Fallacies of the American Dream and How We May be Harming our Children

The American Dream, while obviously subjective in its definition, epitomizes the idea of capitalism by reinforcing that In America, you can do whatever you want to do and be whoever you want to be.

And, sure, we know that this can and does happen. Everyone has heard the rag-to-riches stories, the infamous recounts from people who came to this country with no more than five dollars in their pocket and an imagination brimming with dreams. Naturally, these are the people who founded a small business, be it a restaurant or car dealership, and worked their way into billion-dollar lifestyles. These are the professional athletes from poverty-stricken families; the supermodels who immigrated for a better life; the Silicon Valley techs who never completed college.

Hard work and determination, that’s all it takes. That’s what has been drilled into our heads. As long as we have those two traits, we can achieve success. It may be slow and it may be mounted with obstacles, but it can be done.

Sounds good.

In theory.

But, for every pipe dream and every story with a happy ending, how many people fail?

A lot, it seems. This past financial recession and the widespread popularity of the occupant movements reveals just that, and in the past half-century, the once booming middle class has shrunk, making the class differences between the upper and lower class more evident than ever before.

 In a sense, the rich are staying rich and getting richer.

What about everyone else?

Capitalism benefits the wealthy because it relies on maximum potential of resources, which of course, the rich have. How so? A few reasons:

1. Income is associated with academic success, college enrollment, and college graduation, thus leading to more education and higher-powered careers.

2. Income is associated with greater health, both mentally and physically.

3. Income is associated with more resources (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know), and this is manifested through networking, powerful relatives and acquaintances, more opportunities

All of these three variables are high predictors of success.

Overall, more money = more leeway room for failure.

If a wealthy entrepreneur wants to open his own restaurant, he has more money to invest in marketing and start-up costs. If he needs loans, he will be more likely to receive approval due to his high income. Furthermore, if the business does fail, he is more able to recuperate after losses. Not to mention, this individual is more likely to have higher levels of education, more connections within the network (wealth brings power), and more professional support. Compare this to a man living just above the poverty line. He may be a genius chef and businessman, but if this man is married or raising a family, is he willing to sacrifice their finances? If he is already in a stable-paying position, is he willing to jeopardize that cushion of safety for an unpredictable, unreliable paycheck?

Those struggling with finances cannot necessarily afford to invest in such pipe dreams. If a poverty-stricken child enjoys singing and has obvious musical talent, her road to success will pose tremendous challenges compared to the daughter of a millionaire. The wealthier child may enjoy voice lessons, private conservatory schools, access to professional choirs, and parents who are willing to drive and spend money to audition and promote their child.

Hard work and determination? Sure, both children may work equally hard and be equally determined to achieve success.

Can raw, innate talent make up for the rest?

The American Dream is not unachievable, as we still have many new businesses and inventions emerging from individuals of modest backgrounds. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the general climate for most young adults in today’s society. With college rates soaring and employment meager, people are living at home longer, plagued with more credit card debt, and likely to settle for underemployed or underpaid positions. Likewise, their parents are likely to be racked with their own debt, potential possibilities for home foreclosure, the likelihood for reduction of social security and pensions, and their own fears of career layoffs. At the same time, we are literally bombarded with “get-rich-in-a-day” schemes, lottery results, reality television, the exploitation of lavish lifestyles, making us believe that anyone can join that elite life.

Moreover, we hate deluding the innocent children. After all, while we realize that the world needs the accountants, dentists, factory workers, middle managers, and construction workers, we don’t want them to settle for less than the glamorous. We want our kids to be the unstoppable athletes, breathtaking actresses, elegant models, unmatchable inventors, and the admirable superheroes.

Is this fair?

We want our children to defy the statistics, but yet, math is math, and disappointment is disappointment.

Is it fair to pretend that we are all on an equal playing board when eventually we everyone grows up and realizes we aren’t?

Is it fair to preach that hard work and determination always pays off?

Is it fair to be disappointed if our child doesn’t succeed in profoundly changing the whole world?

On one hand, it can be cruel and potentially damaging to a child’s development to explain how “the real world” works. We want to cultivate a nurturing and supportive environment. We want them to be motivated and driven to success, and having a solid dream can provide them with reason to work hard. Also, while it is numerically impossible for every child to be a star, there are always exceptions, always dirt-poor children who grow up to change the world and always believers who promise that if you want something bad enough, you can have it.

Yet, at the same time, ignorance cannot be bliss forever, and we may actually be doing a disservice to children by telling them that they can all be singers, ballerinas, and presidents. It can be hard for a parent to promise his children that they can grow up and be “whatever they want to be,” when the odds of that are so unlikely. Children of lower-class and now middle-class statuses are already at a disadvantage; they are more likely to attend less-prestigious schools and more likely to need to push education to the wayside in order to work.

How can one achieve those far-fetched dreams when food needs to be put on the table and rent needs to be paid?

