Amy Chua

by Will Wilkinson on January 20, 2011

Her genius is beyond question.

I don’t see myself reading The Battle Hymn, but I read and enjoyed the WSJ piece.

There are two questions. Are tiger mothers doing their kids a favor? Are they doing society a favor? The answer is maybe and probably no.

On the whole, discipline makes life easier and better. On the other hand, who the fuck cares about the piano and violin? If all tiger mothers push the piano, say, the winner-take-all race for piano becomes utterly brutal, and the tiger-mothered pianist will likely get less far in the piano race than a bunny-mothered basoonist. That just seems dumb! Gamble on the flugelhorn!

The Western ethos of hyper-individuation produces less of the sort of hugely inefficient positional pileup (not that there aren’t too many guitarists) that comes from herding everybody onto the same rutted status tracks. It also produces less discipline and thus less virtuosity, but a greater variety of excellence by generating the cultural innovation that opens up new fields of endeavor and new status games. It’s just way better to be the world’s best acrobatic kite-surfer than the third best pianist in Cleveland. Also, the ethos of hyper-individuation is about activity/personality search and matching. It’s better to be happily mediocre at something you love than miserably amazing at something that never quite felt right.

How can you compete, America, with a billion Chinese children more machine than mammal playing Flight of the Bumblebee perfectly, in perfect unison? You can’t. When a billion pianos sound, no one can hear you scream.

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  • Raki34

    Captain Kirk vs. Spock

  • Andy McKenzie

    Hey Will. It’s great to have you back, man. Love, Andy

  • Anonymous

    I just don’t believe in success, as a definable commodity. As soon as you name it it’s useless to me. People tend to express this as a criticism of materialism or consumption, which elicits groans. To me, though, those are epiphenomenal.

  • http://willwilkinson.net/flybottle Will Wilkinson

    Dude.

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    [...] Amy Chua [...]

  • Ben

    I expect Amy Chua’s kids will be successful because both of their parents are law professors at Yale. That said, compared to their parents, they’ll be failures unless they become med school professors at whatever the best med school in the country is.

  • Sark

    But why would you like something in the first place? Because you are good at it, and you receive praise, which pleases your ego. Individualism then provides a decentralized mechanism for niche proliferation. If there are too damn many piano players, your chances of being recognized are slim, so you’ll find your interest in it wane. If there are other status games with higher marginal returns you’ll find yourself acquiring an interest in it. On the demand side, our utility from seeing marginal improvements of the best piano playing is vanishingly small. We’d rather enjoy spectating some other status game. As usual, regulation from high underperforms distributed incentives on the ground.

  • Anonymous

    Hey man. It takes all kinds.

  • http://topsy.com/www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2011/01/20/amy-chua/?utm_source=pingback&utm_campaign=L2 Tweets that mention Amy Chua — Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Will Wilkinson, gappy. gappy said: Hilarious, clever, agreeable post by @willwilkinson http://j.mp/i4Ttvu [...]

  • JustMe

    Someone made the point elsewhere that she noted that sports were completely out. That is a very bad idea. Sports can be invaluable for teaching cooperation towards a common goal. Also good for developing interpersonal relationships etc. ‘The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ and all that. I am, by no means, an athlete but found that my middling efforts helped my team and in turn, helped me.

  • http://gavinsullivan.com Gavin Sullivan

    My mom makes Amy Chua look like Mama Cass…We used to have to get out to the lake at 3:30 in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, work twenty hours a day at mill for tuppance a month and dad would come home and beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle if we were lucky.

  • Tuf88

    Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, (pause for laughter), eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

  • Jim H.

    Lindsay Lohan’s mother is an American version; we call them ‘stage mothers’. Yeah, LL was successful early, but at what cost?

    And there are the ‘football dads’ (pick your sport), too. The ones that tape their boy’s right arm to his side so he can grow up and make a fortune in the bigs as a left-handed reliever. [I use 'grow up' advisedly of course.]

  • Hyena

    The endless supply of junk on the Internet proves this point very wrong.

  • InterestingRead
  • Mkburr

    That was beautifully put. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Will,

    I’m the guy who wrote the post by the commenter “InterestingRead”. I have a few comments:

    1. The point about “too much competition at piano” is really, really, really shortsighted. Thanks to the competition, America has a battalion of amazing pianists. Apply this to, say, medicine or engineering. Which country in the world will come out ahead? Will the world’s best kite-surfing serve America better than cure for cancer?

    2. Funny you mention Cleveland. Did you know Cleveland has one of the best orchestras in the world? Their third best violinist — probably their associate concertmaster, Ms. Yoko Moore — is most definitely better than world’s best kite-surfer.

    3. You wrote: “It’s better to be happily mediocre at something you love than miserably amazing at something that never quite felt right.” This is a false choice. I married an elite classical musician, so consequently half of my social circle is composed with elite classical musicians. Trust me on this: you cannot be amazing if you are miserable. And you are not miserable if you are amazing.

    So the real choice is this — is it better to be content at mediocrity, or to constantly strive to be the best? I think the answer is clear.

