“Those Immigrants!’: A Psychological Exploration of Achievement

Immigrants with the greatest success keep changing and adapting.

Immigrants with the greatest success keep changing and adapting. (Photo: Pixabay)

Immigration this election year is proving to be a deciding factor for many on choosing the next U.S. President. Will Trump’s anti-immigration position sway enough voters to get him into the White House?

In Europe, comparable anti-immigration politicians are convincing voters that foreigners are the cause of their misfortune: Responsible for high crime rates, crowded schools, high taxes, and limited access to health care.

But the truth is that immigrants are the lifeblood of any nation: Sources of vibrancy, change, challenge, and confrontation with old habits accepted as fact.

I spent the last several years interviewing thirty prominent Indian-Americans. Their narratives are specific with much broader implications for groups from other nations coming to North America, whether it is from the Caribbean, Africa, or Latin America.

What can we learn from the interviews that were conducted with folks ranging from Raj Chetty, the well-known Harvard and recently appointed Stanford economist, to Vijai Nathan, an up-and-coming comedian? What do so many different people have in common by virtue of having immigrated to the U.S. or having grown up in immigrant families?

Interviewees spoke of things that they cherish in this country. Here are a few:

Freedom and affiliation to create. Ideas can develop with fewer cultural constraints through new affiliations with groups different from back home.

More democracy in the classroom. Originality in analytical thinking is sought, and so are opportunities to participate in discussions. People want to learn not through rote repetition or accepted truth, but by saying what they think or feel without fear of criticism.

Idealism. Immigrants repeatedly spoke of recognizing ideals in the United States—justice, freedom, less political corruption—and more or less demanded that their new home live up to these ideals.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities. Meeting like-minded, adventurous risk-takers whose well-capitalized ventures trump fear isn’t that unusual an experience in the States. In the major cities, deals are being made left and right between relative strangers, banks loan huge sums of money with little collateral put up, and who someone is (their background) matters far less than whether others are convinced that they can make money from that person’s ideas.

Minimizing Conflict. Coming from a country where, frankly, one’s community, class, religion, gender, region, or race can be a barrier to success, immigrants often said, “The U.S. is the least tribal place I’ve ever lived.” The freedom that comes from being oneself, not judged by others who think they know who you are based on your name, speech, or appearance is life-changing.

And what do people bring with them as immigrants?

Family Support. In most instances, immigrants from India who succeed in the U.S. have unusually strong emotional support from a family member. It might take time, but ultimately a father or mother stepped forward to embrace or even bless the decision to move, marry, or choose a career.

Drive and Motivation. In many instances, immigrants come to the U.S. with little money. There is no Plan B. As we say in the U.S, “Win or go home.” There’s nothing like the possibility of failure to inspire success.

Mentorship. Many people interviewed spoke of the power of having a mentor to help guide choices, point in the right direction, and teach them how to behave in order to advance in work and at school. It’s not just having the smarts or leadership capabilities, but also needed is someone to help the immigrant learn how to utilize abilities most efficiently.

Resiliency. Everyone in the immigrant community who achieved phenomenal success has the ability to bounce back. This means not being thin-skinned, not taking insults personally, and staying highly focused on the ultimate goal. To be a success, the immigrant has to have a reasonable set of goals and let nothing stand in the way of reaching his or her potential. That requires resiliency characteristically marked by patience and a recognition that one is working to better the world rather than just for oneself.

Understanding of hierarchy. Coming from India, where hierarchical structures exist in everyday life far more than in the U.S., means that successful immigrants often are able to understand who’s in charge, why that person is in charge, who’s next in charge, how fluid the hierarchy is, and what it is based on. Understanding power structures gives Indian immigrants a unique advantage in negotiating nearly everything.

Versatility. The immigrants with the greatest success keep changing and adapting. If an approach to solving a problem isn’t working, try something new. Isn’t that the point of living in a free society? Being improvisational, letting go of rigidity, who knows what will happen?

Raised in an immigrant household myself—my father was from Bavaria, and arrived here in the summer of 1941—I know first-hand of the challenges faced emotionally and culturally by immigrants and their children who are born here. My wife was also brought up in an immigrant household. And as a clinical psychologist and social observer, I try to understand the behaviors, economics, and social conditions which make success possible against the odds.

Scott Haas is the author of Those Immigrants!, Back of the House: Secrets of Restaurant, and Hearing Voices and the co-author of Da Silvano. He is a James Beard award winner and a psychologist. “Those Immigrants!’: A Psychological Exploration of Achievement