What is the American Dream?

Forbes is running a feature online where they ask prominent American leaders what the American Dream means to them. Most say it has to do with freedom. Or hard work.

When driving in Texas last week I listened to a Stanford panel with Jacob Needleman on "The American Soul". Needleman’s big point — similar to what Andrew Sullivan says in his wonderful "This I Believe" piece on NPR — is that America is about the singular promise of being more fully human. What does it mean to be "more fully human"?

For me, the American Dream means the freedom to be who I really am and the freedom to reinvent who I really am at any point. As Sullivan puts it, it’s about the permanent fresh start.

What does it mean to you? If you don’t live in America, what’s your perception of this common phrase?

(hat tip: Jing Chen)

10 comments on “What is the American Dream?
  • To me, the American dream is about freedom and opportunity. We (generally) have the freedom to think, say, and do what we want, and the opportunity to pursue whatever we define as happiness (whether it be money, fame, love, or enlightenment).

    The American Dream is different for everyone, because America is about the ability to pursue your unique dream, whether it be starting a company or eating 50 Nathan’s famous hot dogs in 12 minutes on the 4th of July.

  • I think a better question is, “Is the American dream different than a dream in any other country?” I think in America you can dream BIGGER, but does a person in China have a different dream than someone here? Someone in the Ivory Coast? Dreams don’t have to be based on the reality of your circumstances, they’re based on things you’ve seen consiously or sub-consiously.

    My 2 cents


  • The dream is different for everyone, but for me there are a couple of common themes:

    1) Finding a career I love and take pride in doing.

    2) Financial gains (i.e., moving up on the socio-economic ladder, owning a home, etc.)

    3) Meeting the right girl eventually, though that doesn’t necessarily mean marriage/kids.

    4) Growing into an old fart and being happy with what I did with my life.

  • Ben, I totally agree with you. For me it’s not quite about “being who I really am” as much as “achieving anything I set my mind to” which is kind of immigrant mentality, I think. It’s got a lot to do with my family history – my mother went from cleaning houses and taking care of old people to becoming a pediatrician in the space of five years (she already had a medical degree back home though). And for me there were so many more opportunities in America, educational and otherwise, than there were in the Philippines.

    One slightly negative consequence of this, though is that when people who _aren’t_ immigrants complain about how hard it is to get a job, etc., I tend not to buy into it. I think the opportunities ARE there in America, even for traditionally disadvantaged groups. Whether you take advantage of them has to do w/your mentality and your family background.

    And the “fresh start” thing is really true. Japanese people are so scared of trying new things. If they don’t finish grad school or move into a field of their choice by their 30s, it’s too late and they’ll never go/switch. Even when they decide to move or change, their parents play a huge role – one of the guys I counseled said he was only applying to Harvard and Wharton because his parents would not approve of any other b-schools – and he is 32 years old. I don’t think I would ever have heard that from an American! The fresh start thing is great for me, because I’m basically a generalist. There’s lots of things I’d love to do. I’ve always had this bizarre ideal, perhaps unwise, of changing my main line of work every 4-5 years.

  • My non-American view of the American Dream?
    The American Dream is first and formost an individualistic and a materialistic one. It is very rare to hear the words ‘social justice’ or ‘society first’ and American Dream in one sentence.

  • The American Dream, traditionally, was to own your own home (or at least have a mortgage). This may have been an awesome marketing campaign by Freddy Mac, I don’t know. But I think it stems from peasants in Europe who worked the land of the aristocrats, and owning the land was the key to the whole gain. On the other hand, I made the previous paragraph up, though it makes sense to me.

    Now, I think the American Dream means not having one’s potential limited by institutions (goverment) or society at large. The idea that I can achieve whatever my innate gifts allow. So it isn’t that everyone can be Michael Jordan, or create a successful business, but that if you have the gifts to become/do those things, you can do them here, in America.

    In America, we have (largely) sloughed off the chains of the foundations of Maslow’s hierarchy, allowing people to focus on actualization of the top three levels of the pyramid, fats, sugars, and meat. Whoops, wrong pyramid.

    Then again, wikipedia says it better than I ever could.

    As Warren Buffett says, “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil..”

  • For me, the “American Dream” is a matter of becoming, not being.

    We’ve always fallen short of our ideals, but the promise of the future is what what keeps us treading on.

  • I believe that The American Dream stands for the freedom to create your own future, to make your own decisions in life and to bear the full responsibility of those choices.

    Ironically this symbolic presentation was created in an age of increasing industrialisation, a process where the individual was reduced from skilled craftsman to production worker, and hierarchy increased tenfold.

    In my opinion of a foreigner, I tend to see the American dream not as a dream, but as an excuse to accept the structure of corporal business that influence and adjust the way people live their life.

    Should you desire to be monetary successful in life, with a reasonable chance of reaching this goal, there is no other choice that to go with the flow of corporal business.

    It is a challenging and inspiring to see that you, Ben, made it to be already relatively successful and getting more influential on a quite young age. However, your upbringing, environment and basically sheer luck is something that unfortunately a very large part of American civilians does not share in.

    I’m from Europe and live currently in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. At least at my university, the general tendency is to accept the fact that being successful is for a large part due to environmental factors.

    So, the question that I challenge people to answer is this: is the American dream an argument to sustain the structure of corporal idealism, or is it a fundamental way of living. And how different is this living than, compared to other western capitalistic societies?

    In 1960 the poet Archibald MacLeish said: ‘There are those, I know, who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right, It is. It is the American dream.’

  • For me, it’s all about equality. I read somewhere that De Toqueville (I confess I’ve never read his writing, although I own a copy of Democracy in America) wrote that Americans are obsessed with equality. Well, what the heck, I looked it up on the ‘net: “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from
    which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” As a middle-aged female, born into a time when all white males were created equal, and the rest of us were left to fend for ourselves, the movement toward equality of opportunity for everyone is the greatest change in my lifetime. It has nothing to do with money or fame. It has to do with me having the same opportunity to pursue something as the next person.

  • Kevin,

    Warren Buffet could’ve been just playing to the gallery while saying those words. Given Bangladesh or Timbuktu, he would still have made his billions. I think it’s more to do with one’s DNA.

    It was the havoc wrought by a devastating famine in Bangladesh in 1974 that changed the thinking of a Bangladeshi economics professor named Muhammad Yunus.

    When Yunus saw the disaster’s crippling effect during a university field trip, he felt that classroom economic theories were simply not doing enough to address the needs of those living in desperate poverty.

    What followed later was a Microfinance revolution of sorts that lifted millions of people out of poverty in Bangladesh. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, was awarded the Nobel Prize for pioneering the concept of microfinance, giving small loans to very poor people for income-generating projects.

    Now that’s some dream, could as well be American.

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