I’ve decided to revive my blog with a topic that always comes up around Election Day. Is the American Dream generally obtainable? Those on the right somewhat naively believe that everyone has the same ladder to success. Those on the left try to boost up the people on the bottom rungs but often end up trapping them in dependency in the process. So, everyone wants to know, how hard is it to achieve the American Dream?
I’m going to argue here that it doesn’t actually matter. Living as if it’s possible to achieve the American Dream is far more important than if it’s actually possible. If you believe that it’s obtainable, you might get lucky and reach it, or at least you will come out around average. If you believe that there is something at the top continually “pushing you down” the ladder, you will never reach your goals.
I first consciously realized this in graduate school. I had a Chinese friend who had gone to a super exclusive preparatory highschool with the intention of going to a very prestigious university, but his parents’ divorce his senior year had altered his finances. Instead, he had to settle for a state school, and he had a different perspective on it than his middle-class peers.
“I think you will achieve your career goals, Dave,” He told me over cafeteria food one day.
“Really, why?” I asked him, curiously.
“Because when I ask them what their plans are after they graduate, everyone else here talks about what will happen to them. You talk about what you will do.”
Two years later though, I didn’t feel like my career was moving anywhere. I was still in gradschool and not really sure I was going in the right direction. There seemed to be few job openings in quantum mechanics. But I remembered what my friend said and updated my LinkedIn account with my skill set. A day later, I had a recruiter contact me. I interviewed the next week. I was still able to continue graduate school part time, but get the job I would have wanted after I graduated.
I would love to tell myself that I obtained my job solely through my merit, but that would deny that luck proved beneficial too. I had chosen three diverse skillsets – chemistry, databasing, and computer programming – not even knowing that a field existed that required all three. I was offered a position as “Chemometric Scientist” about two weeks after I learned that a Chemometric Scientist position actually existed. So yes, there was truly quite a bit of luck involved. I could easily have ended up at a far less lucrative job, but I was in the right place in the right time. I also got lucky with the job being local. In a city of several million people, I got one of two positions.
I had friends with slightly different skill sets who didn’t get so lucky. I had a few who were luckier. But even the unlucky ones who were able to convince themselves that their future success would be based upon their motivation and skills and not uncontrollable circumstances, regardless of whether it was actually true or not, were able to obtain the American Dream, at least in some form. I’ll concede that it might have taken some of them awhile, and some still don’t really have the jobs they want, but most were able to achieve a comfortable if not prosperous middle-class existence. Conversely, the people I knew who thought it was impossible to succeed, whether by birth or connections or any other factor, and who simply waited for their lives to change by some external factor are almost all underemployed and unhappy.
So is the American Dream real? I don’t think the answer to that question matters nearly as much as whether or not you can convince yourself that it is. Put yourself out there, work hard, and see if opportunity comes. Even if it doesn’t, It’s unlikely that you’ll be the worse off for it.