The Evolution of the American Dream

Written on November 27, 2008. Written by .

Play Time Cubicles
The world from a higher vantage point.
Photo courtesy of Stewf

In the traditions of America, there is an ideal that says “If you work hard and honestly, you will be rewarded with wealth and happiness.” This tradition is passed down through the many success stories of individuals who followed this ideal and achieved amazing things. People like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. But the world is changing and the way these stories happen is changing with it.

Henry Ford was Chief Engineer at Edison Illuminating Company when he independently built the Ford Quadricycle, which was the impetus behind the creation of his own motor company. Today it would be hard for one man to develop a mechanical product in his spare time at work that would so profoundly impact the national economy.

Thomas Edison had three months of official schooling and was able to become one of the most prominent inventors of all time. He was able to develop his inventions by extensive tinkering on his own. Today corporations dominate the process of invention because it takes so many resources to develop something new.

Albert Einstein obtained his PhD with a 17 page paper on a topic that he worked on independently. Now progress in physics is made by billion dollar experimental collaborations of thousands of scientists, or theorists who spend “20 years in the salt mines” after graduating college to produce a small piece of the puzzle.

The complexity of our modern world is shifting opportunity away from the individual and toward larger groups of people who make larger sacrifices to learn how to play their role in the group. Several generations ago, you could have a great career without a high school education. A couple generations ago, college wasn’t necessary. Now college is basically necessary and graduate school is starting to become more necessary. Not only does this mean that individuals need to sacrifice more of their lives to education, but they are also required to sacrifice more pride in their work. If you only play an infinitesimal role in the development of a new product or discovery, you won’t feel the same pride that you would feel if it was your own creation. The highly efficient system in which workers specialize themselves to a limited role ends up alienating the individual because the sense of accomplishment is diluted to the point where a single worker can’t even tell if they contributed anything.

These trends may not seem very alarming because there are still many individual success stories being made. For example, Google was created by just two people and within a few years their company was worth billions. But notice that they were graduate students. Also, there are only so many such opportunities available and there are many more people in the world competing for those opportunities. There is probably actually a greater number of available opportunities due to the larger number of sectors in the economy and the vast worlds that technology has made accessible, but the competition is now global and the difficulty is becoming more and more beyond the abilities of an individual.

What does this mean for us? Perhaps we need to be careful not to adopt the ideals of a lost culture. Once it may have been wise to adopt a hard-working capitalistic attitude because the payoff would come. But if the payoff is going to take longer than your expected lifespan, it probably isn’t worth it. But that doesn’t mean that it is wise to abandon productivity. We are genetically programmed to value productivity through flow experiences. The key is that our genes do not care whether the productivity is economically profitable. So it seems that it may be preferrable to place a little less emphasis on becoming wealthy and instead focus on finding flow in your work. This will have the benefit of circumventing the sacrificial bias of the modern workforce while still putting you in the path of success by engaging you in potentially productive activities.

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