After we sleep, we wake – up. When we fall, we get – up. When we feel low, our moods are lifted – up. When we are held down – we rise up. And when we start at the bottom, we move – up. Or do we?
Up seems natural. It’s reflexive. It’s how we want to be and where we want to go. But it is not easy. Up signifies progress. But it often means a long climb.
What is up with you?
In my life, I have struggled with questions. How did I get here? Why did the American Dream work so well for me but not for others? How did it become possible for me to move from the bottom towards the top, when 94% of the time that doesn't happen? Was it hard work or dumb luck? Was it good genes or good grades? What major influences and minor moments led me to where I am?
What is my story? What is yours?
In these pages are fragments of truth collected over time and woven together, all driving towards some kind of answer. They include stories reflecting on the success of famous, as well as unknown, individuals, slices of science separating myths from meaning, and clipped moments seared into my long-term memory because they comport with a story I like to tell myself.
Taken individually, each offers a moment to pause, reflect, and maybe learn something interesting. Collectively, I hope they offer more than this - an opportunity to see your station in life in a whole new light.
Where do we begin?
WAKING UP TO SEE THE DREAM
Dreams are illusory. In the fresh haze of a new morning, they feel crisp and nuanced. And then, as if in an instant, they begin to recede. The details fade and we are left with a vague sense of what they were.
This is what the American Dream has become. It is a loose outline of what it once was, and we have forgotten the details.
If we want our dreams to have staying power, if we want them to be accurate, if we want them to feel as real now as they were in our slumber then we must tell a complete story. And we must do so with a sense of urgency.
If we don't narrate them before they fade, dreams lose their meaning and cease to resemble what they once were.
This is the story of waking up to see what really makes the American Dream possible.
A SIMPLE STORY?
“The American Dream is that 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. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to 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.”
The American Dream is a vital part of our American story. It is a powerful beacon of hope for all who are born on our soil or come to our shores and has become the embodiment of a better, more successful life. Yet, ironically, the way we have come to talk about the American Dream may be limiting the ability for people to achieve it.
When we oversimplify our story to say, “America is a place where if you come here and work hard enough you can achieve fortune and fame,” we make it difficult to think clearly and carefully about what else are necessary. By focusing so exclusively on individual drive and effort, we overlook and perhaps undervalue the underpinnings of our communities, families, and the larger society that make achieving the dream more likely.
Reality tells us that achieving the American dream is a more complicated story than we tend to tell. While hard work makes success possible, it hardly makes it probable. For too many Americans, opportunities for success are limited from the moment they are born, while others face challenges throughout life that can make their path towards the dream a constant uphill battle.
Equally important to success as an individual’s hard work is the hard work that can go unseen on his/her behalf. Parents, teachers, doctors, researchers, community leaders, policy makers and many others work everyday — not just to improve their own lives, but to open opportunities for others. By glossing over these elements and making these contributions invisible, we diminish their value and minimize their ability to help others achieve the American Dream.
ONLY IN AMERICA
So how do we make more visible the people, policies and programs that create opportunities for people to achieve the American Dream and by doing so increase public support for them? When we think of President Obama’s success, his story is often distilled to “the son of a single white mother who worked hard to get a good education and then became President of the United States.” Little is made of all the invisible people and programs that, if not present, would have limited his ability to succeed. The fact that he benefited from food stamps, college scholarships, supportive grandparents, and more, is glossed over.
If we can’t tell a more complete story about a person who is constantly under media scrutiny and coverage, how will we ever get around to having a more complete story told for the average Joe?
LISTENING TO DREAMS
Over the last few years, I’ve had a single mother tell me about her dream to provide her son with the same strong family traditions that her grandparents provided for her. I heard a down-on-his-luck former salesman show me the trophy he won as a top earner when times were good and his hard work was rewarded. And I listened to a young man recount with pride how his DJ business was booming in spite of never knowing what a good economy looked like.
These stories often have a whiff of cliché, but we value them regardless. As one person shared “Without the American Dream, there is no America.”
On one level, this suggests that people define their dreams very personally. They change over time. We adapt them to the reality of our times and circumstances. As a result there are countless versions of the American Dream that extend beyond the “rags to riches” definition that often dominates the stories in popular culture and in the news.
What makes these versions similar is that they share a few characteristic ingredients such as hard work, family and education and that we fail to get into much detail in order to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are, as individuals and a country.
