The Tiger Mother: race, success and lessons on the wrong thing

The Tiger Mother is at it again. She’s getting folks all riled up by saying that the parenting style of some groups (such as Chinese, Indians and Mormons) primes their kids for success more than others.  Personally, I can’t offer any opinion on parenting, since we’ve not chosen to go the kid route. My only parenting advice is that liver treats work well for convincing Grace to not attack the neighbor dog.

People are getting all flustered about the racial implications of what she’s saying – but I keep coming back to one thing:

What the hell does “success” mean?

Tiger mom says it’s clear – income, occupational status and test scores. That kind of makes sense. It’s a nice, clean, empirical way of measuring something.

  • Higher income = more success
  • Higher status = more success
  • Higher test scores = more success

That seems to be a widely accepted definition in our society. But I’m not sure I like it. By those measurable accounts, I was much more successful when I was 15 than I am at 35. Twenty years ago, I had:

  • Higher income – I got paid more.
  • Higher status – I was more “famous” (whatever that creepy word means).
  • Higher test scores – I rarely went to school, but the movie marketing people told me that I “tested well” with screening audiences, which resulted in more work.

But what about…oh, I don’t know…happiness? Where does that rank? What about passion? Purpose? Authenticity? How do you measure that stuff and roll it up into success? In our culture it’s pretty simple: you don’t. You toss them to the side because you can’t buy yourself a boat with purpose.

I have so much more joy and passion now than I did when I was an actor, but those intangibles don’t seem to carry as much weight in some circles.

I recently made a list of the things that equal a successful life for myself. It mostly had to do with my family and friends, contributing to the greater good and taking care of my mind, body and spirit. None of them had to do with being on the cover of People Magazine.

But it took me a while to develop this way of thinking. When I left my acting career, I was scared of what people would think. Would I get thrown in a pile of useless “has beens”? Was I, at 22, washed up and destined to never do anything as good ever again?

I went through a phase where I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I even visited a law school to sit in on classes and went to their campus store and looked longingly at the sweatshirts. At least if I was a lawyer, I’d have a fancy degree I could wave around. Something that proved to other people that I was still worth something.

It finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be a lawyer (no offense to the lawyers out there…especially my dad). I was just trying to feel like I had a justified place in the world and people would think that I was still successful. But what I really wanted was to be a writer. That less prestigious, less financially rewarding occupation was what made my heart flutter.

Ambition is wonderful. But I was being ambitious about the wrong things.  What I really wanted was a life that really fed my soul – not just my bank account and other people’s opinions of me.

Being successful now means that my life has meaning. Being “known” never made me feel successful. Doing interviews didn’t do that. Getting invited to fancy parties didn’t do that.

What does make me feel successful is volunteering to clean litter boxes and write thank you notes at the animal shelter. Or getting an email from someone who was touched by something I wrote on this blog – which I offer for free and get paid absolutely nothing. Or making my husband laugh.

So, what if we thought about success differently? What if we thought about:

  • passion instead of income?
  • authenticity instead of status?
  • happiness instead of test scores?

I’m not sure that the Tiger mom would understand, but you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to go back to being “successful.” I’ll take my poorly-paying, lower-status profession that makes me deliriously happy. And besides, I don’t think lawyers are allowed to wear sweatpants to work.

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