Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Tiger Mom and A Clockwork Orange

True disciple is doing what you want.

A wise friend once told me that. Amy Chua, better known as the Tiger Mother, wrote about discipline (from a different point of view) in Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

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. [...] 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.

For what it's worth, Chua's book is apparently less strident and more nuanced than the WSJ article. Anyway, like her methods or not, I have a lot of sympathy for a parent trying to teach her kids about delayed gratification, that you can do difficult things if you try, and that hard work pays off.

If it's true that mastering a complex skill takes 10,000 hours of practice, then the persistence to push through those hours is a fairly important lesson to learn early. Recent research has caused a reappraisal in how much talent arrises from innate genius versus how much is the product of effort, practice and persistence.

What brought to mind my old friend's remark about disciple was Paul Buchheit's take: motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Amy Chua is teaching her kids to be extrinsically motivated, to respond to the praise and admiration of others. You do it because you are told to. You put your energy into chasing the approval of external authorities. In contrast, he describes intrinsic motivation like this:

To the greatest extent possible, do whatever is most fun, interesting, and personally rewarding (and not evil).

Follow your heart, as hippy moms tell their children. Buccheit says, "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." Sounds familiar. "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."

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is easily recognized in the moral dimension. In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess imagines the transfer of aesthetic sense from creation to violence. Deprived of outlet, creativity turns destructive. The main thrust of the story is an examination of attempts to impose an external morality by force versus growing an internal morality.

Paul Buccheit was the software developer that originated Google's gmail. For myself, and I'm sure lots of others, a key attraction to programming was the ability to create in a powerful medium without asking anyone's permission. The creative freedom, the feeling that the authorities hadn't (yet) figured out how to lock things down was incredibly inspiring.

It's easy to see how that attraction to technology meshes with Daniel Pink's elements of motivationautonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you've got root and a compiler, you've got autonomy. And it's all about a pissing contest of mastery. (This might partially explain the gender ratio in the field.) And technology is rife with appeals to higher purpose, from the open-source movement to the digital media that helped fuel the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Tiger Mom demands mastery before autonomy, leaving purpose firmly in the hands of the parent. Buccheit puts autonomy first, trusting in a natural sense of direction to lead to mastery and purpose. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Amy Chua has the "esteem" level covered, but stops short of the top level - intrinsic self-directed creativity.

Some suggest that American society erects a border fence at the entry to the highest level. Well, nobody ever mentions why it's always drawn as a pyramid, but there's probably a reason. Not everyone gets to be at the top. Usually, that's the realm only of the elite.

David Cain of Raptitude writes under the title How to Make Trillions of Dollars, that the fundamentals of being a self-directed person are these:

Creativity. Curiosity. Resilience to distraction. Patience with others.

Cain defines self-reliance as “an unswerving willingness to take responsibility for your life, regardless of who had a hand in making it the way it is”.

Again, we're basically talking about the top levels of the pyramid. But, I like the addition of resilience to distraction. Discipline is a hard sell in a culture the promotes immediate gratification and nonstop indulgence. It's hard to hear your own voice over the clamor of consumer culture and expectations from family, boss and everyone else. Hearing it is nearly impossible while drowning in distractions like twitter and facebook. And here's something else to remember about online amusements:

If you're not paying, you're not the customer; you're the product.

At a recent data mining conference I saw rooms full of marketers ready to slice, dice and mash up your personal data to more precisely target advertising. Resisting this attack is an essential skill of modern life. A healthy cynicism is a necessary defense mechanism. Hearing yourself think is only going to get harder.

The flawed idea implicit in consumer culture is what you consume is what you are. But, valuing consuming over creating or doing is inevitably a dead end. The reason I'm not so hot on the iPad is that it's a device for consuming. The old macs were (marketed as) tools for programmers, graphic artists, musicians and film-makers -- in other works doers, builders and creators.

Purpose has to come from values. The recent travails of the financial sector show what happens when motivations or at least incentives become disconnected from morals and values.

Of course, lots of technology has a purpose no higher than selling golf clubs on the internet. And technology, itself, can be a distraction. It's easy to get caught up in a rat race of the latest whizzy buzzword laden language, tool or application framework dujour. For years, I've had a half-joking theory that the true purpose of the internet is to absorb the excess productivity of mankind.

Creative, conceptual work driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose pursued with uninterrupted concentration. That begins to answer the question, how do we get some motivation, apply it to something good and inspire the same in those around us, especially our ungrateful screaming offspring.

You can argue one way or another about whether a 13 year old has the foresight to be intrinsically motivated. I certainly didn't have the wherewithal at that age to set a long term goal. And pushing intrinsic motivation on your kids sounds to me something like imposing democracy by force. I doesn't make that much sense.

It takes determination to undertake exhausting frustrating efforts whose payoff is distant and uncertain. Most things that are worth doing are hard. The drive and courage to try anyway is what makes real progress possible. That doesn't come easily, and neither does the judgement necessary to gauge what is worth while against the scale of your own values.

From my current position, I don't particularly want to lecture anyone on how to succeed in life. I respond negatively to coercion and can be a champion slacker, both of which were much to the detriment of my academic career. Still, here it is:

  • Value creation over consumption.
  • Surround yourself with creators.
  • Do what you love, do it a lot, and do it hard.


  1. Somewhat related, is this essay on getting shit done. It turns out that ritualized behavior is key. You don't have to think about what to do - don't have to constantly reprioritize.

    A ritual, consciously created, is an expression of fierce intentionality. ...once you've got a ritual in place, it truly takes on a life of its own.

  2. Penelope Trunk, aka brazen careerist, linked to me from an article called "Should you pursue mastery?" in which she references blow up dolls and incest. I'm kinda freaked out by that.

    Read her stuff, it's good.