The Jewish-American Quarter Life Crisis

The oh-so lovable Asian-Jew duo, Amy Chua and her sidekick husband Jed Rubenfield, are at it again. This time, they are on a mission to motivate the next generation of great Americans. How? Tiger Parent our country back to a golden empire. Make sure that as a culture and individuals we obtain this ever-important trifecta of highly-depressing traits: a superiority complex, an inferiority complex, and, last but not least, impulse control.

The superior inferior, impulsefully-controlled pairing believe these are the elements of building a culture that is, well, superior. Their argument stems from research about different cultural groups that have been more successful financially and fame-wise than others. To some, this is the new racism, not much different than the old. However, there is some merit to the argument, which at least removes genetics from the equation (ala my father’s favorite explanation of racial superiority borrowed from The Bell Curve.)

Instead, Chua and Rubenfield argue that the most “successful” races are those who have something to prove yet also feel like they are better than everyone else. And any racial group can obtain this, it’s an ever-moving ebb and flow of superiority which ebbs when the inferiority complex subsides, leaving room for a new group of inferior superior impulse-controlled people to taste success for a generation or two.

The result of this Tiger Parenting is a generation of people who are making money and largely dissatisfied with life. The superiority complex amounts to guilt if you’re not obtaining what you are supposed to (whatever that is); the inferiority complex is overwhelming so you never feel good enough; and the impulse-control is beneficial only so much as you haven’t completely forgotten what it means to actually enjoy, well, anything at all that doesn’t involve proving yourself. Enter, what Elizabeth of MyNameisElizabeth.com calls The Asian-American Quarter Life Crisis.

Elizabeth tells the story of what it’s like to grow up Asian-Asian, which shares some similarities with growing up Jewish-American, though only at first glance.

This is the core difference:

“There’s little concern in Asian cultures for personal strengths and weaknesses; there’s no such thing as someone who’s “not a math person” or “not an science person,” because excellence in any area can be attained through hard work.  There’s nothing that can’t be achieved through more repetitions or more discipline.  Failure to excel at something is not attributed to our unique dispositions; it’s attributed solely to laziness or lack of effort, and that is unacceptable.”

Jewish culture, or at least Jewish-American, non-Orthodox culture, accepts that some people aren’t math people. But the superiority complex is still key. As is the inferiority complex so we have something to prove. “Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based,” writes Chua and Rubenfield, strategically after explaining the success of Indian-Americans, Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans, and last but not least, Mormons (because no one likes it when the Jews do well.) “Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”

Jews, it seems, unlike Asians, get the superiority complex and inferiority complex, but not so much the impulse control. That’s why you get Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and college dropout-come-billionaire, or Kenneth Cole, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss, Diane von Furstenberg, Max Factor, Estee Lauder, Jonas Salk, Michael Bloomberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Larry Page, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey Brin, Steve Ballmer, Barry Dillar, Michael Eisner, Steven Spielberg, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Aaron Copland, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, the co-founders of Warner Brothers, the co-founders of Miramax, the founder of Paramount Pictures, the president of NBC, not to mention countless others. Yes, all of these people are Jewish. There are plenty who have succeeded who aren’t, but there’s something to be said about Jewish culture, motivation, parenting, and the types of offspring it has produced in the last century.

While Asian Americans, at least according to blogger Elizabeth, are afraid to put their personal strengths and interests to use. “In midst of all this striving for the best, there’s little to no attention paid to what we might actually enjoy.  That would be indulgent, if not completely unheard of….  The result of all of this: a generation of Asian Americans who are excellent at achieving but have no idea what they want to do.  (Or, if they do know, are reluctant to pursue it because it isn’t as stable or well-paid as their current jobs.)  A generation that is incredibly successful but, professionally speaking, not terribly happy.”

I’m fascinated by cultures and how they shape our own ideas of success and happiness. This is going to come off terribly racist, but I have always enjoyed having Asian-Americans as friends because they respect and share in the value of hard work and intellect, whereas I find many Jewish people I know (though not all of course) are too focused on indulgence as the end goal. For Asians, it seems, is helping their families later in life when needed, always putting family first.

I don’t know enough about Asian culture to understand the differences between Chinese-Americans versus, say, Thai-Americans or Japanese-Americans. I don’t usually get into such questions with my Asian friends as I’m afraid to come off racist with my curiosity, but I always admire their unrelenting tenacity and determination, especially in business. They say you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, thus other that my boyfriend who – his goyish American-British-German-self offers me the 1/5th of relaxation and calm that I need, the other four people I want close in my life are those who will inspire me to be my best. There has to be at least one Type-A, highly-intelligent and motivated person in the bunch to keep me on my toes.

