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Innovators Don't Learn at the Feet of Wolves and Tigers

 By Nathan Wakelin-King, a Tsinghua University student interning at the EO

Last week’s Chinese papers were absorbed by the “Wolf Dad” controversy. Xiao “Wolf Dad” Baiyou wrote a book unapologetically stating that a father could ensure his child’s future success by demanding their total submission during childhood.

In his view, this would necessarily include a regime of beatings until the child turned 12.  Around a year earlier, there was the publication and subsequent popularity and controversy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The Author, American-born Chinese Amy Chua, shocked many American readers with her methods of child rearing that were by American standards, unbelievably strict.

This year has also seen the death of Steve Jobs. After his death, Steve Jobs received an outpouring of veneration in China that quite probably exceeded the veneration in his home country. Eulogies appeared throughout the Chinese press. Sycophantic biographies and books claiming to describe the secrets of his success filled the shelves of bookstores and the street trays of pirated book vendors everywhere.

It is not surprising. Chinese society highly values success, and in modern China this is synonymous with prestige and with wealth. Jobs was certainly successful: in the fifteen years since Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, more than $150 billion of shareholder wealth was created. Over 250 million iPods have been sold. The 2010 Harvard Business review valued him as the best performing CEO in the world, helping deliver a 3188% industry-adjusted return after rejoining Apple.

Did Jobs have a Wolf Dad or a Tiger Mother? No, he did not.

Growing up in Silicon Valley, Jobs was influenced by his surroundings. In a 1995 interview for the Smithsonian Institution, he reflected on how, with an engineer that he had befriended, he used to build electronics that came in kit form. “…it gave one a sense of what was inside a finished product”, he said. “You looked at a television set and you would think: ‘I haven’t built one of those, but I could’”. Similarly, Jobs met his future business partner, Steve Wozniak, through a mutual friend.

His upbringing allowed him to express his interest in electronics, at a time when it was neither prestigious nor economically valuable to do so. Not only did this allow him to teach himself technical skills, but in Chinese terms, it provided him with some useful guanxi.

Wolf dad would have made this impossible. For the Xiao “cubs”, the price of stopping of at a friend’s house in between school and home was a fixed 10 blows with the cane. Tiger mom would also have made this difficult. Amy Chua describes how her daughters were effectively banned from socializing outside of school, and describes as “annoying” the invitations that her then young daughters received for “play dates”.

For Jobs, passion was important. In the same interview, talking about successful entrepreneurship, he said: “it’s pretty much an 18 hour per day, seven day per week for a while. Unless you have a lot of passion…you’re going to give it up”.

Compare this to Wolf Dad. The Global Times wrote: “in Xiao’s mind-set, it’s crucial to override all children’s own desires and preferences to make sure they are 100 percent focused on their studies”. Xiao Baiyou’s eldest son reportedly had an interest in plants when he was in elementary school, but it was quickly beaten out by his father’s cane. Could an interest in plants be leveraged into success? Possibly. It’s hard to know for sure, and now we will never know. The likelihood of massive success from a teenage interest in electronics during the 1970s would have been no less uncertain.

Amy Chua, a law professor, admits in her book that she was not passionate about law. She writes: “I went to law school, mainly because I did not want to go to medical school… [despite academic success] I always worried that law was not my calling”. She also writes: “I was not naturally skeptical or questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.” She said she felt “ridiculous” in her subsequent job on Wall Street.

She is now a law professor at Yale. This is success, but it is not comparable to the success of Jobs. It certainly is not ground-breaking. Her latest book, on the other hand, is a huge success – both in the simple terms of the money it made her, and the way in which its controversies influenced public debate. This phenomenal success is driven by something that she obviously is passionate about - the raising of successful children.

Jobs dropped out of College. He then listened in on courses that he found interesting. He told Stanford students in a 2005 speech that “much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on”. Bill Gates, incidentally, is another phenomenally successful college drop out. It is hard to imagine Wolf Dad or Tiger Mom being happy with such an arrangement.

So would Steve Jobs’ passion, curiosity and creativity have survived a lupine or feline upbringing? Probably not.

It’s clear that successful entrepreneurs, from altruism or otherwise, benefit their country of origin. An editorial by Jiang Ruxiang of CN Management Consulting has lamented the lack of such figures in Chinese society. In a New York Times article about entrepreneurship, Thomas Friedman once quipped that if “you want more good jobs – spawn more Steve Jobs”.

Innovative entrepreneurs are a small but essential ingredient in the cocktail that is a thriving, first-world economy. Despite the fact that its manufacturing was outsourced, the majority of the aforementioned revenue did not go to the countries where “iProducts” are made; it went to the country that designed them, marketed them, and coordinated their manufacture – America. A landmark in the history of the US’ economic prosperity is the mass production of Henry Ford, his namesake corporation, and other manufacturing giants. Similarly, the economic recovery and subsequent boom of Japan’s post war economy was spearheaded by high-tech exports from corporations like Mitsubishi, Hyundai, and Toyota. The relative prosperity of countries like South Korea and Germany is built on the revenue of corporations like Samsung, Siemens, and BMW.

This is not to proclaim the superiority of the U.S. education culture. The U.S. consistently underperforms in the OECD tests. Many children in the west could do with a little Panthera tigris or Canis lupus in their upbringing. China’s consistent high rating is something it should be proud of, and its current growth would be impossible without highly educated citizens.

However, if the next generation of Chinese are all being raised by wolves and tigers, then this will have negative consequences, at least in the long run. No doubt predatory parenting produces perfectly competent engineers, lawyers, accountants, and doctors. But it certainly doesn’t produce Steve Jobs.


Economic Observer Shi Yuzhu vs Steve Jobs [Chinese]

Chinese Parenting Gets Even Tougher, translation via Wordcrunch

Global Times Spoil the Child

OECD PISA test table

The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success, by Carmine Gallo

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua 


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