BUILDING A SHORTER AND MORE STABLE LADDER
We are at a critical time in our nation’s history, when both the ability to achieve the American Dream and an understanding of what it takes to achieve it are being called into serious question. Social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, yet our mobility is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility. If you’re born poor in America, you are very likely to stay poor. When someone does “make it,” it is ascribed to hard work alone. But the reality is that there is always an invisible network of people, organizations, institutions, policies and services that create opportunities for that person to get ahead. In other words, we can work hard to climb the ladder, but someone has to build that ladder in the first place. The question we face now in this time of economic challenge is how do we build a better ladder? How do we move forward together and invest in those parts of society that give every citizen the chance to live the American Dream?
UNITED OR DIVIDED?
In 2012, we designed a research study with Public Agenda called the Invisible Dream to better understand how people across the country feel about the American Dream. Our research shows that on the one hand, Americans broadly agree on the essential ingredients for achieving the dream. Hard work, strong families and a good education are each seen as essential by more than 77% of Americans (hard work topped the list at almost 86%). These three items under consensus raise an important question about whether we are doing enough to ensure that the foundations of character, family and education are being laid in every home, town and city across America.
On the other hand, there were significant political divisions as to what else was essential for achieving the dream after “the big three.” Between self-identified members of our two major political parties, we saw percentage swings of over thirty points for factors such as basic healthcare or a strong free enterprise system.
Perhaps most telling was that Americans were split right down the middle when asked if the American Dream is something people achieve largely on their own or whether it is made more possible by the efforts of others.
THE POLITICS OF THE DREAM
The political conventions of 2012 were in many ways a collection of moving American Dream stories, from Marco Rubio to Julian Castro and dozens in between. And the phrase “American Dream” was mentioned on the stage almost twice as many times as it had been in the 2008 conventions.
In January of that year, Mark Halperin of Time Magazine said on the Charlie Rose show that, “The 2012 presidential election could come down to a referendum on the American Dream, what it means and how people achieve it.”
Unfortunately, that referendum was heavy on sound bites and light on substance.
There were superficial debates over “who built this.” Gotcha moments about the 1 percent, the 99 percent and the 47 percent. Paul Ryan weighed in with even more “division by percentage,” by saying that 30 percent of Americans don’t want the American Dream, but instead just want to be taken care of by the government.
Each of these cases could have had a real debate about what each party would like to do to create more opportunities for Americans to pursue their dreams. But instead of leading to a sound policy discussion, it turned into ways to rack up political points.
If the 2012 election had truly been framed as a referendum on the American Dream, then Mitt Romney’s comment on de-funding PBS would not have sent twitter into a blaze with Big Bird jokes, but could have led to a serious conversation on the role Sesame Street plays in helping low-income children prepare for kindergarten.
Ironically, while Americans believed the 2012 election would have a profound impact on people’s ability to achieve the American Dream by a margin of two to one, it was not mentioned by name during the debates, just during the conventions; used more often in political speeches, but not in policy discussions.
Beyond not mentioning the term, what was more alarming was that there was little substantive discussion of what either candidate believes is necessary for more Americans to get ahead in life.
There was no mention of how children can overcome poverty, how families can stay on their feet in an era of stagnant wages and decreased benefits, or how our elders can live with security in their golden years with little to no nest eggs. There was no discussion on how best to make sure hard work pays off, or how we spur growth for small businesses or innovation. Nor was there any mention of immigrants, the health of our cities, or a myriad of other topics relevant to our times and central to a discussion of the American Dream.
The American Dream used to be the guiding narrative that drove, not just political discourse, but action. It represented our deepest, universal values. It was a shared belief system that bridged political parties and was above partisanship. As such, our leaders shaped their policies to fit into this narrative, in order to provide more opportunities for others. What were they doing to make the American Dream possible for others?
Today, it has become a "Technicolor Dream coat" that they take turns wrapping themselves in and fighting over, while forgetting that achieving the American Dream isn’t the end goal. Sharing it is.
Image by Phil Warren from Flickr
HOW DID I GET HERE?
It starts with you. Look around in your neighborhood, at your job, across the table at your loved ones. How exactly did you arrive at your station in life? Is everyone the same as you or are you the outlier? Did you rise or fall from your parents’ place in the world? Or maybe you’re exactly where you started – for better or worse. Did you leave others behind you? Or were you left in their wake?
