The trouble with Tigers

You might have read the Wall Street Journal essay on the "superiority" of Chinese mothers. (If you haven't, here you go.)

Many people have observed that Amy Chua, the author, posted such incendiary stuff to generate interest in her new book. This is no doubt true. It's hard to get noticed out there. But I do think there's a lot of truth to what she writes, and it's not just Chinese mothers who want their children to be "the best."

It's awfully tempting for parents to want their kids to be the very best at something, in part because of the glory it reflects back on us, and in part because it represents a promise that our kids will be OK out there in the world once they've left home.

And it's true that practice, practice, practice will lead to a high level of skill. Maybe not the very best--one of my closest friends growing up was a Chinese violinist who was promised huge rewards for winning competitions. (Mercedes Benz-size prizes. Seriously.) My friend played brilliantly and hated every minute of it. She often won competitions, but there was no joy in it. Just anxiety, frustration, and enmity toward her rivals--feelings that are acid to the heart.

There's irony in striving to be the "best" in this way. It's not that it's trying too hard. Frankly, it's that this ambition isn't good enough. It's far too simple an approach. What the world needs is wisdom, and how do you measure "the best" there? What the world needs is compassion. Again, there is no objective way to measure that, but infinite space for the expression of it.

There's also a danger to the No. 1 mindset, and that is an entitlement to reward. If I'm the best, I should be paid the most. I should be admired the most. I should be loved the most. Only good things should happen to me.

Life doesn't work this way, and people who feel entitled to only good things and the admiration of everyone around them are sure to be disappointed and disillusioned.

Sometimes, for example, we bear children with major disabilities. Every day, I think about the story of my old swimming coach, whose son was born missing parts of his brain and now suffers with epilepsy. Sometimes, we're struck by lightning bolts of bad luck. A good friend from high school, a guy who was the best at many things, died of brain cancer before he turned 40. Another friend, who went to Harvard, rowed crew there, and earned prestigious research opportunities at a stunningly early age, died of Hodgkins-related complications on her twenty-second birthday. And sometimes, our kids have smaller scale challenges that remind us that patience and persistence are fine qualities to cultivate, the most useful of tools for human endeavors.

In any case, being the best offers no protection against the stuff that can happen in life, nor does it make us better at living with others. And striving to be the best is almost a guarantee of disappointment. Only one person can be, after all, and it's a false promise. Best. A final-sounding word in a world where every day the work begins anew.

As a mother, I aim for something different for myself and my kids. Rather than focusing on being the best, which requires you to turn a gimlet eye toward everyone around you, I encourage them to be the truest to themselves, to find the thing they love and to work at it with all their hearts. I encourage them to avoid comparing themselves to other people, as this is a sure way to unhappiness, and instead, to reach toward their own standard of excellence. I also encourage them to feel a sense of duty toward the world, to feel that it's their responsibility to take care of both the planet and the people on it, that the excellence their striving toward has a meaningful purpose.

This is an endless task, and one with no clear winner, but one with room for everyone to contribute in unique and meaningful ways. I'll never be able to say that I'm the best parent, holding up a pair of top-ranking girls. But I'll be able to go toward the inevitable loss we all face--knowing that our lives will end no matter what--feeling that I brought two people into the world who will make it a better place. You don't have to be the best to do that, but it's certainly the best any one of us can do.