The American Dream
“The American Dream”, defined as “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”
As a college student, we’re often asked, “what does it mean to be successful?”
Today, there seems to be two trajectories for young Americans living in the U.S. One of which is the old, cookie-cutter template for success: get an education, find a well-paying job, find a spouse and get married, have some kids, keep working, accumulate wealth, retire, and finally, pass away.
The only times that we are allowed to take a break from this arduous, stressful grind are when we can barely take care of ourselves, as a child and as a senior. Only then is the responsibility of life in the hands of others and we can freely enjoy our time.
Our successes are defined by how big our house is, what brand our car is, where our kids are going to school — this is the materialistic and almost torturous standard that we are all subjected to, the same standard that we are tricked into falling into by corporations, colleges, and most of all, society.
How many times have you been told throughout your life that you should do something that makes you happy? How many times have you been told to pursue something that you’re really interested in?
Well, how the hell am I supposed to know if it’ll make me happy or keep me interested if I’ve never actually done it before? How am I supposed to know if it’ll make my life meaningful if I’ve been taught the meaning of life by someone else?
We never get really jealous of someone with a 9-to-5 job. They get up in the morning, go to work, come home, sit around for a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep, just to redo the cycle of wasting away five days a week for decades at a time. Psychology shows that if you begin paying someone to do something, they will eventually start hating it. A professor of mine gave the anecdote of a man being paid millions of dollars and hating his life. As mentioned in my previous article, materialistic people enjoy life less.
You know who society really is jealous of? The carefree.
One prime example of this lies in celebrities. They’re always seen doing whatever they want, having unlimited praise, admiration, and assets. They’re seen always on vacation, private jets, limousines, and they have ultimately solidified what it means to be successful.
But the thing is, you don’t need to be world famous to be carefree; you don’t need millions of dollars in your bank account to be carefree.
You need to have the mindset of someone who wants to be carefree to be carefree — what does that even mean?
Instead of spending money on frivolous things like a nicer car or more luxurious apartment, you could be downsizing and spending half of your time anywhere else in the world. Instead of spending your energy being envious of your neighbors, you could be using that energy to improve your health or lifestyle.
Instead of caring so much about things that are inconsequential, we should be allocating our energy and time to improving our situation. Instead of bottling up the angst and dissatisfaction we have towards our lives now, we have to change something; we can’t just keep waiting for the circumstances to change for us, because as far as we know, it won’t.
off the beaten path
Desire is a fuel that always leaves us feeling empty as if we don’t have enough. Sometimes, it can even make us feel like we aren’t enough.
This kind of perpetual, impossibly difficult pursuit of everything in existence is the same kind of chase that leaves us sinking in despair. How many times are we not quite satisfied with a gift that a loved one got us? How many times do we feel unhappy because something didn’t go our way?
This existence is not all about us.
To follow a model of anyone’s life is to follow a life of suffering because nothing will be a perfect fit for you and your values. A life where we are constantly expected to obtain more, want more, need more is one that we won’t ever be content with.
What happens if it is too late to turn around when we realize that our “dream job” is not what it seems? That being a surgeon means giving up a life of stability, that being a teacher means being paid for only half of the hours you put in, that even being the President of the United States means taking years off of your life from the stress.
As I am hesitant to call it impossible, extremely difficult seems to fit the bill. In a world where everything requires some kind of certification or referral, years of your life are needed to really go back on your plan. You almost have to start over everytime.
However, that’s not what the ideal life sounds like at all. The second trajectory is straying more and more from the aforementioned: it’s the self-defined success, the anti-success. It’s a movement to take a look at the cookie-cutter success model and walking across the kitchen and shaping your own life.
It almost sounds counterintuitive to pursue a life of bliss and control, one where you can do anything you want, whenever you want. In such a money-driven society, who wants to make less of a salary? Who wants to be seen driving a Toyota Camry at 40? Who wants to say that they aren’t better?
I recently told my girlfriend that the last thing I want to fall into is the taxing routine that the majority of this country are expected, almost forced, to comply with for their entire life.
Even at my young age, I’m seeing the effects of a monotonous life play out in mine. I can barely sit in a classroom for 50 minutes listening to a general education lecture I barely care about, how will I be able to stand up in front of classrooms and repeat myself year after year?
It hit me after I took psychology classes where the professors didn’t even seem to care about the topic. If they didn’t care, even though it was their entire life’s work to get to where they were, then how could I? We can always tell ourselves “it’ll be different”, but in my opinion, I’d rather bet on the chance that it won’t.
the shells of stress
So what do we do?
I want to pave a road for myself. Whether made of gravel or fresh asphalt, I want to have a grip on every corner and facet of my existence so that I can be a free man.
There are a number of hurdles that we need to get over when we begin pulling away from the original “American Dream”, and that’s the issue of image. The immense feelings of guilt or shame that come with telling your parents that you’re no longer going to college or suddenly changing your mind about what you want to be can be crushing.
When we begin to think more for ourselves, rather than the people around us, it seems the first layer of stress is shed: the stress of expectation. Expectations are set with a belief of predicting the future. We expect that people will show up on time. We expect that our children will grow up well. But what happens if the inevitable happens? We are let down. We get upset, even angry, at the fact that our expectations are not met. Sometimes directed at the world, other times at people.
The second hurdle comes from the risks that we take by deviating from a proven method. However, as we begin thinking about what makes us fulfilled in life, the second layer comes off: the stress of monotony.
Straying from the beaten path may be daunting and scary, but has the ability to produce new opportunities unachievable by sticking to formulas, as methodology may not always produce the same results for everyone. Have you ever been annoyed just anticipating the arrival of something you’ve done over and over again? Some routine can be healthy, but drudging through life can burn us out quicker than we think. The younger we are, the more of a chance we have to do something about the stagnation, but when we become locked in a routine, it becomes more difficult. Do you want to feel exhausted by an office job for decades?
Finally, there’s the layer that we never want to talk about: breaking your own ground. Picture in your head getting that college diploma, finally getting a pay raise, your research being published in a scientific journal — those things are incredible milestones. Yet, there’s always someone else with which you can compare yourself.
Someone else will always be “more successful” than you: more money, more beautiful, more studies published, more successful kids — the list goes on. Yet when you create something for yourself, like writing a book, launching your own business, fundraising incredible amounts, or, my absolute favorite, changing someone’s life, there’s no reason to compare yourself to someone else.
You will always be the one who wrote that book, launched that business, or donated that much. You will be the only person to ever change your friend, coworker, family member, stranger’s life in that way.
Now that is what I would consider a groundbreaking success.
We all have our own definitions of what all of these things mean. After all, the feelings that come with success and also failure are subjective. We will always want to achieve something great.
However, the more you start thinking about what you want to do, putting aside what other people think, what the experts have to say, or whether or not it’s guaranteed success, the more you can think more clearly about what it is you were meant to do, instead of what other people are expecting you to do.
Thanks for reading,