Collecting the tools of a sustainable, self-directed life


24- The American Dream


For most of my life, I was driven by the American Dream. A poor child with a big opportunity, I was determined to become an example of all it stood for. But it would be decades before I learned that we think about that dream all wrong.

If you search for “American Dream” online, you’ll quickly find definitions like:

But none of these capture what James Truslow Adams said when coined the phrase in his 1931 book, Epic of America.

Like other national histories, Adams’s 300-page biography of the United States includes large swaths of violence, oppression, betrayal, and division. But, in his epilogue, he reveals the country’s one “distinctive and unique gift to mankind…the American Dream.”

He defines the term as:

  • “a dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,”

  • “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall.. attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position,” and

  • “not [being] a dream of merely material plenty… [but] a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered… by social orders…developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

It’s clear from Adams’s use of “not…merely” that these three definitions are not alternative, but cumulative. Each definition clarifies and depends on the previous. And all three—the land, social order and being— are required for this dream to come true.

Modern definitions fall short because they ignore Adams’s latter two definitions and his belief that “education,” “high wages” and “contentment” are only as valuable as they advance the American mind—“the chief factor” of the country’s future.

According to Adams, each person needs to decide in their “own hearts, through experience and perhaps disillusion, what is a genuinely satisfying life, a ‘good life’ in the old Greek sense. Only then, can we “together..striv[e] for the abiding values of life,” those that will create the sustaining social order that defines the American Dream.

By the time I had finished Adams’s history earlier this year, I’d already decided—through disappointment and much disillusion—to design my own life and try to make sustainable change. Reading the epilogue confirmed my plan.

What about you? After examining Adams’s words, how has your view of the American Dream changed? How might your mindset and lifestyle design help to achieve that Dream? Have you designed your “good life” with enough time to develop your mind and strive with your community?