisms for dealing with gay family members in general, although individual families in any group can be better than the whole.

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