The Dangers of the American Dream, or Teenage Dreams
It’s not that MTV’s “Cribs” — still on the air in a slightly different format — is the biggest problem in America, but it is a useful indicator of one of our problems.
This is not the standard-issue rant about materialism. If you love those professional-quality kitchen knives you got for Christmas, God bless ya. And if you have the chance to move into a mansion with the eight-car garage, with a custom built-swimming pool and Jacuzzi, overlooking the ocean, go ahead and enjoy every minute.
It’s great to have big dreams of success and wealth and fame. They’re one of the things that make the world go round, and the history of humanity would be dramatically different, and worse, without big dreamers like the Founding Fathers, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, the scientists and engineers of the Apollo program, Steve Jobs, etc.
It’s the message expressed directly and indirectly to all of our children: work hard, study, don’t quit, and you can live your dreams!
But not everybody’s going to live out their big dreams. You may dream of winning a gold medal as an Olympics sprinter, and just not be that fast. Some folks will strive for their dreams and conclude it’s too hard. They’ll get discouraged. They’ll be stung by the criticism, constructive and destructive. After trying and failing, they’ll conclude that it’s easier to not try.
And then what? What do they do with their lives afterwards?
If your dream is to succeed in an extremely competitive field, you may never get to give that Oscar acceptance speech, play to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, or declare that you’re going to Disney World after winning the Super Bowl. Hopefully you can find some way to enjoy your passion of performing or athletics, but whatever you end up doing, you’re going to have to make a living.
The free market has spoken, and it has decided that people who can play basketball as well as LeBron James can make unbelievable sums of money. There are about 400 roster spots in the NBA, and they make varying sums, from Kobe Byrant’s $30 million per year to ten guys making less than $100,000 per year. But there are thousands upon thousands of guys who are just “pretty good” at basketball who make nothing — as well as millions of singers, actors, musicians, artists — and millions more who make a little on the side while working a day job.
Part of the problem is that we live in a culture that celebrates music stars, professional athletes, and movie stars well beyond any other professions. There are entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, doctors, diplomats, and other professions who live in houses as nice as the ones on “Cribs.” But we only have a show about the celebrities. Elon Musk (founder, SpaceX), Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway and the drug-infusion pump), and Chuck Hull (inventor of the 3-D printer) aren’t even household names – at least not compared to, say, Kim Kardashian or Lindsey Lohan.
If there’s not much glamour in being exceptionally smart, there’s certainly not going to be much glamour or excitement just doing your job well.
You see a lot of educators beating the drums about STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and how central they are to everything from long-term earning potential to innovation to national security. If you’re playing the odds, having great ability in these areas is your best shot to avoid unemployment, earn good wages, have good opportunities for advancement, etc.
So why don’t more kids dive into these subjects, and more college students major in them? Well for many of us, these subjects are hard. But there’s also that question of glamour, and why so few young people see being a scientist or engineer or even a doctor as a path to the kind of success they see on “Cribs.” Perhaps the road to Hollywood or sports stardom actually seems easier than memorizing the periodic table or understanding quadratic equations.
Still, there seems to be this disconnect between people’s dreams — perhaps even expectations of life — and what’s required to achieve those dreams. One of my all-time favorite essays discussed the notion of “effort shock”:
It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”
And young people entering the workforce seem to be experiencing the greatest amount of “effort shock.” This Slate article by Brooke Donatone from a month ago generated a lot of snickering about Millennials, and offers one of the all-time great opening paragraphs:
Amy (not her real name) sat in my office and wiped her streaming tears on her sleeve, refusing the scratchy tissues I’d offered. “I’m thinking about just applying for a Ph.D. program after I graduate because I have no idea what I want to do.” Amy had mild depression growing up, and it worsened during freshman year of college when she moved from her parents’ house to her dorm. It became increasingly difficult to balance school, socializing, laundry, and a part-time job. She finally had to dump the part-time job, was still unable to do laundry, and often stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to complete homework because she didn’t know how to manage her time without her parents keeping track of her schedule.
I suggested finding a job after graduation, even if it’s only temporary. She cried harder at this idea. “So, becoming an adult is just really scary for you?” I asked. “Yes,” she sniffled.
Amy is 30 years old.
Cue everyone’s “By the time I was 30, I had [worked 60 hours a week/served in the military/gotten married/had children/founded a company/etc].” stories.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students who experienced helicopter-parenting reported higher levels of depression and use of antidepressant medications. The researchers suggest that intrusive parenting interferes with the development of autonomy and competence. So helicopter parenting leads to increased dependence and decreased ability to complete tasks without parental supervision.
Amy, like many millennials, was groomed to be an academic overachiever, but she became, in reality, an emotional under-achiever. Amy did not have enough coping skills to navigate normal life stressors—how do I get my laundry and my homework done in the same day; how do I tell my roommate not to watch TV without headphones at 3 a.m.? — without her parents’ constant advice or help.
. . . The era of instant gratification has led to a decrease in what therapists call “frustration tolerance.” This is how we handle upsetting situations, allow for ambiguity, and learn to navigate the normal life circumstances of breakups, bad grades, and layoffs. When we lack frustration tolerance, moderate sadness may lead to suicidality in the self-soothingly challenged.
The U.S. education system is failing our kids in a lot of ways. But perhaps none bigger than their inability to accurately communicate just how much effort and dedication it takes succeed in this world.