We don’t often like to answer these types of questions. Not just because they make us think, but because the answers make us feel.
How do you feel?
“I’D LIKE TO THANK THE ACADEMY…”
Imagine you were giving an acceptance speech for a major award, like the Oscars. Who would you thank? God? Your Mom? Your agent? Would the press write articles about how your hard work allowed you to overcome some struggle in your life to reach this pinnacle- perhaps beating cancer or getting out of poverty? If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. It is a familiar script on how we tell our stories about becoming successful (hard work) and who, if anyone, we have to thank for it (the usual suspects).
In reality, this way of talking about achieving our dreams may be limiting other people's ability to achieve theirs. Because we lack a more fundamental appreciation for how we achieve success, we become complacent in supporting those people and programs that played an invisible role in our achievements. For a college student, it's thanking Claiborne Pell, who championed student aid. If you've overcome cancer, it's thanking the National Institutes of Health for their role in funding cancer research.
In 1947, Olivia de Havilland set a modern-day record when she thanked 27 people, who helped her in route to her Oscar-winning performance in the ironically titled “To Each His Own.” The film itself is a staggering example of sacrifice and the invisible hands behind the scenes that can drive our happiness.
Stop reading and check out Kevin Durant’s MVP speech. Here, you’ll find a video that is 26 minutes and 23 seconds long. You’ll be tempted to think that you don’t have time to watch it right now. Avoid the temptation. Watch it in its entirety.
I don’t want to give too much away, but in a setting to celebrate what is considered an individual award, Durant takes the time to personally single out each of his teammates, friends and family members among others. He tells brief stories about what each means to him and how they have made a difference in his life – a note in the locker here, a late night text there, a hug, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He is humble, humorous and breathtakingly honest. It is one of the best speeches of any kind, I’ve ever seen. And it is all off the cuff.
He says towards the end, “I don’t know about you, but when something good happens to you, I tend to look back at what brought me here.”
Of his teammates, he says, “I wish I had a Sharpie so I could write all of your names on this trophy.”
And of his family and mom, well, you just have to watch for yourself.
With tears in his eyes, Durant at several points says, “We’re not supposed to be here.” A nod to his long and difficult journey. But as improbable as it is, after his speech you’re left thinking. “How could he not be?”
I’D LIKE TO THANK…
As you continue reading, do us both a favor. Take notes. Write down whomever and whatever you feel has contributed to where you are right now. Whether you fill one page or ten, I guarantee that you will feel a renewed sense of gratitude for what you have. Then ask yourself this question: What have I done to express my gratitude?
Images from Next Impulse Sports and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
THE POSSIBLE VS. THE PROBABLE
As part of our research project looking at the American Dream, the polling firm, Harris, conducted a national survey. Among the questions, we asked Americans to tell us, which of two 15-year-old children would be more likely to achieve the American Dream: One had a strong family but lacked ambition, while the other had a strong work ethic but had an abusive family.
Seventy percent of Americans believe that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream.
We like to think that, in this country no matter how bad things are with hard work, we can overcome anything. But is this wonderful ideal potentially a limiting belief? Do we conflate the possible with the probable when we think that a child from an abusive family has a better chance at success than a child from a strong family if only he works harder?
We often hear impressive stories of people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families. We hold them up as shining examples of what makes America great.
At the same time, we know the numbers tell us that most people don’t escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families and, that while social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, it is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility.
SO HOW MOBILE ARE WE?
One of the hallmarks of the American Dream is equal opportunity: the belief that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can achieve economic success. Polling by The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that 40 percent of Americans consider it common for a person in the United States to start poor, work hard, and become rich. But that rags-to-riches story is more prevalent in Hollywood than in reality. In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never even make it to the middle.
Their research also shows that if you’re born near the top, you’re more likely to stay at the top.
STILL… WE HAVE MORE MOBILITY THAN THE REST OF THE WORLD, RIGHT?
Actually, no. Similar research from Pew shows that there is actually less economic mobility in America than in most developed countries, including those with a deep history of strict class division.
THE LONG TERM VIEW OF MOBILITY
While the short term story of mobility suggests less movement than we’d like, the longer view shows that eventually we all curve back to the mean. Sounds promising, right? Sort of, if you’re really, really patient.
