The race is on to write the obituary for the national ethos known as the American Dream
From the time the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and that all possessed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the essence of the American spirit has been the individual right – regardless of social class or circumstances of birth – to make one’s life better, richer and fuller. The remarkable history of America has been embroidered on a tapestry of dreams – the American Dream.
The American Dream is a simple supposition that any individual who is creative in thought and diligent in action has the opportunity to make life better, achieve prosperity, realize success and experience upward social mobility. To list the icons who personify the American Dream would be to enumerate the history of America.
Yet, the American Dream was not, and is not perfect. Sometimes the Dream is elusive and appears to be more myth than reality. But in the history of America, every individual effort to attain success and better one’s place in society can be traced back to the belief in and the desire to live the American Dream. If society has an engine that drives it forward, then surely in this country that engine has been the American Dream.
While some have disparaged the American Dream as simply a selfish drive for material goods, it is much more than that. The American Dream is a spirit that imbues the individual with the belief that they have the right to follow their dream to do what others say they can’t do or can’t be done.
Historian James Adams was the first to articulate the fundamental nature of the American Dream when he wrote in his 1931 book, Epic of America, “But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
A Nation of Proliferating Have Nots?
As deeply as the American Dream has been embedded in the core of America’s self-identity and enshrined in the country’s history and politics, there is an increasing feeling among some that the American Dream is passé; that it has become more of a pipe dream than a reality. Those who believe this cite the decline in the middle-class, the stagnation of wages, low employment growth, government regulatory interference, the increasing control of corporate Goliaths, along with the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer, as clean signs of a vanishing American Dream.
None other than The Wall Street Journal suggested a certain ephemeralness of the American Dream when it reported in a recent article (Risk-Averse Culture Infects U.S. Workers, Entrepreneurs) that “Americans have long taken pride on their willingness to bet it all on a dream. But that risk-taking spirit appears to be fading.” Reporter Ben Casselman continued “… a broad cross section of U.S. economists, from a range of academic disciplines and political persuasions, agree that a specific and necessary kind of risk-taking is on decline.”
Even the eminent American economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz is pessimistic about the survival of the American Dream. In his book, The Price of Inequality, he uses a wide array of statistics (that only an economist would love) to make the case that America “is no longer the land of opportunity” and “the American Dream is a myth.”
It is ironic that those forecasting the death of the American Dream rely on a vast array of charts, graphs and statistics in an effort to prove that the American Dream has been lost. The naysayers who offer a gloomy outlook for the American Dream often will cite a plethora of “evidence” such as wages as a percentage of GDP, average annual hours worked, employment-population ratios, labor force participation rates and reams of inane, mundane statistical minutia, all designed to lead to the conclusion that the American Dream is dead. This is the same mentality that motivated Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office to pronounce in 1899, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
The fatal-flaw in the logic of these “experts” is that the American Dream is not a statistic or a trend, but a spirit. You can’t measure spirit; you can only marvel at its power. Statistics catalog the past, while the American Dream reminisces about the future. What would these doomsayers have said to the Irish and Italian immigrants of the 19th century? If the statistics and economic charts of the 1930s had been analyzed by these same experts, the obvious conclusion they would have postulated was the death of the American Dream.
In reality, it was the spirit of the American Dream that encouraged the huddled masses of immigrants to the United States to see beyond their slums and ghettos and to resist the prejudices and laws all designed to discourage their advance. Indeed, it was the spirit of the American Dream that allowed masses to survive the Great Depression and not give up.
The Doomsday Chroniclers
Now we are again being told the American Dream is dead. Don’t believe it—even for a moment. It may seem as though the dream is dissipating, but that’s what others want you to believe. The good news is that the American Dream works best when others believe it no longer works. The American Dream is as alive as an individual’s spirit, ideas, talent and effort to realize it; but it must be understood that the American Dream is earned, not bequeathed.
Living the American Dream is not easy; it never has been. Indeed, buried and hidden along the path are numerous IEDs (Individual Effort Discouragement) planted to serve as both psychological and physical “barriers to entry” set to intimidate and discourage those who are less than passionately committed to achieving their personal edition of the American Dream.
Living the American Dream requires plowing forward with sharp edges; being different and finding a new way to do things. The move to conformity, peer group pressure, best-practices, defense of the status quo and the philosophy “we’ve always done it that way,” are all IED weapons used to ward off individuals seeking to find their American Dream. The good news is that the more prevalent these dream-crushing attitudes are, the more opportunity there is for your success.
The American Dream is alive and well for those individuals who act as if their life depends upon achieving their dream, because it does. These are individuals who fear not doing what’s right, more that they fear doing what’s wrong. They challenge the status quo; always looking to find better ways to do what has been done and new ways to do what has not been done. These are the chronic pathfinders who live in the present, but constantly reminisce about the future; not to predict it, but to create it. For them a “barrier to entry” becomes a gateway to success that leads them to the American Dream. And that dream can and should be everone’s dream.
And the Moral of the Story …
Discovering that the American Dream is still alive all comes down understanding that any new idea or concept will be resisted and every effort to implement it will be difficult and lonely. But one can take comfort in recognizing that if they are not finding opposition to their ideas and efforts, then they probably are not on the right path to achieving their American Dream.
In the end, what makes achieving the American Dream so exhilarating are not the material rewards that may follow, but the recognition and satisfaction derived from doing what others said could not be done and doing so against all apparent odds. That is what does and will keep the American Dream alive.