  • Random Dude

    A few thoughts:
    1. I’d almost guarantee the kite surfer is happier than the violinist and makes a lot more money, and has a lot more freedom in their life (i.e. no 52-week labor contract, etc.)
    2. Media is a winner-take-all market. The third best pianist in Cleveland would only get to sub in the Cleveland orchestra occasionally, might have a teaching job, some students, and that’s about it. There just aren’t that many great paying jobs for a pianist, even if they’re awesome.
    3. The willingness to pay for great doctors, and the incredible variety of things you can do with a medical education are dramatically different than the limited opportunities you get as the 20th or 30th best pianist in the world. You could take great personal pride in being the best pianist who lives in St Louis, or the best interpreter of the Goldberg Variations in Louisville, or someone who could rock the Rachmaninoff in Tampa, but virtually no one will pay to hear you play.
    The number of truly miserable classical musicians is astounding. Studies will rank orchestral musicians job satisfaction up there with prison guards, and it’s the orchestral musicians that make all the money in most cities (just ask the union who pays all the dues). Many, many musicians that sacrifice dearly all their lives to pursue solo careers at top conservatories end up in orchestras like Phoenix, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Portland, or even places like Spokane, Fort Worth, and Omaha. They take pay cuts, get poor conductors, see audiences shrink, and do more and more Moody Blues concerts to pay the bills. The artistic life of Julliard or Curtis fades into a dream.
    So being at the top of the heap is great, (and awesome for you that you didn’t have to slave away to get the lifestyle!). The majority of musicians don’t end up there, and the drop-off in quality of life is pretty steep. Best kite surfer in the world, (or heck, the #3 kite surfer in the world) sounds pretty good by comparison.

  • http://www.bradleymgardner.com Bradley Gardner

    Amy Chua has since said that the WSJ article vastly misrepresents her book. She learns that a lot of the Chinese mother attitudes are wrong in the course of the book.

  • Anonymous

    Will,

    I work in a research setting and there are a lot of Chinese moms in my department. And yeah, many of them have their kids take piano or violin lessons. But they do not (at least in my communications) want their kids to be classical musicians or even really excel at music. They just think if the kids are left to their own devices they will waste their time watching television, browsing the Internet or playing video games. In this sense I don’t think *they* give a fuck about the piano or violin – they are just trying to fill their child’s time with “useful” things. The music lessons are something to give the child discipline and maybe broaden their horizons. In one case, a mom described how her parents couldn’t afford to give her lessons in China so she was (like so many parents) trying to correct a wrong from her childhood by nurturing her kid’s musical ability.

  • Anonymous

    Will,

    I work in a research setting and there are a lot of Chinese moms in my department. And yeah, many of them have their kids take piano or violin lessons. But they do not (at least in my communications) want their kids to be classical musicians or even really excel at music. They just think if the kids are left to their own devices they will waste their time watching television, browsing the Internet or playing video games. In this sense I don’t think *they* give a fuck about the piano or violin – they are just trying to fill their child’s time with “useful” things. The music lessons are something to give the child discipline and maybe broaden their horizons. In one case, a mom described how her parents couldn’t afford to give her lessons in China so she was (like so many parents) trying to correct a wrong from her childhood by nurturing her kid’s musical ability.

  • CaptBackslap

    The phrase “the third-best pianist in Cleveland” could be more accurately and briefly replaced with “anything else in the world.”

  • Anonymous

    “On the demand side, our utility from seeing marginal improvements of the best piano playing is vanishingly small.”

    Nobody listens to music this way.

  • Anonymous

    Great sales on
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  • Ibod Catooga

    I had a new dumpster installed in my complext. It was really quite a nice swimming pool type experience. I relatively furious at it.

  • K-Jo

    …and certainly, nobody plays it this way.

  • K-Jo

    Being in a school play can be the most thoroughly engaging collaborative activity on many levels. We learn by doing what is most collaborative. The feedback loops inherent in it are instantaneous and reliably permanent.

  • K-Jo

    Exactly, Dude. We practiced our asses off for hours and weeks and months and years, and now are happy that we really can play. The reward is the effort. Maybe that facility gets rewarded professionally; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it gets transferred to another idiom; maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we still can play. Thanks.

  • guest

    I don’t see anything particularly “Chinese” about filling their children’s time up with busywork in the name of teaching them discipline. This is something most upper-middle-class parents in the United States do, presumably because school work is not as demanding as it ought to be.

  • Anonymous

    Kind of like how very tall parents almost always have shorter children.

  • http://isonomie.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/amy-chua-thilo-sarrazin-und-der-preusische-schulmeister/ Amy Chua, Thilo Sarrazin und der preuĂźische Schulmeister | isonomie

    [...] Klavierwettbewerbs. (Und Chuas Devise ist sicher ‘Second is the first loser’.) Dazu Will Wilkinson: It’s just way better to be the world’s best acrobatic kite-surfer than the third best pianist [...]

  • Ibod Catooga

    I had a new dumpster installed in my complext. It was really quite a nice swimming pool type experience. I relatively furious at it.

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