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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Tiger Mom's regime won't get her kids very far in Hollywood

Amy_chuaIt’s hard to go anywhere these days, especially if you’re a parent with young kids, where the conversation doesn’t eventually turn to Amy Chua’s red-hot childrearing memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It offers a provocative depiction of Chinese-style extreme parenting -- her daughters are not allowed to watch TV, have playdates or get any grade below an A, all as preparation for success in life, beginning with getting into an Ivy League school, like their Tiger Mom, who went to Harvard and now teaches at Yale Law School.

But of all the heated reaction to Chua's parenting strategy, none was as compelling as what former Harvard president Larry Summers had to say when he discussed parenting with Chua at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Summers made a striking point, arguing that the two Harvard students who’d had the most transformative impact on the world in the past 25 years were Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, yet neither had, ahem, graduated from college. If they had been brought up by a Tiger Mom, Summers imagined, she would've been bitterly disappointed.

I have no beef with Chua's parenting code, which hardly seems any more extreme than the neurotic ambitions of mothers and fathers I'm exposed to living on the Westside of Los Angeles. But if Chua wants a radically different perspective on the relationship between higher education and career achievement, she should spend some time in Hollywood, a place that's been run for nearly a century by men who never made it through or even to college. The original moguls were famously uneducated, often having started as peddlers and furriers before finding their perches atop the studio dream factories. But even today, the industry is still dominated by titanic figures, both on the creative and on the business side, who never got anywhere near Harvard Yard.

A short list of the industry leaders who never finished or even attended college would include Steve Jobs, David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Barry Diller, Ron Meyer, Peter Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Quentin Tarantino. Some of this is clearly a generational thing, since everyone on that list is over 40. On the other hand, the younger new media icons seem as likely to be degree free as their Hollywood brethren, whether it's Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter, who didn't graduate from college either. (Though it’s true that Zuckerberg might not have even thought of Facebook if he hadn’t been in the sexually charged freshman swirl at Harvard.)

But in showbiz, you learn by doing. If there is a common denominator to all of those success stories, it's that they were all men in a hurry, impatient with book learning, which could only take them so far in the rough 'n tumble world of Hollywood. Ron Meyer, a founder of Creative Artists Agency and now president of Universal Studios, dropped out of high school, served in the Marines and proudly notes on his resume that his first job was as a messenger boy for the Paul Kohner Agency.

“The truth is that if you have a particular talent and the will to succeed, you don't really need a great education,” Meyer told me this week. “In showbiz, your real college experience is working in a talent agency mailroom. That's the one place where you can get the most complete understanding of the arena you're playing in and how to deal with the complicated situations you'll come across in your career.”

There are plenty of successful lawyers and MBAs in Hollywood, but the raw spirit of can-do invention and inspiration will take people farther than the ability to read a complex profit and loss statement. Years ago, David Geffen, who dropped out of night school at Brooklyn College before eventually landing a job in the William Morris mailroom, once told me that his early success was rooted in the ability to develop relationships. “It's not about where you went to college or how good-looking you are or whether you could play football--it's about whether you can create a relationship.”

To produce a film or create a TV show or found a company requires the same kind of raw entrepreneurial zeal that it must have taken the ‘49ers who came West in search of gold. “You often feel like you’re surrounded by a do-it-yourself ethic, almost a pioneer spirit,” says Michael De Luca, producer of “The Social Network,” who dropped out of NYU four credits short of graduation to take a job at New Line Cinema, where he rose to become head of production. “All those successful guys you're talking about--they had an intense desire to create something big, new and different. They didn't need to wait around for the instruction manual.”

In David Rensin’s wonderful oral history, “The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up,” survivors of the Mike Ovitz-era CAA experience tell war stories about how, as mailroom flunkies, they had to replenish Ovitz's candy dishes, stock his jars with raw cashews and fill his water jar with Evian. It seemed like hellish drudgery, but as the agents recalled, it prepared you for all the craziness of later Hollywood life, where multi-million dollar movie star deals could fall apart if someone's excercise trainer or make-up specialist wasn't provided for.

Even today, people in Hollywood are far more impressed by, say, your knack for finding new talent, than by what your grades were like. “Show business is all about instinct and intuition,” says Sam Gores, head of the Paradigm Agency, who went to acting school, but never to college, having joined a meat-cutter's union by the time he was 18. “To succeed, you need to have a strong point of view and a lot of confidence. Sometimes being the most well-informed person in your circle can almost get in your way.”

In show business, charm, hustle and guile are the aces in the deck. When New York Times columnist David Brooks was dissecting Chua's book recently, he argued that “managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group” imposed the kind of cognitive demands that far exceed what’s required of students in a class at Yale. He probably picked that up reading a fancy sociology text, but it was a letter-perfect description of the skill set for a gifted filmmaker, agent or producer.

