in Musings

Chinese Parenting Fails to Produce Children of Greatness?

Chinese parenting is great at producing skilled and compliant knowledge workers, but it utterly fails to produce children who can achieve greatness, remake industries, or come up with disruptive innovation.  All the Chinese-American people I know who now perform at the highest levels – both creatively and technically – either achieved this without being driven to it by their parents (ask Niniane Wang about her upbringing) or in rebellion against the paths their parents set out for them (see Tony Hsieh http://www.businessinsider.com/tony-hsieh-life-before-zappos-2010-10).  The others – the skilled and compliant mediocre – make superb employees for the truly great, and if that is what their parents consider “successful,” then that’s exactly what they’ll get.

This quote comes from here, where Yishan Wong gives his take on whether Chinese mothers are superior.

It’s a fascinating response, and it can probably be generalized to most types of Asian parenting. What’s more, I fully agree with his view.

To give some background on Yishan and why his statement should hold some weight, he’s worked at PayPal, Facebook, Square, Sunfire, and reddit. All of his roles culminated in Manager/Director/CEO status. In short, he’s worked with and managed a lot of employees. He’s written broadly about the hiring process, the secret to career success, and a thousand other answers on Quora.

He’s also Chinese-American himself, and was the recipient of the type of Chinese “Tiger” parenting he describes as producing compliant and mediocre employees. But what has made him so successful in the traditional definition of the word is not because of, but rather despite, overbearing parenting methods.

While his parents pushed him to learn the piano and speak Chinese, they largely left him alone when it came to computers and gave him some lee-way to have a social life. As a result, he was able to pursue his passion of computers, an in-demand, lucrative career, while developing strong communication skills.

He writes:

[My parents] pushed very strongly in a few areas (piano and Chinese), while doing a half-assed job in others (e.g. allowing me to have friends and dating, frowning vaguely at the computer).  The result is that my life today is almost devoid of piano or other forms of music, as well as any actual speaking of Chinese, despite retaining high technical skill in both of those. In contrast, I developed considerable skill in computers and – especially compared to my Chinese peers – relationship-building, communication, and people-management skills.  The fact that they were relatively liberal during my teen years in allowing me to have a social life (and by social life I mean “chasing girls and staying out late”) had a direct effect on developing my ability to communicate and connect with people, including later my ability to manage people and organizations.

Some of my peers in high school and college were the subject of overbearing parents who limited their social lives. They had a curfew – even when they were well past a reasonable age for curfews (i.e. 17+) – they weren’t allowed to invite friends over or go to friends’ parties – because it was a waste of time – and of course, no alcohol drinking was permitted whatsoever. It’s easy to tell these people apart from other, more fortunate ones who had better social lives – they tend to be very reserved, afraid to initiate conversations or assert themselves, and usually have degrees of social quirks or oddities that make them seem “weird.”

This isn’t a slight on them, but it’s the recurring theme from what I’ve seen among the more sheltered. Perhaps at some point they’re able to break out of their shells, but it’s understandable why kids subject to this kind of autocratic parenting make good employees but terrible entrepreneurs. Do as you’re told, listen to the authority figure, and don’t step across any boundaries.

I’m well aware of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of “Tiger” parenting myself. I started playing the piano at a young age, and my mom was fervent in making me practice. I didn’t particularly like any of the classical music I’d been forced to learn, so getting me to sit down for more than 15 minutes at a time in front of the piano was a chore. Vitriolic arguments would regularly take place in our house. Sometimes my mom would sit down beside me to watch me play and correct my every mistake, even telling me I couldn’t go to bed until I had perfected a song.

It was not a fun time, and as a result, for many years I despised playing the piano – despite, like Yishan, being technically proficient at it. I was never taught why I was doing it. All I knew was that I would probably never become a professional pianist, so it made no sense to me. I eventually quit, just before finishing Grade 10, the last level in RCM. It was only years later, when I discovered I could print sheet music for animes and movies I enjoyed watching and learn those, that I began to appreciate the piano again. The motivation to play all of a sudden came from within.

Had I never found this intrinsic motivation, I would have gone through life believing that I despised the piano, classical music, and that I lacked musical creativity.

I look at friends who have chosen careers in law or medicine and wonder if that’s their fate. They were never intrinsically motivated to become lawyers or doctors, but are merely doing so at the whim of their parents. One of my friends from China says that this is the exact situation in Chinese universities. Kids study 12+ hours a day during high school to obtain entrance into elite colleges under the watchful eye of their parents, but once they get in, they’re clueless about what to study or do with their lives, and many of them struggle.

My own university experience reflected this. I went to the University of Toronto, a school where the number of international (read: Chinese) students far outweighs the number of domestic students. My business program was arguably 80% Chinese. I worked and interacted with many of them, both in social and business settings. A significant portion of them seemingly did not care about their futures.

Additionally, out of hundreds of students in my year, less than a handful were interested in entrepreneurship. Not even as a “career,” but just as a topic. The vast majority of students were solely interested in finding a job and climbing the corporate ladder. They’d largely been indoctrinated by their parents to get high grades, go to a good college, and then find some kind of job. I know this all too well.

For the most part our entire lives are planned out from A to B by our parents. There’s a very clear roadmap to follow. You may feel a niggling unhappiness, but the parental pressure is too great to consider straying too far off the beaten path.

This might be why the vast majority of Chinese adults I know fall into a few categories: professors, engineers, or accountants. Respectable professions, no doubt. But very few entrepreneurs. Very few who start their own business, freelance, or strike out on their own. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these adults want their children to follow in their footsteps; it’s all they were told by their parents, and it’s all they ever knew themselves.

But while these adults hold hold respectable professions, they seem to largely get “stuck” after a certain point in middle manager-type positions. Some have deemed this as the “bamboo ceiling.” Perhaps it’s veiled racism, but part of me wonders if this stems back to Chinese people not having the adequate soft skills to make it in those revenue generating roles, such as sales, empathy, people management, and overall social intelligence. These are skills that our parents largely never taught us as important, are not necessary in the achievement of high grades, but are absolutely critical at the highest levels of business.

Of course, most of this is observation and conjecture. Maybe, and hopefully, I’ll be proven wrong. But for now, I’m taking Yishan’s view and agreeing that Chinese parenting is great at producing compliant, skilled employees, but these same employees will be hard-pressed to make it beyond a certain level. As for me, I’ll do what I can to try and avoid the same fate.