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Zak of All Trades: Our new, quite skewed, American Dream

February 15, 2013

If you asked me back when I graduated high school — just 13 years ago — what the American Dream was, I would have told you, "If you work hard, you'll get what's coming to you."

That was the American Dream of my childhood. We were brought up being told that hard work and determination can go a long way.

Now, it didn't promise us all kinds of wealth or a pain-free life. It was just a way of life.

Even in my short time on this earth — in this country — the American Dream has become skewed.

Thanks to a bit of research and some wikihistory, I was able to study what the American Dream used to mean, and it turns out, it's been evolving for all this time.

For the early Americans — who, aside from the Native Americans, were all immigrants — the American Dream was just that. It was a dream.

With the world ahead of them and so much land to settle on, their concept that hard work could lead to opportunity was absolutely correct. There was nothing but opportunity ahead of them.

In 1774, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, said in a letter that the Americans "forever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they have settled."

There was nothing but promise, but as time went on, as many things do, the American Dream evolved.

The discovery of gold in California in 1849 led to a new, materialized American Dream. The idea of getting rich quick led many to drop what lives they'd already formed to head west on a grueling journey in hopes of striking it rich.

In his book, "The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream," H.W. Brands said, "The old American Dream ... was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard' ... of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck."

Can you see how the discovery of gold skewed the American Dream, a phrase that hadn't even been popularized at the time?

Back then, people didn't really call it the American Dream. It was just their dream.

But instead of hard work and dedication to their cause, the new mantra became, "If we put in a little bit of work and strike it rich, look how well off we'll be."

It seems to me that, rather than cycle back to the original dreams of the pioneers of this great country, our own American Dream has continued to be skewed away toward the get-rich-quick mentality.

The saddest thing to me, though, is that the dream has continued to be skewed to the point where it's changed, even since I was a kid.

The "If you work hard, you will get what's coming to you," mentality has been changed to an "I'm entitled to the best" mentality.

The hard work end of the equation has been completely tossed out.

Society as a whole tells us that we deserve the best, because that's what we want to hear, and it makes us buy what they're selling.

And from that follows the changing of the American Dream.

Even worse, what I've noticed is that instead of the American Dream trickling down to the younger generations, who could take hold of the original dream and move mountains, there has been a trickle-up effect.

Instead of the days where my grandparents and parents taught me lessons their grandparents and parents had taught them about hard work leading to great rewards — both material and intangible — it seems as if the new, skewed American Dream is making its way up the ladder.

It comes from the new psychological lie that we should "just do what makes us happy."

As children, we all test this theory, doing what makes us happy, or what we think will make us happy, and many of us call that phase in life
our "Terrible Twos."

In fact, my niece just turned two, and it's a time in her life that she needs to go through.

Testing boundaries, testing instincts and doing what she thinks will make her happy teaches her that, sometimes, Mommy and Daddy know what's best for her. Sometimes, her intuition misleads her into thinking a choice is the one that will lead to her own happiness.

Somewhere along the line, so many folks have forgotten that lesson they learned and returned to their Terrible Twos, going around doing what they think will make them happy.

And doing so with the endorsement of their friends, family members and professional help who want them to be happy but don't necessarily know how to make them happy.

We trust ourselves too much, and in doing so, we've skewed the American Dream from "If you work hard, you get what's coming to you," to "I deserve the best of all things."

If we don't figure out a way to regain the old dream, I fear that we'll take the path so many other cultures have in being our own worst enemy.

And the solution all starts with you and me. If we regain the American Dream of old, we can start passing it on to others.

It's not dead. It's still alive and well in many of us. But the voices we hear constantly around us have skewed it.

Let's do our part today, put our noses to the grind and regain our American Dream.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit.

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