Gregory Clark, author of The Son Also Rises: The Story of Surnames and Social Mobility, shows that eventually high status families will fall and low status families will rise - both heading towards the average, in what’s referred to, statistically, as regression of the means.
The problem? While most of us think this mobility is something that occurs frequently within one’s lifetime or at most within one or two generations, in actuality, it normally takes 10 to 15 generations (or 300to 450 years). This is much longer than social scientists have estimated in the past, and something that runs counter to everything we believe about moving up in America.
It seems like we can do better as a nation than telling people that while they won’t make it, their great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandchildren will.
Image by Flickr user TheCoolQuest and Pew Charitable Trusts
For a country that values hard work so highly, we really don’t seem to have a common definition of it. If we did, we’d have more appreciation for what others did for a living.
Let’s start with the facts. Americans work longer hours and are more productive than any other country on the planet. So we put in the time and have a ton to show for it.
We work 40, 50, 60, 70 plus hours per week. Some people leave their job at the door when they punch out; others never seem to stop working. Either because they are moving on to a second or third job, or feel as if they need to always be connected to work via email (checking with a frequency we often mock teens when they relentlessly text friends).
The nature of the work is diverse. Some perform backbreaking tasks that take a physical toll every day, ultimately causing a body to break down prematurely. For others, the stress is more mental. Constant pressure to perform and deliver contributes to different health issues associated with stress.Is this what we value?Apparently not. In Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace study, they found that 70 percent of Americans either hate or are completely disengaged in their jobs.
So we may be working hard, but it doesn’t seem to be working for us.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM WORKING HARD
When I was little, people of little means who seemed to be working constantly surrounded me. My mother raised her three children by day and bartended by night. For a child, her hours seemed incalculable. There were no benefits and no paid vacation to speak of. She worked to live. Work put food on the table and helped provide for her children. The more she worked, the more she made. The better she was at her job, the more likely she was to get the extra shift when it became available.
So when I began working on a farm when I was 12 years old, I had the same mentality. The more potatoes I picked, the more money I could make. Later, when working at a fast food restaurant, I realized that harder and better work could translate to better shifts, even if I was only 16 years old at the time. Hard work simply meant more money.
With working hard also came pride in a job well done. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Even if you’re only a street sweeper, decide that you’re going to be the best street sweeper that ever was.”
And so at different times, I felt that I was the best potato picker on that farm, the best dishwasher at that bar, and the best sandwich maker in that fast food joint.
Working hard does come with its own intrinsic rewards – money, pride, a sense of accomplishment, respect from your peers. But it does not automatically come with mobility. Had I stayed on that farm, at that bar, or in that fast food restaurant, inevitably I would have hit a ceiling. A ceiling defined today by stagnating wages and decreased benefits. Eventually even the intrinsic joy from working hard would become a more bitter fruit.
HOW PEOPLE GET MALCOLM GLADWELL WRONG
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell throws down the 10,000 hours gauntlet. Research suggests it is this number that will lead to mastery in any given task. Want to be a masterful writer? Write for 10,000 hours. Want to be a masterful skier? Ski for 10,000 hours. Want to lead the "British Invasion"? Play music for 10,000 hours.
In this last case, he uses the example of the Beatles and the amount of practice time they put in before making it big. Pointing specifically to a three-month gig in Hamburg, Germany where they played anywhere and everywhere as a seminal period during which practice and hard work were particularly intense.
While there is no doubt that the Beatles practiced often and hard, practice should not be read as a simple prescription for success. After all, not all musicians who “practice, practice, practice” make it to places like Carnegie Hall or the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Paul McCartney summed it up differently in an interview commemorating the launch of the “British Invasion” on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964: “There were a lot of coincidences. Us coming together. Having all these different skills that complemented each other. John Lennon in a band and you have pretty good band. Paul McCartney in a band. That’s a pretty good band. Same with George and Ringo. But together, well that was something special.”
Beyond finding each other, they also needed to “find their music.”And the fact that all four of them consistently brought to the group a different set of influences ranging from Elvis Presley (whom Lennon said without Elvis there is no Beatles) to Buddy Holly (whose band’s name "The Crickets" inspired the naming of "The Beatles") to Little Richard (whom they met in Hamburg and provided invaluable words of wisdom for the group to put their own music out there).
