Article

Lauren Stiebing 01 July 2019

The Notion of the American Dream and My Debt of Gratitude to It

Since the times of Christopher Columbus, the USA has attracted people from countries around the world and evolved as a melting pot of cultures and values. Generations of migrants call the United States “the land of milk and honey” and “the land whose streets are paved with gold”. What is the secret that allowed people to follow their dreams and be successful in the USA?

As someone born and raised in the USA, I have had the opportunity to observe my country from up close, so I know the USA is not Utopia. Wide socio-economic disparities still exist, as do crime, drugs and biases of various kinds. Drawing on my own experiences, I can confidently assert that America’s middle-class family values and the nation’s strong education system are the primary reasons why so many people (myself included) have been able to pursue “the American Dream”.

Dream big. Work hard.

I was raised in a middle-class family in a New Orleans suburb, where I learnt that anything is possible if you set your mind to it, work hard and persevere. Like many other American moms (and, I am sure, mothers around the world), my mom would often tell me “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. It might sound like a cliché, but I can vouch for the incredible power in that saying.

The role of the American education system

One of the many good things about the US is its education system. Those that can afford private school education opt for it, but generally, public schools are also very good (there are, of course, exceptions). Like millions of American kids, I too went to a public school. In my view, public schools prepare students better for life because you get to interact with a wide cross-section of students that pretty much reflects the realities of life. Also, the American school education system is not just about academics and grades; entrepreneurial projects, community activities, team sports are all actively encouraged- and these are invaluable for the journey called life.

No sense of entitlement

We learn not to take anything for granted. We figure out that there will always be constraints but if you work around them and focus on solutions rather than on the problems, you will overcome. Most of us are therefore well-prepared for life’s challenges. We are imbued with a sense of confidence to take risks as well as the resilience to bounce back from setbacks.

High grades do not necessarily correlate with success in life

I was never the smartest kid in class in terms of grades. But I realized even at a young age that hard work and perseverance usually trumped “intelligence” (as reflected in grades). As a school student, I figured out that all I had to do was take a different approach or give it a little more time. Both of these lessons continue to guide me even today, as I look at transforming how the Executive Search business is run.

Financial independence means earning money and managing it wisely

Financial independence is a core value that American kids are taught early in life. Right from the age of 16, I have worked different jobs to earn enough money to meet my expenses. In doing so, I learnt several valuable lessons. First, no work is below one’s dignity. Second, money does not grow on trees, and is limited. Therefore, I learnt to appreciate the joy of even small things and learnt to prioritize expenses. Financial independence gave me enormous confidence- something I still possess in large measure. In hindsight, I can say that my entrepreneurial dreams were first ignited when I was around 20 years old.

Treat challenges as stepping stones

Another life lesson growing up in middle class USA taught me was not to be intimidated by any challenge. I figured out fairly early in life that life would never be without challenges big or small. Being fazed by challenges or worrying about them simply impedes progress, so the best way to deal with them was to view them as learning opportunities and as stepping stones to something bigger (and hopefully, better!). That’s exactly how I continue to run LS International: learn, improve and look at things differently so that there is always a sense of innovation and excitement. Things don’t always go the way I want them to, but if I wallow in self-pity or sweat about “the unfairness of life” or “why me”, I know I cannot move forward for sure.

Live life on your terms

Many American kids don’t go to college; fewer still go to grad school. But what America teaches you is that you don’t have to get an advanced degree by the time you are 25. You will often come across Americans working for a decade or more and then deciding to study further. The underlying life lesson: it’s your life, so live it on your terms. The corollary is there’s never just one way of doing things, so pick what works best for you. Having chosen your path in life, work hard and persevere till you succeed. If the original approach does not work, be bold to look at alternative approaches. Your creativity is limited only by your imagination and your ability to action what you imagine. This is what enables so many of my fellow citizens to be at the cutting edge of business innovation even in a globally competitive environment.

If all the above seems like an extract from a self-help book, well, there’s a reason why so many books in this genre are written by Americans! Our culture constantly teaches us that our real competition is against us so we constantly improve; it encourages us to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. Three decades ago, my mom lived in government subsidized housing; I now run a successful global Executive Search business with operations across four continents. This is an example of my American Dream.

I firmly believe that my personal transformation is the outcome of the above values that are deeply ingrained in me and guide my life. I appreciate that many fellow Americans who read this may not fully agree with my views. But that’s ok, because this is my story. And like I said earlier, the American Dream is about propelling everyone towards their dreams. I’d love to hear your versions of the American Dream, so please do write in!