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Fiona Citkin, Ph.D. Headshot

I Can Do Anything Better Than You!

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Immigrant Women Leaders Speak

"Anything you can do I can do better" was an unspoken refrain of the interviews I conducted with immigrant women leaders, researching my upcoming book. Their combined brilliance nearly triggered my inferiority complex. I'd ask myself, "How come they did SO MUCH better than me?" (I typically take everything personally.)

It's not easy to wrap your mind around something when you're in the thick of things. I'm an immigrant writing about successful immigrant women, regretting that I'd never had a book portraying such role models. The topic simply never received the attention it deserves.

Therefore, I felt happy to see an article "What Drives Success?" by Amy Chua (known as "Tiger Mom") and Jed Rubenfeld in the New York Times. The authors identify three success traits -- superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. But my happiness was tainted. Why? The topic is fresh; some cultural groups are doing better than the Americans overall. But these three success traits only scratch the surface.

I examined the authors' approach more closely and compared it with my accumulated observations:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

The Good:
  • Bringing to light the success-fueling factors that certain cultural groups practice
  • Highlighting the role of children's upbringing in later success
The Bad:
  • Inaccurate arguments including superficial judging of associated cultural groups
  • Using statistics and/or numbers too casually

The Ugly:
Despite my love of bold statements, the article goes overboard. The self-serving controversy is a strong repellent for many, as some online comments in the New York Times and elsewhere demonstrated.

Getting Down to Earth

The controversies can be avoided if we get down to earth and dig deeper. Instead of discussing a multitude of successful cultural, religious and/or ethnic groups, let's focus on the first-generation immigrants, a category where the author's arguments definitely apply.

In my experience, the primary cause of the immigrants' drive to succeed is real or perceived underappreciation. Chua and Rubenfeld's triple package of traits generating drive is secondary, or derived. Many immigrants come as accomplished or aspiring professionals, yet have to start from scratch. This immediately activates the sense of under-appreciation and, as a consequence, all three success-bound traits. A muted superiority complex ("I can do anything better than you") starts when immigrants feel underappreciated while working next to less-competent people. But they control the impulse to offer their opinion, so as not to sound too audacious and undermine their security.

Overall, the background drivers of these immigrants' success are:

2014-02-04-Chart.JPG
Chart courtesy of Fiona Citkin, Ph.D.

Learning From the Best

Many immigrant women start flourishing under the American sun. The best of them become very successful, contributing to America's well-being and culture. What drives their success?

Raegan Moya-Jones of Australia: Trailing Spouse Turned Businesswoman

Raegan transitioned from the bored-with-nothing-to-do trailing spouse to The Economist employee, then to baby-industry businesswoman, as founder and CEO of aden + anais®. The road to success was bumpy, especially because some managers at The Economist continually underappreciated her, telling her she needed to be content with her role because she had "no entrepreneurial ability." The grit kept her focused. While she was working full-time, she would put her three daughters to bed at 9 p.m. and then build her business in the evening hours. At one point she had no time for washing her hair for 10 days. After finally looking into the mirror at 4 a.m., she fell to the floor in tears of exhaustion, and asked herself, "Have I bitten off more than I can chew?"

Now Raegan's company proudly produces typical-for-Australia breathable baby wraps that took the world by storm and can be found across 63 countries from daycare centers to the British royalty. Also, the brand name is on the rise. Remember: Her perseverance and amazing achievements all stemmed from underappreciation and the need to prove herself.

Nadia Comaneci of Romania: Scoring a Perfect 10

One of the world's best-known gymnasts, a winner of three Olympic gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the first female gymnast to be awarded an overall perfect score of 10 in Olympic gymnastics, Nadia also won two gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Pursuing perfection is the story of her life, well communicated in her book Letters to a Young Gymnast. There, she discloses how her super-demanding coach instilled hard discipline, ability to focus and the willpower to prevail and win. These traits led to her success then and are the base of her success now.

Nadia faced underappreciation right after she immigrated to America. However, she was strong enough to rebuild her career, mostly through her generous charitable work and support of Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy. In 2000, she was named one of the Athletes of the Century by the Laureus World Sports Academy. Bravo, Nadia!

Elena Gorokhova of Russia: From Russia With Stories

Marrying an American for love, Elena also wanted to break free from her mother, a typical Russian and "a mirror image of her motherland -- overbearing, protective, and difficult to leave." Yet she has always defined herself against her demanding mother -- a front-line surgeon during World War II and later an anatomy professor, eventually fulfilling her mother's expectations.

Elena carved out a new life for herself, earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. She authored two memoirs, in which she candidly shared her Russian past and her adaptation to the unique U.S.-American culture. Her first book, A Mountain of Crumbs, has been translated into five languages. Many people want to learn how the disciplined drive and educational pursuits, instilled at a young age, can take one through trials and breed success.

I Can Do Anything Better than You!

Digging deeper into the immigrant women leaders' stories confirmed my initial feeling that their basic instinct to prevail and succeed is sustained by the traits instilled in their formative years: disciplined drive toward educational and professional achievements along with long-term orientation and insecurities intertwined with pride. These traits all erupt when they face real or potential underappreciation. As a result, many accomplished immigrants can justly say, "I can do anything better than you!" But the message remains muted.