The Gates of India: what Microsoft’s new CEO can teach America

On Feb. 4, 2014, the tech-world was abuzz with the news that industry giant Microsoft had crowned a new CEO, the third since Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded the company in 1975. Satya Nadella, a relatively unknown 46-year-old American born and raised in Hyderabad, India, replaced Steve Ballmer to become the head of the world’s largest software maker, catapulting himself into the limelight he previously avoided. As an Indian-American myself, I was both intensely proud and deeply embarrassed that I had only just finished my first Java program which printed instructions for ordering Dominos.

Satya Nadella. Photo courtesy of LeWeb Photos.

Satya Nadella. Photo courtesy of LeWeb Photos.

Indians, along with the many other minorities unceremoniously dumped into the category “Asian or Asian-American” by census data, have long been viewed as a “model minority.” In fact, a 2009 Forbes article referring to us as just that, noted that, despite comprising less than one percent of the population, Indian-Americans accounted for 3 percent of US engineers, 7 percent of IT workers, and 8 percent of physicians and surgeons, and those numbers have only grown.

But what makes this group so extraordinarily successful, and why is it the marriage of Indian and American that seems to breed success?

The answer, I believe, is that while India, and many other Asian countries, currently lack the political stability and infrastructure of the US, the “hustler” mentality of immigrants combined with the entrepreneurialism embedded in American culture creates a unique group that thrives in our independent, meritocratic society.

In 2011, Yale professor and Chinese-American Amy Chua published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she attempted to prove that “Chinese” parenting was better than “Western” parenting. She and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have released a new book, The Triple Package, about the success of different cultural groups in America.

“It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together propel success,” they wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year. “The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”

Taken separately these traits would achieve nothing, but combine them and you have the ultimate success package: someone continually striving for unattainable perfection. History has shown that there is no such thing as a super-race or a free lunch, this triple package is not inherited but learned and reinforced, but how?

To produce this paradox of a superiority complex and insecurity requires a delicate balance on the part of the parents. From my own experience and the experiences of my peers, I’ve concluded that this “triple package” is derived from three phenomena:

  1. Parents setting perfection as the standard
  2. An education system based on praise and self esteem
  3. A culturally embedded respect for authority and filial piety

The first two create a superiority-inferiority-complex that has become characteristic of successful groups. Immigrant parents raised in countries that place extreme value on academic performance tend to be far more critical of their children than the holistic American education system itself is. Students both fail to meet their parents’ expectations while constantly exceeding their teachers’, creating a belief that they are simultaneously exceptional and not good enough.

The third point creates the trait of impulse control. Indian culture in particular places great value on the idea of duty and delayed gratification, combined with a deeply ingrained respect for all authority figures, especially teachers. The idea that children are representative of their parents and their family is also a large part of Indian as well as Chinese culture and places further pressure on the children to succeed.

Ultimately, the goal, Chua writes, is to create a “virtuous cycle” where parents push their kids to be successful until it becomes self-perpetuating. We naturally want to do what we are good at. so that we can earn praise and admiration, but to do so requires work that very few people have the natural inclination to do, and this, she argues, is where parents are needed.

As with anything, moderation is the key. The risk is great: too much pressure and you may create a self-loathing machine. Chua notes that many Asian Americans students earn the highest grades while reporting the lowest self-esteem. The reward: ask Satya Nadella.

Anshu Siripurapu is a sophomore majoring in political economy.

1 reply
  1. Daniel B.
    Daniel B. says:

    Thanks for writing this article. This is the first of its kind that I’ve read and have not read that book from Chua you mentioned, but it makes a lot of sense. Both my wife and I are half Asian and half “White”. I’m half Korean half British-American and my wife is half Chinese half Polish-Ukranian American. Both our mothers are the Asian one in the household but it was the Asian mom (Korean) in my household that kept everything together – and for that reason, I know beyond a doubt that I am much more like my Korean mother than my father. Those three things you listed that are constantly in push-pull creating tension on each other are constantly oscillating toward achieving a balance. Apathy toward one section would create laziness. I see that apathy in my wife that is difficult to avoid resenting when I place such disdain for my “lack of greatness” while she finds comfort in any positive effort or outcome. From a relational perspective, I think if I married anyone else just like me, despite the fact that we’re both half Asian, I would probably find it very difficult to relate with that person – so I should not resent my wife because of this. She grew up in an appropriate male led household with an equally supportive Chinese mother. The key difference is that the “white” side dominated in matters of discipline i.e. standards of perfection and respect for authority and filial piety. Those are the two greatest values to me and the two greatest differences I see in our families.

    Thank you for writing this article. Hope what I responded with makes some sense.

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