Seeing the unseen American dream
Is the American dream alive or dead? It depends on whom you ask.
A 2015 survey from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University asked 18- to 29-year-olds that very question. Respondents were nearly evenly split: 48% answered “dead” and 49% favored “alive.” Interestingly, nearly 58% of college graduates said the dream was alive for them personally, whereas only 42% of non-college graduates felt the same way.
Among our 30- and 40-something peers, whom my coauthors, Neil Patel and Patrick Vlaskovits, and I informally polled for our bestselling book, HUSTLE, the results were about the same, with nearly half believing the American dream to be either dead or in purgatory. But asking whether the dream is broken, buried, alive or dead brings up another question: How do you define the American Dream?
The original American dream
About 250 years ago, the American dream was to live in a country where people could choose their lawmakers rather than inherit them, say what they wanted, worship how they wanted, have a shot at economic prosperity and not have British soldiers move into their house and take their belongings.
Later, the American dream meant being able to load up a wagon and move west, with the freedom to live large on your own land—as long as you were willing to work hard and make something of it.
After WWII, the American dream shifted. People had endured the Great Depression and the two Great Wars. They wanted stability, security, and the knowledge that their kids wouldn’t have to live through the things they’d suffered through. The American dream became something you reached by following a series of milestones. You grew up, went to school, got a job, got married, bought a car and a home with a picket fence in the suburbs, had kids and retired. It was the same path for everyone. People who detoured from it were considered sketchy or risk-takers.
Over the past several decades, the rigidity of that path has, in some ways, been codified. The rise of technology and specialization, the increased use of robots, software and automation for more and more jobs and the speed with which things change mean you need an education to achieve almost any kind of dream. But many college graduates today wind up with so much debt they have no choice but to get a job right away to pay for it. The opportunity to make a better life for yourself is now dependent on your ability to work with an employer or find a way forward as an entrepreneur. Either way, you need to get paid enough to dig out of the financial hole you got in so you can have more opportunity.
Today’s graduates, professionals and skilled laborers find themselves trapped in a system that forces them to pay down higher loan debts with often stagnant wages, making it all the more likely they’ll have no choice but to rent, not own, their dreams. There’s a sense of desperation by many who attempt to keep their heads above the waters of the rising costs of living. It’s tough out there for millions of Americans to say the least.
Get ready to redefine your own American dream
Some of the original creators of the American dream were farmers, yes, but they were also statesmen, artists, scientists, inventors, business owners and journalists. They supported families, and they also pursued their curiosity, their talents and their beliefs. And they did it at a time when there was no Internet, getting from one city to another took days, and the average lifespan was 37. They took risks in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, and above all, an ethos of freedom and self-determination.
It seems like a lot of the pioneers of the old American dream knew that it would come with some pain. Sometimes that meant not just working long hours but enduring was war or hardship. The American dream was never supposed to be comfortable or easy. Really good dreams—those worth owning—seldom are.
Now we’re here, and we need a new version of the American dream, one that accounts for the interesting and eccentric people, the modern-day dreamers and doers, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, creative thinkers and innovators who choose their own adventures and bet on themselves. Some might favor the old way with the same milestones. Others prefer a way forward that focuses on the vast, diverse and wonderful reality that is our dynamic opportunity landscape and doesn’t treat the dream as a commodity to be acquired with a whole lot of debt.
The new American dream—let’s call it “American Dream 2.0″—is distinctly personal. It’s your version of where you want to go based on your ownership, not a rented dream or a script handed to you by a past generation. It’s about developing an appetite for small doses of right-sized risks and bets on yourself and a personal opportunity portfolio—a “POP”—built around your unique talents and potential, the people you know, the projects you take on in your work and the proof or credibility you build over time.
Today’s dream means you can decide that fear about money or a need to be perfect isn’t going to keep you in a system that’s not designed to set you free, ever. Your opportunity, your freedom, is something you’ll have to identify and claim for yourself. And the action you have to take to make it a reality is to hustle. Hustle means taking decisive action toward a goal, however indirect, by which the motion itself manufactures luck, surfaces hidden opportunity and charges your life with more money, meaning and momentum.
You can hustle in your heart by getting moving, doing something that physically moves you and gives a shot of energy and self-confidence. You can hustle in your head by keeping your head up and eyes open for opportunity. And you’ll hustle in your habits by seizing opportunity, sealing the deal and making your dream a reality. Hustle toward projects, hustle by manufacturing luck for yourself, push through pain and adversity and the long hours and health challenges that come your way.
We now have time to have many careers and entrepreneurial pursuits, several lifetimes in a sense. Most of us probably won’t retire, partly because we found out that it’s really boring and depressing not to work. But neither will we want to be doing the same thing in 20 years that we’re doing today. And who knows what jobs or opportunities will even exist in 20 years? Will we finally have jetpacks? Will the entirety of our lives be largely automated, run by robots? Will we all be more entrepreneurial, creative, open-minded, dedicated leaders and dreamers and doers? One hopes so.
Like starting a new country, like venturing into unknown territory, the American dream, in a sense, is what it always was: the opportunity to make the life you want. More people are included in those opportunities now than they ever have been. But the way to get there is the same as it always was: hustle.
So ask yourself: What’s your version of the American dream? Is it the one you can’t fully see yet? It could be the one tucked away in an unseen corner of your life, needing a little focus, dressed up in a bit of hard-work, luck and opportunity, and chock-full of money, meaning and momentum. Look again. Or better yet, get moving and find it for yourself.
BYLINE: Jonas Koffler is an entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling coauthor, with Neil Patel and Patrick Vlaskovits, of HUSTLE: The Power to Charge Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum (Rodale Books)