Any history of the Beatles will undoubtedly show that beyond mastering the craft by putting in the time, there were coincidences, influences and circumstances that, if you pulled one of those threads, it is possible that the whole fabric of their music and success could unravel.
A NEW SPIN ON HARD WORK – GRIT
Increasingly as the topics of income inequality and social mobility have received more public attention, a spate of new books trying to uncover new formulas for what it takes for a child to succeed have arrived with much fanfare. Here "success" is defined in the context of moving up in social class. In books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, really smart people attempt to describe what character traits are essential for success. While their formulas vary, there is one constant: the idea of “grit.” Grit has many definitions, including “perseverance and passion in achieving long-term goals.” But at the core of their descriptions is grit defined as “persistence of motive and effort.” In others words, persistence in hard work. These books are all well-written and valuable contributions to better understanding the dynamics of moving up the ladder in life. But they each also fall back on the overwhelming importance of working hard – in this case, defined as doing so over the long haul. Again no doubt that grit or hard work – whatever you want to call it – is critical to success. But a new spin on an old theme carries with it the risk of minimizing the importance of many of the other things we talk about here. The solution isn’t to just teach “grit” but to figure out how to minimize its necessity.
THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL
In his New York Times column, Charles M. Blow likens life to a hill in need of climbing – more so for some than others. He writes, “It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is so. Some folks are born halfway up the hill and others on the top. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. Life doles out favors in differing measures, often as a result of historical injustice and systematic bias. That’s a hurtful fact, one that must be changed. We should all work toward that change. In the meantime, until that change is real, what should you do if life gives you the hill?”
His answer: work hard and climb. Seems obvious and it is. His admonishments that “you may have been born at the bottom, but the bottom was not born in you” and “you have it within you to be better than you were, to make more of your life than was given to you by life” are quintessentially American. But he also puts us in a familiar bind. Of course, hard work is necessary and the alternative, self-defeating. But as he writes earlier in his same piece, “I know it’s infuriating when people offer insanely naïve solutions to our suffering.” Yet isn’t he, and by extension all of us, doing exactly that?
SALMON FISHING WITH BEARS
In Alaska, some salmon swim 31 miles upstream to spawn. At the same time, bears fresh from hibernation will take their young cubs on an equally incredible journey that will see only half of the cubs survive their first year. They begin by walking two weeks without eating until they arrive at an open meadow, where they will take a break and feed on grass. Continuing the mother will lead them onward avoiding predators and battling the elements until they get to the same final destination as the salmon.
The reward for the bear’s hard work is feasting on the salmon. The reward for the salmon’s 31 mile swim is the chance to avoid being eaten by very hungry bears.
The lessons? One, as a species, we don’t own the corner on hard work. And two, the best, and perhaps ultimate reward for working hard is doing what it takes so our offspring at least have a chance in life.
It is in the nature of bears and salmon. Can we say the same about humans?
ANOTHER THOUGHT ON GLADWELL
The issue with Gladwell and others is not their theories so much as it is with our unquenchable thirst to have THE answer or at least THE recipe for what it takes to get ahead. Social scientists, journalists, and media organizations all feed our insatiable appetite for trying to unlock the mystery that is “getting ahead in America.”
New theories and books are constantly added to the mix, each with the hope of solving this problem of decreasing mobility.
But the issue is so complex and so individualized that any one theory or book serves only as a small meal that we digest all too quickly. By the next day, we are hungry for more.
Recently, Inc. Magazine included a quote from Gladwell summarizing a tenet from his latest book, David & Goliath. He starts by including the old adage, “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger,” and suggests that it is through these types of hardships that success becomes possible. Nice sentiment. But really?
Yes, many people overcome adversity and as the adage goes “bones grow stronger in the broken places.” But in reality, what doesn’t kill us usually inflicts some damage, sometimes devastatingly so. To slough it off as what makes you stronger, strikes us as something that we tell each other during difficult times but never truly believe. It is a hope and desire, not always a reality.
I want every hardship to translate to strength. In my own life, it sometimes has. Yet at the same time, I’ve seen too many lives battered, wrecked, and ruined until only a shell of the original person remains. They didn’t become stronger. They became weaker. This is normally a result of repeated injury.
When we buy into some new formula or theory, we look at people who don’t make it through this lens and cast them as failures or weak. This is grossly unfair. We need new theories, new learning, and new voices not to give us the answer or another empty bromide, but instead to add a new chapter to an epic story. They add to the story. They don’t become the story.
