As we celebrate the 4th of July, I have been reflecting on the American Dream and on how some are calling it a myth today. I don’t think it is a myth; I think that we have lost our focus on a core ingredient to achieving the American Dream.
But first, I was curious as to where the expression – “American Dream” – came from. It is conceptually rooted in our Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” However, the expression itself, “American Dream,” is credited to American writer and historian James Truslow Adams who explained his views in his 1931 book, The Epic of America…
“that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to 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.”
I, too, dream of social order in which all of us achieve our fullest individual potential while acknowledging and embracing our interdependence. Instead, I see a growing divide among people who I believe fundamentally want the same basic things – a chance to achieve their dreams, to feel connected, to feel valued. And rather than pursuing the Dream for all, there is a selfish tone that has emerged that overpowers logic and elevates self-interests.
Look no further than the widening income gap in America where the top 1% are earning three times more today than they did three decades ago and the bottom 50% who earn an average of $16,000 in pre-tax income have seen no change since the 1980s. While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it begs the question – is the American Dream falling through the cracks of our crumbling infrastructure?
While some economists, academic scholars and politicians make their case for why the American Dream is a myth, I prefer to focus on a resurgence of the American Dream. After all, the American Dream has been the catalyst for so many entrepreneurs, human rights activists, athletes, educators, families and kids – individuals that acknowledged their hardships and made a conscious choice to leverage their talent and hard work to rise above the obstacles. So many have persevered while naysayers stood on the sidelines trying to hold them back. The American Dream played louder, enabling those that have succeeded to rise from failures and leverage their wins to unlock new opportunities.
As I reflect on issues of equality and equity in our education system, housing, transportation, health care, food access, and the workforce, I have witnessed firsthand much talent and hard work in action. Individuals and organizations are tirelessly working, volunteering and advocating across this country for improvements that would meet individual needs, strengthen communities and expand opportunities for all.
The fact is that hard work and talent are not enough. Something is missing in many of the conversations about the American Dream – relationships. I believe that relationships are critical to our success and our achievement of the American Dream.
As I reflect on Adams’ definition of the American Dream, I see how relationships were woven throughout his vision. The “dream of social order” that Adams references implies cooperation and collaboration among the individuals in a family, a community and a nation. And to “be recognized by others for what they are,” Adams is highlighting the importance of respect and that although we may come from different circumstances, we can appreciate and leverage our individual differences to achieve social order.
Talented workers put in long hours in corporate offices delivering solid results but never get recognized or promoted because of poor management.
Hard-working factory workers are forced to pick up extra shifts because their paychecks barely cover their families’ monthly expenses. Factories close and those same workers go months, even years on unemployment because of little to no effort put into repurposing their skills for new jobs with higher wages in evolving or new industries.
Countless teachers in schools across America are working around the clock to prepare innovative lesson plans that make learning relevant and engaging for students. These teachers are often covering the cost of supplies from their own paychecks because of cuts in education funding.
There are kids in all communities working hard to achieve academic success while struggling to deal with trauma caused by high levels of family stress, heightened levels of community violence and increased bullying both in school and online. While more focus has shifted to test scores, less attention has been given to how we ensure that all students have the supports that they need to be successful in school and in life. The result is that too many kids are struggling to feel connected at school, at home and in their communities.
The corporate office workers, the factory workers, the teachers and the kids referenced all aspire to achieving the American Dream. They are putting in hard work and leveraging their talents. And while they read about or watch the success stories of others, many of them are beginning to doubt their ability to achieve the Dream themselves.
To complement their hard work and talent, they need relationships that inspire them, support them, challenge them and open doors to new opportunities and networks. They need relationships with individuals who step out of their perspective and into the shoes of others, elevating empathy and advancing informed decisions that positively impact a community, not just a few.
My American Dream is that we wake up as a society and recognize our interdependence. Our individual and collective success is based on our ability to achieve our full potential AND in helping others achieve their full potential. It is based on the choices we make each day – not just for ourselves, but for each other. Instead of judging one another, let’s celebrate and fully leverage our differences in how we tackle some of our greatest challenges. Rather than engaging in a heels-in-the-ground, arms-crossed political argument, let’s seek to understand each other more and focus on finding common ground through compromise and creativity. Let’s invest in the building and strengthening of relationships.
As I reflect on the views that many have today of the American Dream, I am reminded of the Zen proverb, “Obstacles do not block the path; they are the path.” We will individually and collectively continue to face obstacles. It is how we chose to leverage our talents, hard work and relationships with one another that will determine whether we achieve the American Dream.
Am I naïve to believe that if we support each other – regardless of our individual differences, that we will all succeed?