Updated: Mar 12
In 1931, American writer and historian, James Truslow Adams, coined the phrase “the
American dream” in his book, The Epic of America. The American dream is a noble idea. It is essentially the inspiring belief that no matter who you are or where you were born, with hard-
work and sacrifice, you can attain the goal of upward economic mobility. However, despite the beauty of its nobility and inspiration, there is, tragically, a baited trap in the American dream. It is based on the idea that success is primarily measured by the acquisition of wealth, prized material objects, and an improved socio-economic status. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong in the pursuit of those things, but the definition of success in our American culture is too narrow and must be broadened.
Consider this for a moment: If a rich man lost his wealth, material possessions, and
societal status through a series of unfortunate economic decisions and circumstances, what does he have left? Well, if the man believes he has nothing and has become a failure, then he was never a success to begin with. You see, a person’s value and success is not at all based on the size of their bank account; a person’s real value and true success is based on something very fundamental and much more intrinsically valuable: their willingness to change.
The willingness to change is not small potatoes. We all have a strong drive to follow our
convictions and our own understanding of the world, and we are typically unwilling to defect
from those ideas and beliefs. This is when ignorance, stagnation, and status quos take up
residence within a person’s thinking and even take up generational residence within a family, a community, and a nation. Our willingness to change, to grow, to adapt, to adopt a growth mindset, to abandon ineffective methods, destructive beliefs, unproductive relationships does not come easy to any of us, but when we do take that step toward change, any success that follow owes its existence to that moment within our mind and heart when we decided “to know better, to do better, to be better.”
Let’s look at the true value of the “willingness to change.” There was a young boy who
grew up with an alcoholic father. His father was abusive both verbally and physically, and, as
you can imagine, this negatively impacted him. Subsequently, as a teenager he began to drink heavily and get into a lot of trouble. By the time he was twenty-two, he managed to pull himself together somewhat and married his high school sweetheart. When they learned they were about to have their first child, he had a moment of clarity that he never before experienced in his life: he decided within himself to completely change his ways, to be different – to be better than his father.
He never touched bottle of alcohol ever again. To support their growing family, he always
worked multiple jobs, so he was not home all the time, but when he was home, he gave his time and energy to the family. He managed to help pay a small portion of each of their children’s college tuition. He did not retire wealthy; in fact, even when he retired from the food packing factory, he worked part-time for a cleaning company until he died. By definition, he did not attain the American dream, but his decision to change the kind of man he was and become the kind of father he knew he needed to be will impact his family for generations to come.
The children of his children’s children’s children will feel the impact of his brave
decision to be better. That is true success. The economic benefits for the future generations of his family because of his choice to know better are incalculable. The value of the opportunities that his future children will now have because of his singular decision to do better are too numerous to quantify.
For this man, his greatest success - his true success - was his willingness to change.
If our wealth, prized material possessions, and socio-economic status were stripped from
us, would we, at least, be left with choices we’ve made that will indelibly and positively impact the destiny of our family for generations to come? So, pursue wealth, accumulate assets, enlarge your portfolio, and advance your socio-economic status, but remember, your true success is not in the acquisition of those things but in your willingness to personally change for the benefit of those who will come after you.