Images from Public Domain, Flickr user NWCouncil, and Mother Jones
WHAT PEOPLE MISS ABOUT MALCOLM GLADWELL
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell does point out the role fate can play in our success. He tells a wonderful story about watching a junior hockey championship game in Canada and trying to figure out what all of these uber-successful kids have in common. Are they from the same province? Are they the same size? Do they have the same coaches?
Actually, they have a tendency to share similar birth months. It was unusual to see such a clustering of boys born in or soon after the month of January. What could this have to do with their hockey success?
It’s actually quite simple. January is the cut-off month for age breaks in youth hockey leagues. So if you were born in January or February, you’d almost invariably be one of the oldest and therefore biggest, strongest, and fastest players on your team. Certainly compared to a kid who could be almost a full year younger on your team (born in December). In the beginning, the older players may not actually be more skilled, but they are more capable as dictated by their longer development. In this self-fulfilling prophecy, these children ultimately get more attention, more playing time, and more instruction. They become the all-stars. They become the traveling team. They become Canadian Junior Hockey Champions.
“BITTER PARTY OF ONE – YOUR TABLE IS READY.”
I was born in late December-Christmas to be exact. This meant that while in school, I was always the youngest and smallest on all of my teams. I grew up thinking I was short when, in fact, I was young.
Proof? Between senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I grew almost six inches, entering college at six feet tall. I sure could have used that height when I was trying out for the high school basketball team.
“BUT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SCALE”
While the month of my birth could be seen as a disadvantage, the weight at my birth was just the opposite. I came into this world tipping the scales at over 11 pounds. Why is this relevant? Well, a new study from researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Florida and reported in The New York Times, shows that bigger babies become smarter kids. And that higher birth weight can translate to higher scores throughout school. It is also worth noting that this correlation applies regardless of the parents' education level.
Now I am not advocating a mad rush for parents to try and time their child’s birth for the summer time and to “bulk up” their babies in utero. That would seem a cruel burden to put on women. Instead, it is simply being aware that these things we take for granted – like when we are born and how much we weigh- makes a difference. And while neither determines our future outcomes, they certainly could give one child an advantage over another that we’re not even considering.
THE FATE OF BIRTH – PART ONE
During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, sisters Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe took home the gold and silver medals in mogul skiing. Not too far from the podium stood their older sister, Maxime, herself an Olympian who finished 12th in the same event.
When they were younger, Justine and Chloé watched their big sister skiing moguls in a Montreal resort near their home in Quebec. They thought it looked cool and, like millions of little sisters around the world, followed their big sister.
Maxime said after, “The path we walked, we did this side by side.”
Justine was 19 years old when she won. Chloe was 22. Maxime was 25. Justine literally followed her sisters’ footsteps to gold.
What if Maxime never took up skiing? What if Justine had been born an only child? What if her parents lived in Florida and not Montreal?
THE FATE OF BIRTH – PART TWO
Dasani also has two sisters. Like Maxime, she is the oldest. She is an athlete aspiring to be better. She was born in New York, her parents' struggles are legion- drugs, poverty, and homelessness are chief among them. The Olympics aren’t in Dasani's future, but she has a potential path out of poverty performing as part of a group of athletes who specialize in pull-up tricks. She is strong, determined, even gifted.
Despite these traits, she has a tough time getting to practice. Her mom is inconsistent in her support. Is this where her path gets blocked?
Dasani’s story was told in a weeklong feature story called “Invisible Child” in The New York Times beautifully written by Andrea Elliot. It will break your heart. Dasani has a spirit and will in her that screams, “I can be more.”
I often wonder what would have happened if that spirit was born in Montreal and she had older sisters named Maxime, Justine, and Chloé who loved to ski?
THE FATE OF BIRTH – PART THREE
So what do the numbers tell us? The reality is that where you’re born matters tremendously. There are all kinds of data that supports this. Especially when looking at something like life expectancy. If you checked out the Metro Map in Washington D.C., overlaid with life expectancy data by stop, you would see life expectancy differences of over 10 years just within a few stops of one another. There are areas in the U.S. with life expectancy around 62 years of age, which is not much higher than some countries in the developing world. Beyond life expectancy, a whole host of other measures point to the same conclusion – where you start in life, unfortunately, has a huge impact on where you’ll end up. Think about it. A zip code is not just a number, it represents everything inside of that area – including the hospital in which you are born, the schools where you attend, the streets on which you will play, the stores and restaurants that will feed you, and the jobs to which your parents and eventually you might have access.
