Today’s American Dream
Galewill is a for-purpose company that designs social change programs, communications, advocacy and action. 100% of Galewill’s work is social-change driven and they partner with change-makers within government, foundations, nonprofits and corporations to design new ways to help people get to a better place. Recently, their principal, Bob McKinnon, began a series of articles called “Moving Up” on “Getting Ahead in America.” It used to be a given of the American Dream that each generation naturally surpasses the previous one. McKinnon has other ideas. Sign up for more posts here.
“In 1947, Olivia de Havilland set a modern-day record when she thanked 27 people who helped her en route to her Oscar-winning performance in the ironically titled ‘To Each His Own.’ The film itself is a staggering example of sacrifice and the invisible hands behind the scenes that can drive our happiness.”
How does giving thanks (or showing humility) fit into Galewill’s mission? Often in our work, we come across inspirational stories about people who have been able to “make it” in spite of lack of resources, underperforming schools, struggling families, etc. People see these exceptions as the rule and ascribe their success to hard work or grit. In other words, instead of fixing the broken school, you can point to the kid who “made it” and say, “well why doesn’t everyone work as hard as he or she did?”
The idea that if we instead had a more complete appreciation of how someone “gets ahead,” we would be more supportive for the programs, policies and events that collectively make success not just possible but probable.
You wrote, “We often don’t like to answer questions of how we got where we are and who we left behind.” Explain? As a culture, we are raised on Horacio Alger tales. Every success story we hear or are told in our literature, on television, etc., emphasizes the role of the individual over the environment in which that individual is living. It is so baked into our culture that there is a sociological term for it, called “Fundamental Attribution Bias.” On one hand it is critical that we believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish through our efforts. On the other hand, research also shows that so much of who we are or how we do is impacted by so many other factors beyond our control.
You make some interesting assumptions, like 70% of Americans believe that a child in an abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream. Why? And is this a truth? This was one of the fascinating parts of our research. The belief in effort and hard work is so entrenched that we truly do believe that anyone can overcome anything if they simply put their mind to it. The 70% is an actual national survey we conducted and reflects that a large majority of Americans believe this, and this majority holds regardless of your political beliefs—which was also surprising. To answer your question, most social scientists would point to evidence that suggests that the abused child would have a significantly lower chance for success than one who came from a stable family.
Which leads me to ask, what is the American Dream these days? The American Dream has been defined in many ways by many people and does change according to our times. In the ’50s, the symbol for the American Dream was the white picket fence. In the ’80s, it was wealth. At other times, the dominant definition could be fame or mobility. One thing that has held true is the idea of leaving the world a better place for our kids. That they might have a shot at a better life than their parents. In talking to Americans over the last few years, we’ve heard some question whether this was still possible. We also heard fewer definitions in terms of wealth or fame and more about “a good life” and appreciating the simple things like family. Obviously this requires some assets and finances but it feels less material than perhaps before.
What are some of the surprises you found that blew you over? I am blown away by the innate goodness in people, and as a result remain optimistic about the American Dream and people’s capacity to care for one another.
Contrary to the political rhetoric we hear, when we go out and really listen to people, we all want very similar things. The differences normally lie in the question of how to get there. We’ve failed as a society in laying out a simple plan for how we can help more people share in the American Dream by helping everyone with the basics for a good and decent life.
When we can get people to reflect on how they got to where they are in life, realizing the importance of things we tend to ignore, we become more appreciative of what we have and more compassionate to those who may not have had those things present.
“In Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace study, they found that 70 percent of Americans either hate or are completely disengaged in their jobs. So we may be working hard, but it doesn’t seem to be working for us.”
We’re often told that upward mobility these days is a matter of luck. How much is planning? Where we end up in life, whether we are able to rise or fall from our beginnings, is a unique puzzle for each of us. Our own life story is like an intricate quilt. If we pull on one thread the whole thing can fall apart or look different. The problem comes when we try to find “the one thing” that made a difference, when in fact it’s a million things.
By and large, people actually underestimate the role of luck in our lives as well as our social networks. In fact, in our research they were at the very bottom of what Americans considered essential for achieving the American Dream. Yet if we stopped to reflect a bit, very few people would be able to say that if it weren’t for luck or who they knew, their lot in life would be vastly different.
In terms of planning, there is a great riddle I heard from an old Wim Wenders movie: “How do you make God laugh?” Answer: “Make a plan.” Sure, planning and good decision-making are important, but in reality there are so many things beyond our control that force us to reevaluate that plan or change it on the fly.
In the long run, what are your goals in making this material available? My hope is that more and more people stop and reflect on what and who has made a difference in their lives. Hopefully this reflection allows them to act in a positive way towards others. Already, people have told me stories after reading some of this material that are just wonderful. Some talk about reaching out to old teachers or mentors, thanking them for what they did for them. Or taking to social media to give credit to someone like Claiborne Pell, without whom they couldn’t have afforded to go to college (Pell Grant). Or many who take the Adverse Childhood Experience test to only realize how lucky they were to have had a stable childhood and have a new found appreciation for how difficult it is for those who don’t.
It has been so gratifying to see how something as simple as reflection can be so powerful. We just need to create more “mirrors” so people can see themselves and their world a little differently.
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