Dateline: Makati, Philippines
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell describes an important difference between the business-minded, Confucian culture of the Chinese, and the more “freedom”-minded American culture.
Surely, Americans are, by nature, rather entrepreneurial. In fact, we frequently discuss that plenty of otherwise good business ideas get squashed there because The Land of the Free is one of the most brutally competitive markets on earth. (The fact that things like healthcare are still outlandishly priced is another story)
However, Gladwell compares the Chinese and American cultures based on their agricultural history. Western agriculture – largely based on wheat – encourages “fatalistic” attitudes and, he argues, a work ethnic that views work as an intrusion.
Meanwhile, eastern rice-based agriculture like that of China, requires intense attention to detail and a precise mathematical skill. The intense management demands of growing rice shapes a culture that accepts and values hard work, advance planning, and strategic thought.
Outliers is a study in high performers and why they achieve greatness. For some, it even seems to answer the age-old, westernized stereotype of “Why are Asians so good at math?”
The book also goes into detail the idea that native intelligence alone is no indication of success. Indeed, there are “secrets” to success, including the success of many of the world’s newly wealthy here in Asia.
Today, western students are heeding the call of politicians like Barack Obama to go to college, as if it is some form of civic duty. No one seems to know WHY they ought to attend university, but simply that it’s “the thing to do”.
And students in The Land of the Free are increasingly studying things that indicate that they have no clue why they are attending school. Psychology is now the #2 major in the United States.
While the United States does have the highest rate of psychotropic medication (ironically, the name of my high school band) use in the world, I doubt that the country needs millions of new psychology students.
Of course, most psychology majors aren’t looking to go into practice, but are rather looking for whatever they can do to get the vaunted four-year degree and begin a life ravaged by record student loan debt thanks to a government-created bubble.
Other top US college majors include “English literature” (remember all those poetry majors protesting at Occupy Wall Street?) and philosophy. I enjoy philosophy as much as the next guy, but I have a lot more time to enjoy it after building and exiting several million-dollar businesses… that I didn’t have to finish college to start.
So what does this all have to do with the cultural divide between North America and Asia, wheat and rice?
Well, quite a lot.
As far as studies go, Chinese universities announced several years ago that they were simply canceling college majors that “didn’t pay”.
Although the north and south of China are culturally divided by things ranging from thought patterns to height, the country – along with most of Asia as a whole – takes a very pragmatic view that the modern western world does not.
As I always say, they have to. You can’t go from being a country that lives under the poverty line to a global player by doing the same things that left your people dirt poor.
Of course, the developed western world believes they can buck this trend by turning away from what made them prosperous in the first place (save from conquering native lands and creating hundreds of millions of tax slaves by mere default).
The United States became wealthy by being a leader in innovation, inventing new life-changing products, and encouraging success. Today, politicians tell students to “follow their bliss”; essentially, to go to college to booze and get laid as much as to get educated.
My friend Aaron Clarey points out in his book Worthless that most ballyhooed college majors could be learned at home for 99% less than the cost of attending college. He even half-jokingly suggest that robots will replace liberal arts majors.
After all, it wasn’t liberal arts or French majors that brought about the Industrial Revolution.
The fact that politicians, parents, students, and society at large don’t realize that turning away from what made them successful in the first place is particularly troubling. I call this The Paris Hilton Effect; the phenomenon of a country becoming so wealthy that generations go by in which no one knows WHAT made them wealthy.
This goes on for awhile, until the country winds up going broke… something no one, ironically, saw coming.
You can’t maintain wealth in a country that prioritizes “coming of age” over real-life learning, produces nothing, imposes endless regulations, uses nationalist politics to keep foreign talent out, devalues it currency, and spits on success.
It’s just a matter of time.
This is why the demographic and cultural concept of the “death of the west” is so serious. It goes beyond the concept we discuss here, from protecting your assets offshore to investing overseas. It is an entire cultural phenomenon that you and your children will have to adapt to.
The history of China and any number of other kingdoms in Asia and elsewhere demonstrate that the shifting sands of history eventually wash over countries who get too wrapped up in their success.
One thing the United States in particular has going for it is its university system, although that, too, is waning. Many foreigners, some with status-conscious parents, still attend US schools, even if they are increasingly milking the school system for a name-brand degree before returning to do business, practice medicine, or program systems at home.
However, I am seeing trends that even seeking a western degree is becoming less valuable as concepts like medical tourism gain traction and people become more accepting of foreign education.
Later this week, I’ll address the west’s other major problem: its low savings rate.
As if removing any analytical reason from business culture wasn’t enough, the west sorely lacks a number of emerging world countries in cash-on-hand.
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