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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paper Tigers

This NY Magazine essay is all over the map, but worth reading in its entirety as it touches on a number of topics discussed on this blog. Via maoxian.

Coincidentally I was just talking to a Silicon Valley VC who invests in China. He was pointing out the big differences in the personalities and leadership styles of startup founders and CEOs in the two places. What works is highly dependent on cultural context.

NY Magazine: ... And so there is an additional concern accompanying the rise of the Tiger Children, one focused more on the narrowness of the educational experience a non-Asian child might receive in the company of fanatically preprofessional Asian students. Jenny Tsai, a student who was elected president of her class at the equally competitive New York public school Hunter College High School, remembers frequently hearing that “the school was becoming too Asian, that they would be the downfall of our school.” A couple of years ago, she revisited this issue in her senior thesis at Harvard, where she interviewed graduates of elite public schools and found that the white students regarded the Asians students with wariness. (She quotes a music teacher at Stuyvesant describing the dominance of Asians: “They were mediocre kids, but they got in because they were coached.”) In 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported on “white flight” from a high school in Cupertino, California, that began soon after the children of Asian software engineers had made the place so brutally competitive that a B average could place you in the bottom third of the class.

... You could frame it, as some aggrieved Asian-Americans do, as a simple issue of equality and press for race-blind quantitative admissions standards. In 2006, a decade after California passed a voter initiative outlawing any racial engineering at the public universities, Asians composed 46 percent of UC-Berkeley’s entering class; one could imagine a similar demographic reshuffling in the Ivy League, where Asian-Americans currently make up about 17 percent of undergraduates. But the Ivies, as we all know, have their own private institutional interests at stake in their admissions choices, including some that are arguably defensible. Who can seriously claim that a Harvard University that was 72 percent Asian would deliver the same grooming for elite status its students had gone there to receive?

... “At Stuy, it’s completely different: If you looked at the pinnacle, the girls and the guys are not only good-looking and socially affable, they also get the best grades and star in the school plays and win election to student government. It all converges at the top. It’s like training for high society. It was jarring for us Chinese kids. You got the sense that you had to study hard, but it wasn’t enough.”

Mao was becoming clued in to the fact that there was another hierarchy behind the official one that explained why others were getting what he never had—“a high-school sweetheart” figured prominently on this list—and that this mysterious hierarchy was going to determine what happened to him in life. “You realize there are things you really don’t understand about courtship or just acting in a certain way. Things that somehow come naturally to people who go to school in the suburbs and have parents who are culturally assimilated.” I pressed him for specifics, and he mentioned that he had visited his white girlfriend’s parents’ house the past Christmas, where the family had “sat around cooking together and playing Scrabble.” This ordinary vision of suburban-American domesticity lingered with Mao: Here, at last, was the setting in which all that implicit knowledge “about social norms and propriety” had been transmitted. There was no cram school that taught these lessons.

... While he was still an electrical-­engineering student at Berkeley in the nineties, James Hong visited the IBM campus for a series of interviews. An older Asian researcher looked over Hong’s résumé and asked him some standard questions. Then he got up without saying a word and closed the door to his office.

“Listen,” he told Hong, “I’m going to be honest with you. My generation came to this country because we wanted better for you kids. We did the best we could, leaving our homes and going to graduate school not speaking much English. If you take this job, you are just going to hit the same ceiling we did. They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential. You are going to get a job offer, but don’t take it. Your generation has to go farther than we did, otherwise we did everything for nothing.”

... Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”

[In America you have to talk in order to make a good impression -- to be considered a leader. In Asia the same kind of behavior might get you labeled as a showboater or a faker.]

... The law professor and writer Tim Wu grew up in Canada with a white mother and a Taiwanese father, which allows him an interesting perspective on how whites and Asians perceive each other. After graduating from law school, he took a series of clerkships, and he remembers the subtle ways in which hierarchies were developed among the other young lawyers. “There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor,” he says, and then goes on to define the word coolie,a Chinese term for “bitter labor.” “There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.”

By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have. Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

... The lesson about the Bamboo Ceiling that James Hong learned from his interviewer at IBM stuck, and after working for a few years at Hewlett-Packard, he decided to strike off on his own. His first attempts at entrepreneurialism failed, but he finally struck pay dirt with a simple, not terribly refined idea that had a strong primal appeal: hotornot.com. Hong and his co-founder eventually sold the site for roughly $20 million.

Hong ran hotornot.com partly as a kind of incubator to seed in his employees the habits that had served him well. “We used to hire engineers from Berkeley—almost all Asian—who were on the cusp of being entrepreneurial but were instead headed toward jobs at big companies,” he says. “We would train them in how to take risk, how to run things themselves. I remember encouraging one employee to read The Game”—the infamous pickup-artist textbook—“because I figured growing the cojones to take risk was applicable to being an entrepreneur.”

If the Bamboo Ceiling is ever going to break, it’s probably going to have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation than with the emergence of risk-­takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard. People like Steve Chen, who was one of the creators of YouTube, or Kai and Charles Huang, who created Guitar Hero. Or Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer that he sold to Amazon for about a billion dollars in 2009. Hsieh is a short Asian man who speaks tersely and is devoid of obvious charisma. One cannot imagine him being promoted in an American corporation. And yet he has proved that an awkward Asian guy can be a formidable CEO and the unlikeliest of management gurus.

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