Commentary : #tigerblood vs. Tiger Mother

3 03 2011

This is straying pretty far from the usual blog posts, but its topical. Listening to Bill Simmons’s podcast with Chuck Klosterman while driving home last night got me thinking about the role of confidence in society.  Would be interested in hearing feedback on it.

A common reaction to periods of high anxiety, stress (or hangovers), is negative self-talk.  Muttering things like “I hate myself, I’m worthless” etc.  These reflexive utterances, though not fully contemplated, produce a running monologue that reinforces negative thought processes during the period of anxiety.  With the amount of stress, hangovers and therapy that Charlie Sheen has been through, I suspect that he has trained himself to reflexively substitute negative self-talk phrases with positive phrases, “I’m winning.” “I have tiger blood.”  Does this lead to a better outcome?

Certainly, it seems that he has exerted more control of the public narrative than other celebrity implosions (Mel Gibson, John Galliano). It is difficult for the public to reach a consensus. Is Sheen on drugs?  Is he in a manic episode?  Or is this Sheen’s “new normal”, after his reward circuits have been twisted by heavy stimulant use paired with his conscious effort to train his mind to project a positive attitude? His hyper-confidence, coupled with his success in certain metrics (money, fame, sexual conquest), and his self-promotion through traditional (TV interviews) and social media (1M twitter followers in 24 hours, #winning and #tigerblood hash-tags), enable him to continue his behavior and promote its acceptance.

Compare Sheen’s #tigerblood approach to that of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua.  Chua used relentless criticism on her children to drill them into technical mastery of academics and musical performance.  Her kids achieved by her metrics, though felt terrible about their perceived failures. She then cleverly tapped into America’s faltering confidence in the face of rising Chinese competition to drive an incredible volume of analysis and publicity for her book on the Tiger Mother approach to parenting.  The most telling quote is from Elizabeth Kolbert’s analysis in the New Yorker

Just about the only category in which American students outperform the competition is self-regard. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, in one of their frequent studies of education policy, compared students’ assessments of their abilities in math with their scores on a standardized test. Nearly forty per cent of American eighth graders agreed “a lot” with the statement “I usually do well in mathematics,” even though only seven per cent of American students actually got enough correct answers on the test to qualify as advanced. Among Singaporean students, eighteen per cent said they usually did well in math; forty-four per cent qualified as advanced.

Implicit in this quote is that academic achievement is of greater value than self-regard.  But as Larry Summers pointed out to Chua at Davos

Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?  You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated.

Both of these people had extreme self-confidence, though also significant intellectual candlepower. Charlie can’t match on the brains front, but he possesses a certain charisma that is perhaps the Hollywood equivalent of book smarts.

The real fascination with Charlie Sheen saga is what it says about the role of confidence in society. Sheen represents an extreme test case to the question, “Is confidence the key to success?”


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2 responses

3 03 2011
Andy McKenzie

Lovin’ the foray into real world issues! I agree that this issue of whether having a self-serving bias is useful is a very interesting one. Another salient data point entrepreneurs are typically overconfident: http://ideas.repec.org/p/diw/diwwpp/dp501.html.

The “success” you mention is more about outlier achievements, though, and doesn’t really consider median returns. So for example, the avg people who drop out of college are probably making a mistake, even though the most successful businesspeople (the ilk of Gates & Zuck) will tend to be overrepresented in dropouts.

5 12 2012
Michael Lin

Coming late to the party. Surprised I missed this interesting and well written post. I think there are two important counterpoints to Summers’ examples.

First, it is not clear that Gates and Zuckerberg suffered from overconfidence earlier in life in general. Is it possible their motivation in coding (a solitary activity) came from lack of confidence in other areas?

Second, it is for most people not practical to use Gates and Zuckerberg as templates for training. As inspirational role models, they may serve a good purpose to remind us that, if a good opportunity presents itself, it may make sense to take it. However, for most of us, it would be more profitable to concentrate on building skills that can give us a competitive edge in a more probability-assured way. Put another way, the path of Gates and Zuckerberg is not universalizable. If a large proportion of students tried that, there would still only be one student who succeeds at that scale per decade, and meanwhile all the others would be in a worse position than those who chose not to go down this merry path.

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