Regardless, the Asian-American Quarter Life Crisis is the not surprising result of a culture focused on being the best at jobs that pay a lot and require math and science skills, with little reward for creativity or thinking outside the box. Meanwhile, Jews seem to accept that there are different types of intellect (even though the superiority complex would remind us that we’re the chosen people and we’ve survived many, many lifetimes of persecution, so we’re special no matter what.) We can take risks, but calculated risks. (Unfortunately corruption occasionally comes with the territory because success is measured by how quickly we can feed our impulses (see Bernard Maydoff, Jordan Belfort.)) Needless to say, we aren’t a necessarily culture of impulse control or patience. We are a culture of winning. And surviving.

So what is the Jewish-American Quarter-Life Crisis? Am I living it (or just growing out of it)?

Superiority Complex: yes. We’re told we’re the chosen people. We’re told that we’re constantly persecuted but persevere. We reward those who are creative and those who help others. We don’t need to become lawyers, engineers and doctors but we do need to be successful. As individuals, our parents teach us that we’re special. We can become spoiled in this way, thinking that we are inherently better that other people, and it’s up to us to either take advantage of that or fail to achieve our potential.

Inferiority Complex: Isn’t it interesting that we’ve yet to have one Jewish president, yet The Chairman of the US Federal Reserve (Ben Bernake), Obama’s senior political advisor (David Axelrod), US Supreme Court Justice (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and the White House Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel) are Jewish? We always have something to prove. We want to be the best. The best stock broker. The best comedian. The best Hollywood producer. But we know that we live in a Christian country. We know we’re still the minority. So we fight to prove our value. As individuals, we’re constantly judged and compared to others. Our mothers pour on a thick layer of guilt. We can never be good enough.

Impulse Control: We’ll have none of that. We care about nurturing our talents, we care about having nice things. Not everyone wants a fancy car or house, but as a culture we might care more about appearances than other cultures. Individually this results in a constant war over wanting more for yourself, versus for others. You want to be seen as the best, the brightest, the most creative.

I look at my boyfriend the WASP who grew up in a family with a different type of motivation. They didn’t need to be special. They didn’t want to win. They aren’t all necessarily happy either, but it wasn’t a culture where he was pushed to prove something. As a result he has very little motivation. He wants to teach but at nearly 32 he’s yet to obtain his teaching credential. I look at us and our future together and, while I am confident he will finally go to become a teacher and become a wonderful educator, I’m curious how our joint parental upbringing will mix – the WASP and the Jew. I know that I’ve gotten as far as I am today because I have something to prove. To whom? My parents? The birds? The world? I just have to succeed. There is no option for failure or being lazy or not making money to support myself. And if I don’t then I feel a deep sense of guilt, like I’m wasting my promise, because my parents taught me I’m special.

So is the Jewish-American Quarter Life Crisis the result of not being special enough? Not being Mark Zuckerberg but instead just a cog in the great machine of life? And does anyone know is Mark Zuckerberg is really happy? Sure, he’s rich, but even with great wealth he may never be satisfied.

The other day at therapy, my therapist closed the session with a mantra for me this week. “I am enough.” She often closes our sessions asking me to close my eyes and as she says certain words or phrases figure out how that makes me feel in my body. I cry a lot during this point of our sessions. The mantra I am enough is the heart of the wisdom she wants to impart on me.

What I’ve realized now is that my job will never make me happy. Neither will gobs of money. What I enjoy most in life is cuddling in the morning with my boyfriend. Going camping and listening to the birds chirping on an otherwise quiet path. I am finding it more and more challenging to be motivated by my career. I want a career where I am directly helping other people, or inspiring other people. Instead, I’ve found myself in an industry where I promote products. Products that other businesses use. I joked with my boyfriend yesterday that I somehow am promoting products that may very well help promote products that help promote products that help promote products that eventually might actually make someone’s life better.

There are days I wonder if I’d be happier as a counselor or a reclusive writer creating works of fiction that perhaps someone would read. I’m scared to let go of the salary, I’m scared to not have a retirement savings or be able to afford a house. But, hey, the good/bad news is I can’t afford a house now anyway, even with a job so far detached from bettering society. So the other option becomes more compelling. I’m just scared. I just keep thinking a few more years… a few more years… maybe a startup that knocks it out of the park… maybe a chance to have freedom to do what I want before 30. Before 35. Before 40. Before I’m dead.

If only I knew what I really wanted, maybe it would be easier to leap now. I’m working hard and saving money until I figure it out.

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2 comments

  1. krantcents says:

    I realize culture and religion influence certain behaviors, but I think there are a broad range of upbringing in both Asian and Jewish families. Not all Asians and Jews are overachievers. It is true that in both cultures, education is one of the most important goals though. Perhaps, that is the answer for the remarkable success!

  2. eemusings (NZMuse) says:

    My immigrant Asian values/culture are miles apart from my husband’s white trash upbringing, so I hear ya. What saves him is his competitive and materialistic streak.

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