A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with my wife’s family in France. One evening my niece, who is currently a college student, asked me, ‘What is the American Dream’? She had a paper that was due in a week on ‘The American Dream’ and wanted my thoughts.
Interestingly, this is a question I’ve thought of more than once. My parents immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. As a first generation American I have also pursued the American Dream. But what is it?
The concept of an ‘American Dream’ dates back to the founding of our country. The American Dream was about the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of the status of your birth. It was about creating a country where everyone could break free from class restrictions and religious persecution. The American Dream was a promise that a person could increase their station in life through their own labor and ingenuity – A Horatio Alger story. Today, we see many examples of individuals who have done just that.
However, over the past few decades the American Dream has been distorted. Today, American Dream has become more about ‘stuff’ than ideals. When asked, many people will tell you the American Dream is about the right to live in a large home, even if it means taking out an overly large mortgage. It’s about leasing a new car or going on fancy vacations to keep up with the Joneses. Somehow the America Dream has been hijacked by corporate America and our political leadership to become the ‘right’ to lots of stuff. The belief seems to be that pursuing more stuff equates to greater happiness and fulfillment and; therefore, the American Dream. When the economy slows and those individuals who are overleveraged lose their home and their fancy vehicle, there are cries that the American Dream is dead. I would argue the opposite.
The American Dream is a gift of hope. Not a guarantee of a fuller, richer life with more stuff. It is simply a promise that if you believe in yourself, listen, learn, and make good decisions, then you will have an opportunity to succeed. To be clear, the American Dream is not a guarantee of fairness. The world is simply not fair. Some people will get lucky and find unexpected wealth. Others will work hard and not find the same amount of success.
Mostly, the American Dream is about the opportunity to succeed with the understanding that failure is also a possibility. It about self-determination where you are in control of your present and your future. For me, it is about controlling my time and my sources of income and never again having a boss. I also understand that I must take ownership of my actions, regardless of the result.
The American Dream is about a society, however imperfect, that seeks to empower individuals to take ownership of their future. No promises or guarantees. Nobody to blame. Just the freedom to pursue your dream to the best of your ability.
Wishing you an exceptional Thanksgiving,