by Gwendolyn Hoberg
Last January, I read a New York Times op-ed titled “What Drives Success?” It caught my eye because one of the co-authors was Amy Chua, who has received so much attention—praise from some quarters and intense criticism from others—for her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
In “What Drives Success?” Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that three traits are common to “the strikingly successful groups in America” (such as Indian-Americans). “The first is a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite—insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”
The essay explains how these traits work, gives examples, and touches on their drawbacks, or “pathologies.” Rather than get into these details, in this post I want to explore how the three traits might lead to success in writing.
A deep-seated belief in your exceptionality. It may not be something we like to admit here in the modest upper Midwest, but I think many and probably even most writers do have this belief, to some degree. Why write if your experiences, opinions, and ideas are no more word-worthy than anyone else’s? Some writers, it’s true, don’t share their work with others, or view the dissemination of their writing as a necessary evil or an afterthought. But successful writers (which could mean many things, certainly) tend to believe that what they have to say is important, valuable, or special. And that’s okay. It needn’t be a slippery slope to arrogance and delusions of grandeur.
Insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. This we Minnesotans and North Dakotans can handle. “Oh, this poem is nothing special.” “I’ve been working on my memoir for ages but I don’t think it will ever be any good.” Many writers I know (and I’ve felt this way myself) not only say things like this but really mean them—really brood on them and get worked up over them. The key is to let insecurity drive you to work harder and smarter, not allow it to cripple you or deter you. Take Ernest Hemingway’s word for it: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Revise! Strive!
Impulse control. Every writer has her own undesirable impulses. Maybe it’s over-punctuation. Maybe it’s boring digressions. The possibilities are plentiful. So successful writers also put on the editor hat at times and resist their particular temptations. Spontaneity in writing can be fruitful as well as enjoyable, but it usually works out better when balanced somewhere along the way with impulse control.
In your writing experience, have these traits led to success? Do you disagree with what I’ve written, or think other traits are more important? These questions might be a good ones for a writers group or writing class discussion.
Author’s Bio: Gwendolyn Hoberg is the owner of Content & Contour, an editing and writing business based in Moorhead, Minnesota. Gwen writes for the Classical Minnesota Public Radio website and regional publications. She is also the co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota, a travel memoir based on hikes in 2011 and 2013. In addition to her editing and writing, Gwen has played french horn in ensembles throughout Minnesota and North Dakota and currently performs with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.