My Perfectly Normal Kid Can Beat Up Your Tiger Mom’s Perfect Little Cub

You would have to be as disconnected from current affairs as an Appalachian mountain man circa 1763, if you hadn’t noticed the heightened media coverage of China’s rise and competition with the West, and the West’s concomitant obsession with Chinese rising competitiveness. In Amy Chua’s recent book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chinese tough-love child rearing, which is shown to produce academically excellent and highly competitive children, is pitted against Western-style parenting, which is understood to condemn a child to a life of underachievement. The clash of ideologies – education and hard work versus scholastic slackerdom and daydreaming – is being played out against the backdrop of America’s rightfully lamentable educational system. If truth be told, our country’s current “education crisis” points to systemic failures that would undermine American competitiveness far more than the alleged softness, lenity, and indulgence of us non-Tiger parents.

Whether your kid is barred from having any fun at all, attending play dates (for what, to play?), or going to bed before midnight for fear of missing out on extra credits … or not, won’t change America’s standing as the most industrious and innovative – speak most competitive – nation on earth. Say, how bad can it be, if even our Harvard dropouts (sure, throw some Stanford preemies into the mix too) continue to launch industry-defining, multi-billion-dollar companies that soak up every software engineer in the Western hemisphere who can as much as fog a mirror? The issue, of course, is that there won’t be enough American scientists and engineers to around in order to fuel America’s celebrated and inexorable industrial growth engine.

But China’s talent gap is closing fast, the battle lines are drawn for all the brains we can get in business, and better shape up if your pedagogy entailed plunking the spoilt rugrats down in front of Baby Einstein and entrusting the rest of their rugrat lives to a sub-standard educational system. Behold the Tiger Mom! There is a whole triple concerto-for violin, cello, and piano-playing cadre of scientifically-trained elite engineers lurching for your kids’ lunch box. Here’s what you do: first, you panic. Then, take ‘em out of Kindergarten Mandarin class – for that won’t help either. Finally, go growl like a tiger and join in the battle cry of practice drills, public shaming, and wretched insults in the name of achieving amazing success for your sprout.

On the face of it, Chua’s “battle hymn” mémoire is a charming but insipid ode to the joy of non-permissive parenting (imagine a typical tigerish, middle-class striver, Sino-Anne Hathaway-type, wishing for nothing more than to impart on her daughters a winning start in the lottery of life – while trashing a dollhouse during a piano recital lacking in poise and calling her offspring “garbage” just to reinforce the point). The booklet’s central claim that an Asian child’s stereotypical success is due to superior Asian parenting is substantiated by anecdotal assertions that the relentless pursuit of academic excellence, the original ‘practice makes perfect’ mindset, respect for authority, and intolerance of mediocrity are all Chinese inventions (yes, yes … along with paper, printing, gunpowder, and the bloody compass).

By contrast – as sharp as a tiger’s claw – us pampering, mollycoddling, non-straight-A-grades-tolerating, and video game-allowing (yikes, even Wii-provisioning!) Westerners have long lost the upper hand in raising a formidable youth (harking back to when Mrs. Buffett would grill young Warren mercilessly on the ins and outs of asset allocation, when William Henry Gates III was shuttled back and forth between classes in BASIC programming and predatory business practice, and – here’s a shocker – when Richard Branson, Jr. was purposely left stranded at both street corners and rock concerts to find his way home, palpably by his very own mother in her attempt to teach that little dyslexic devil a lesson or two in self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship …).

To sum up, ever since the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) or Bill Clinton’s more contemporary publication of “My Life,” has Western parenting been on the decline. If you’re in your teens today and you ain’t Tiger Mom’s perfect little cub, or if you haven’t been raised by a pushy Korean um ma or even an old-fashioned nagging Jewish mamah, chances are you’ll have to struggle mightily to make your mark in the world against the onslaught of better educated and more motivated youngsters from afar. And if you’re a parent, in particular one of those ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ organic brassica-eating Montessori-Albert Schweitzer-ites (all non-competitive Barney and Friends-embracers-cum-spawners, as far as the Tiger Mom is concerned), you’re probably just jealous that your lesser fry hasn’t been playing Carnegie Hall at the age of 14, or you’re put out perhaps that this puerile 4-year-old of yours is still waving back at the Teletubbies.