In Hollywood, whether you were a C student or Summa Cum Laude, it's a level playing field. “When you're working on a movie set, you've got 50 film professors to learn from, from the sound man to the cinematographer,” says producer David Permut, who dropped out of UCLA to work for Roger Corman. “I've never needed a resume in my whole career. All you need is a 110-page script that someone is dying to make and you're in business.”

--Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," at a book festival in Austin, Texas.

Credit: Larry D. Moore/Associated Press 


Comments () | Archives (33)

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During my days of drudgery in Hollywood, I found having an Ivy League degree was often looked down upon. The reaction I would hear (and others I know had the same experience) would be: "Oh, you're smart" (derogatory emphasis on 'smart'). As if you were trying to say you were better than those who didn't have a degree or had one from a less "reputable" school. That only made people work harder to show you up. Definitely not something to boast about. Just show your value by doing, not flashing your credentials.

Now Amy Chua says her book was merely an ironic take on motherhood. Yet to read it as ironic would miss Chua's point which is to say, she is better than others. By extension, her children, her way of life is better than others. I can only imagine what Chua has to say of the single White, Black and Hispanic mothers who do not have the luxuries and amenities that Chua is privy to? Chua started with a cheap shot which appears to have blown up in her face.

My parents were like Chua too. That was 18 years ago. I immigrated 18 years ago but only in the last 3 years have my parents spoken with me since I found myself unable and unwilling to abide by their regime. I love America. I love that success is not an end unto itself. The America as I know it is kinder and gentler, the Church of Second Chances. In this temple, people like Chua are embarrassingly visible as a shark swimming with a school of dolphins. In this temple, following one's dream and succeeding is exhorted with or without the college degree.

Finally, why are the Chinese media scoffing at the notion that Chua speaks for the Chinese nation?

Hollywood is hardly the best argument against strong parental teachings on discipline and learning. Look at all those great role models who succeeded: Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, the Khardashians, etc. And many of those studio execs are pompous walking egos.

You can succeed in Hollywood because it doesn't require much formal training. It is a different field then engineering, law, or medicine. True, Bill Gates did not finish his degree, but the engineers that have propelled companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Facebook to greatness have strong technical backgrounds.

Who cares if a studio exec didn't have a degree? The worst that can happen is there might be a bad films. But would you trust an airplane designer who never had formal training in basic structural engineering or aeronautics? In the worst case, hundreds of people would die.

gee.. i have another common characteristic of most of the hollywood types.. they were all jews... u know, the original old boys club? dont be a hypocrite, unless you are white and jewish, nothing will happen in hollywood for you

the downfall of America's future in two words: "Participation Trophy"

I read "Sh8t my dad used to day" but have zero interest in reading Tiger Mom, go figure.

Somewhere between the ideal and reality falls the shadow...or some such words to that effect written by T.S. Elliott.
Tiger Mom's methods are somewhat harsh but I know another set of parents who follow the same set of standards. And in a periodical which I receive recently pointed out:
-"The U.S. graduates over ten times more lawyers than PhD engineers every year."
-"U.S. Industry spends more on tort litigation than on research" (see previous item).
-"52% of PhD Engineers under 45 working in the U.S. are foreign born."
-From presentation given by Michael Heil, PhD. President, Ohio Aerospace Institute
So the question is - do we hope for another miracle such as a Bill Gates who was able to transcend the bounds of academia to create an engineering masterpiece, or do we change the value system of our children, e.g. learning engineering, theoretical mathematics, physics and other sciences will be the road to Golconda, or spending four years in a prestigous instituion learning nothing but philosophy and art history will be in the best interst of our country?
Let me answer for you. Actually both. Kids will need philosophy, particularly ethics for a moral center, and art history for an appreciation of the beauty which surrounds us. However, to spend all of the time available during the bachelor's education process learning nothing but Jean Paul Sartre and the fluidity of the strokes of the Italian art masters in place of finding cures for cancer, answers to cleaning up our environment, even exploring the stars then it is time to do a check on what is important versus what is not and at the very most put what is the lessor of importance in a world where things are changing exponentially over time that only passes on a linear scale res ipsa locquitor.

Chua's book is fiction. To peddle it as autobiographical is just plain 'clazy.'

Chinese Jews? I didn't think it was possible.

I don't think she wants her kids to become big in Hollywood. It's more likely that she expects her kids to become lawyers or doctors.

The whole world doesn't revolve around Hollywood. Gates and Zuckerberg have been blessed with a rare talent that has made them a lot of money. The rest of the world is made up of doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. - all competing to succeed. And, for this, you need, from childhood, to prepare diligently. Tiger Mom is not an anomaly in the Asian world. If more of the world's parents (especially in the U.S.) were as dedicated as Asian parents, we would have a much greater number of those who excel, not a greater number of those who just drop out of school and lose their way in life (as so many young people in the U.S. seem to be doing). American parents, sharpen up!

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