The American Dream? What will it look like in the next century? Will the next generations of children grow up with that idyllic sparkle in their eyes believing confidently that they can be princesses and superheroes?

Why are we so good at failing?




Failure is a necessary component of life, a circumstance that can only be avoided when humans remain stagnant. Since life is constantly changing and we are constantly evolving, everyone encounters failure. It happens when we struggle, when we cannot understand, when we exhibit weak performance. Failure, in many senses, is healthy, as we grow and learn from it. The negative feelings that stem from failure are imperative in motivating us to continue seeking progress.
What happens, however, when an individual continuously fails? When he or she has the right tools and awareness in knowing how to succeed, yet disregards them time and time again? We coin this action as sabotage, and we see it  frequently in all walks of human behavior. Sabotage is what dieters do when they keep eating extra helpings of dessert, despite knowing the importance of exercise and proper nutrition. Sabotage is what students who decide to party the week during final exams do instead of study.
The self-fulfilling prophecy theorizes that one’s actions tend to correspond with their beliefs. What does that mean? Let’s say, after a bitter divorce, a newly-single woman experiences an unsuccessful dating streak. Disappointed with the quality of her suitors, she concludes men are selfish assholes. What happens, then, when she goes out on her next date? The woman’s guard will be strong, her suspicions high, and her faith? Well, naturally, that will be at an all-time low. This new man hardly stands a chance against her powerful opinion, seeing as she is already expecting him to disappoint her. Therefore, in order to avoid another letdown, she will likely fit and adapt her criteria to confirm her beliefs. In reality, the woman may be blaming external variables for her dating struggles (low self-esteem, meeting men in the wrong places, an inability to commit, pining over an ex, etc.).
Still, the question remains: why do we fail at the very things we try to avoid failing the most?
Surely, it cannot just be attributed to a mere absence of willpower. Ask anyone who fails at an important task, and he or she will often delve into a lengthy explanation about how hard they are trying and how much they seek success.
What’s more likely? We fail because we fear the absence of failure.
How does that make sense? When we set goals and fail to achieve them, we become habituated to the adverse emotion. The failure keeps us contained, keeps us square in place. And many times, we cannot actually visualize what the success will feel like. Moreover, we mistake what the success will feel like.  For instance, take someone who has sunk into the dark abyss of financial debt. Despite a strong desire to save money, he spends his paychecks frivolously, draining his bank accounts and racking up insurmountable credit card bills. Why?
Reason #1: Behavioral addiction model (in a very simple manner)
Debt (creates anxiety)–> which causes heightened feelings of stress and more anxiety –> which leads to a need to relieve the anxiety and feel better (spend money)  –> which leads to heightened feelings of guilt, shame, anger
Addiction is a vicious, complicated cycle, and this is just a simplified  theory of its manifestation.. With addiction, the things that make us the unhappiest are consequently the same things that make us the happiest. Thus, the cycle repeats, and eventually, the habituated behavior may filter into other aspects of life (relationships, work, family).
2. Avoidance: The debt (or any other evidence of “failure”) is actually masking a much larger issue. In this case, finance trouble can indicate an insatiable need to fit in with others, career dissatisfaction, or underlying depression. The surface problem (debt) shields the more painful, rooted issues. This theory is popular, because it is so applicable. For instance, those who struggle with weight problems may blame their body size for appearance dissatisfaction or loneliness. They may falsely conclude that if they just shed the extra weight, these “other problems” would diminish. Yet, these problems are much more complex (self-esteem issues, shyness, difficulty in making relationships, etc.). These individuals may subconsciously sabotage their diets as a means of avoiding the real problems at hand. Therefore, they can blame these issues on their weights, rather than on their core personalities.
3. Mistaken priorities: Yes, repeated failure can stem from a lack of motivation, but in doing so, the person often does not even recognize this. Often seen in high-pressure situations, such as academic or athletic performance, people may subconsciously “mess up.” This is usually an unconscious mechanism, but it is most likely to happen when the individual knows he or she is expected to succeed at a given task. This expectation stems from societal and internal internal cues. For example, while nobody wants to fail an exam, a person may subconsciously pair success with greater pressure to study harder, spend more time focusing on school, or take more advanced courses in that subject. While the individual knows failure is not desirable, it may actually be more so than those other options.
4. Unachievable goals: Failure, of course, can happen when the expectations are too high. For instance, someone who has never held a job is unlikely to find a full-time career in a week, just as a longtime couch potato should not be disappointed when he cannot sculpt six-pack abs after one workout. Yet, we humans naturally seek short-term gratification, hence our uncanny ability to seek out the most convenient shortcut available. We want instant results and we stubbornly hold out on the belief that “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities will  come our way and bring us success. This, of course, is an open invitation for continuous failure. A rushed, all-or-nothing mantra tends to result in higher levels of quitting, frustration, and endless restarting. Therefore, an individual will probably take much longer to succeed compared to someone who approaches their goals in a gradual but reasonable fashion.