If you belong to a book club that’s boycotting Tiger Mom’s nasty little trade secrets, fret not, mon soeur. Here’s what’s coming at you, without wishing to cause undue worry: there’s a continent’s worth of overachievers – waiting to pounce upon your children’s future jobs (like the hordes of Suleiman the Magnificent laying siege to the gates of Vienna in 1529). You must get up and unplug the Xbox right away and furthermore chasten your child to never Google a school problem’s answer again, but rather derive it from first principles like all applicants to Tsinghua University must be able to do, at the risk of getting beaten with the bamboo stick (how does a cell phone work, what is a microprocessor, how does your body absorb fat from food? … you get the point). That literary invention called globalization has obviously bound together the American and Chinese economies for the foreseeable future; while Amy Chua’s foray into popular literature has helped to politically desensitize the debate as to which culture can and will produce the brainzillas necessary for economic world domination.

It is now neither taboo to identify with extreme parenting nor to be loudly alarmed by the high, and mostly stress-related, suicide rate among China’s young people. When a group of teenagers from Shanghai posted top scores in an international test of practical knowledge in reading, mathematics, and science administered by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Chinese mothers could feel vindicated, especially with the United States taking only 17th place in reading and coming in even lower in math and science. The question, of course, is not whether Chinese mothers are superior, along with their offspring, or whether Americans somehow wouldn’t wish to give their kids a winning start in life, but rather whether the US educational system is fit to train enough winning young adults in the future.

Some contend that education in this country is as broken as our health care system and would require a similarly complex overhaul, while costing the kind of money to fix that nobody is willing or able to pay. Moreover, with inequality sharply on the rise (the widening chasm between the rich and the poor within the country), what is emerging now and here is an unfortunate tale of two Americas. The inequitable distribution of wealth is closely mirrored by the unequal access to the kind of education befitting a Tiger Mom’s aspirations. Rich people pay for private schools and tutors or move their families into ZIP codes with excellent public schools (which in good/expensive neighborhoods resemble gleaming halls of learning that feed their graduates to the Ivy League; whereas students in bad/poor areas must enter their brain hospice through metal detectors). Two recent books on the subject of inequality, “Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich” by Robert Frank and “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making” by David Rothkopf, have shone a spotlight on unequal educational opportunity as a worsening social indicator, as the rich are getting (far) richer, while the poor are staying (relatively) poor. (Although it is unclear how exactly it is that inequality causes all sorts of social ills – from failing school grades, more teenage pregnancies, higher crime rates, to greater obesity – it is certain that the rising tide of America’s wealth boom has not lifted all boats.)

America’s ability to produce “Outliers” (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success”), individuals who will achieve extraordinary success in life is unparalleled. This will happen with or without Tiger Moms, with or without the “10,000-Hour Rule” (if you ever wondered how Mozart became Mozart, go spend 10,000 hours practicing a specific task and see what will happen). And in your blogger’s humble opinion, right after you’ve aced your reading, math, and science tests, other leading indicators for future employment success are “uncommon intelligence,” a passion for learning something new, and a knack for entrepreneurship. How to drill those into your kid’s head? Don’t ask the Tiger Mom. A new “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Perhaps, for America must figure out how to transform its educational system to provide democratic / meritocratic access to top-notch learning to the majority of its people, not just a few. Always remember, there are far more Chinese Tiger Moms than there are people in the States, and not even our outliers and cognitive elite will be able to compete against them alone.

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The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Game

When your mother told you that life was neither a fairy tale nor a game, she was certainly right about the former and probably wrong about the latter. In fact, there’ve been a few notable thinkers since the mid-1800s who claimed that life was nothing but a game. The notion that people are Pokémon on the great board game of Life first vaulted into the halls of science and took hold of public imagination with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed only one year later by the release of The Checkered Game of Life, courtesy of the fine and inventive people at Milton Bradley. Since then some games have indeed become more serious than life itself (sorry, I’m not talking about Dancing with the Stars); and with the advent of game theory (a formalized, mathematical treatment, if you will, of social science) countless advances have been made in manifold fields such of evolutionary biology, political science, international relations, and of course computer science. You’ll really like game theory if you made it through Theoretical Econ 101, you can still stomach your applied math, or you’ve had the hots for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. For that matter, game theory will come in very handy should you ever find yourself incarcerated with a fellow inmate named Johnny von Neumann, and you’re wondering whether to betray that strange man to the warden or to only say as much as the acteurs in The Blair Witch Project.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (a formal study, again, of why two people might not cooperate even if it’s in both their best interest) and, conversely, other counterintuitive behavioral models that attempt to explain for instance why people might collaborate (to contribute, say, intellectual “property” into the intellectual commons) even if it’s not in their best interests, have become intellectual staple diet for Social Web connoisseurs. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does a lot of work for Fortune 1000 companies that wish to implement effective “Web 2.0 strategies.” I put that term in parentheses for no one really knows what it means, except for Tim O’Reilly (who invented it) or Carl Jung (who would have described it as the act of individuation through socialization by means of solidarity networks, but Carl unfortunately is long dead).

Most our enterprise clients wish to harness the web’s social-media sphere as a way to expand their business (be it to grow their brand, widen their customer reach, or deepen their relationships with business stakeholders). If you think you can do that by just sticking a “Share it on Facebook” or “Digg it” button up on your corporate site you belong in a fossil collection, a Barock shrine, or a Tibetan monastery. It’s ironic for me to say so (for our company provides the technical talent behind many a successful Web 2.0 implementation), but Web 2.0 has a lot less to do with technology than with psychology (no, not psychiatry, and apologies, Oliver Sacks). If you want to make your brand attractive to millions and millions of people who live the Social Web, if you want to connect with them, to garner their attention, and to take them on a journey towards your product or your service offering, you must start to play the game. For starters, throw out your Ajax For Dummies (or say “asynchronous JavaScript and XML” three times in a row), and pack your Nash equilibrium, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, and your favorite body piercing jewelry and head over to our friends at social gaming powerhouse Zynga (http://www.zynga.com/). They’ve just changed their company slogan from “More Fun Than Robert Downey, Jr.” to “Connecting the World Through Games.” There you go. I promise you: play one of their fabulous games and you’ll get what Web 2.0 is all about.

Don’t worry – you don’t even have to like “computer games.” Try out Zynga’s Mafia Wars, and yes, you’ll just either love it or hate it (there’s no in-between, just like with anchovies, the London Tube, or Michelle “Bombshell” McGee). You might not even stand for the glorification of violence, vindicta, and organized crime, although the theme of the game is of less interest to us here, and it might as well be about finding seashells on a beach or blue helmets in a Sri Lankan refugee camp. What’s impressive is that Zynga has just nailed the psychological underpinning of the individual as an integral part of a social network. There’s an amazingly effective reward system. There’s compensation for everything. Behavioral modification and forced decision-making against the ever-present timer. There are rituals and archetypes. There’s always the “mob” (the collective unconscious) and the Complex (do I have enough friends / Mafia members, enough stamina / energy to kill, enough money / reward points, etc.?). The process of individuation is particularly powerful, where players become literally more “whole” by virtue of strengthening their profiles, attaining special powers, and recruiting more players. And yes, there is also the fetish which can be cared for or cured, as the case may be, by – in any event – buying lots and lots of little items from Zynga.

And the lesson here? Needless to say, without state-of-the-art web technology, none of this would be possible. But technology is just the enabler. Psychology – as in the psychological substrate of a successful social game such as Mafia Wars – is the driver behind any viable Web 2.0 strategy. The overlap between social gaming behavior and social media marketing is just striking. Imagine: getting your customers to self-select a particular affinity group, to connect with like-minded individuals, and to recruit them in significant numbers to make for geometric growth; or, for your customers to enhance their profiles (invaluable marketing data) for the purpose of sheer self-expression, validation in front of their peers, or to earn reward or “reputation” points. If you want to connect with millions of customers, forget about your social media icons (we’ll stick ‘em up for you later) and focus on what drives the individual in the social setting. Learn from the leader in the social gaming arena and play some more of Zynga’s Mafia Wars or contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) if we at Talent Trust can help bring some cutting-edge expertise to your Web 2.0 marketing initiative.