When looking at social mobility, it’s the same song. There are some cities in this country where social mobility is almost non-existent, while others provide at least some opportunities for advancement. Take Charlotte, North Carolina for example. If you are born at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder there, the chances of you climbing near the top in your lifetime is five percent. That means you are four times less likely to make it if you’re born in Charlotte than in an average U.S. city.
In his moving book, The Other Wes Moore, the author, Wes Moore, tells his story of how he was able to survive tough circumstances and blossom into a national success story while a child of the same name and age, who grew up in the same city, ended up in prison. The difference? He moved. His mom got him out of that neighborhood and moved him to New York. While still a challenging environment, the difference in obstacles to success between the two neighborhoods in Baltimore and New York was significant. Just ask both Wes Moore’s.
Seems obvious doesn’t it? For most, it actually isn't. No one likes to think they were dealt a bad hand that they can’t play into a good one. This helps explain why during a message research testing project trying to make the case that where you live impacts your health, one of the lowest scoring messages was “When it comes to your health, your zip code may be more important than your genetic code.”
Image by Ed Kaiser, Postmedia Olympic Team and Ruth Fremson for New York Times
A TEST YOU DON’T WANT TO ACE
Clinicians use a common tool to assess the extent of toxic stress a child has experienced during his or her childhood. It’s called the Adverse Childhood Experience test, or ACE for short. It's a simple tool made up of just 10 yes or no questions. The lower the score, the better. In a Meta study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, researchers tracked the health outcomes of adults based on the extent of the adverse experiences they dealt with as children. The results were alarming.
In a column discussing the research, David Brooks succinctly summarized the adult outcomes associated with higher ACE scores.
“The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide.
Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.”
Answer the questions below to determine your or another person’s ACE score.
1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? OR Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? OR Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? OR Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? OR Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? OR Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? OR Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? OR Ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
10. Did a household member go to prison?
Add up your “Yes” responses. This is your ACE score. In the spirit of full disclosure. I carry a score of seven.
What’s your score?
WHAT VS. WHO
When you were a child, how many times were you asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you’re like any typical American, the answer is probably too high to count. It’s innocuous enough, right? In my case, the answer for most of my life was “leftfielder for the Boston Red Sox.” An inability to get around a good fastball necessitated a recalibration sometime between high school and college.
Now how many times were you asked, “Whom do you want to be when you grow up?” Or, “What kind of person would you like to be?” Frankly, I can’t remember ever being asked that question until I attended a conference last year. When I heard this jarring juxtaposition, I wondered, why didn’t anyone ask me this sooner? And why wasn’t I asking this question to my own children or nephews and nieces?
In the first instance, “what do you want to be” is a reflection of our cultural bias towards achievement and success. For right after any child answers that question with doctor, astronaut or leftfielder for the Boston Red Sox, the adult asking the question typically responds with some version of, “That’s great. Well you keep working at it and if you work hard enough, I bet you’ll be able to do it.”
In the second instance, “who do you want to be” actually reflects what we value. As Adam Grant from the University of Pennsylvania and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success writes, success is actually not the number one priority for most parents. “We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful.” And his statement is supported by research, not just in the U.S., but across the globe.
So why then do we default with “what do you want to be” instead of “who do you want to be?” And more important, what would happen if we started asking the latter more than the former?
Image by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography
A SINGLE PARENT
Several years ago, I attended a meeting with Irwin Redlener, founder of the Children’s Health Fund and Jack Shonkoff of Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Mind. These two men are world-renowned experts in child development, although each comes to the field with two distinct perspectives. Irwin is a pediatrician who has seen firsthand the profound impact that factors like poverty can have on a child’s health and development both in rural and urban communities. Shonkoff has been studying the impact that toxic stress, defined as lasting and highly problematic, has on a child as he or she grows older.
Neither man had met prior to this meeting where Shonkoff was sharing his latest research. When the meeting ended, I asked both the same question, “Why can some kids overcome dire circumstances while others cannot?” Simultaneously they answered, “a single protective adult.” A child who has at least one adult, normally a parent, who can both shield them from the difficulties they encounter every day and help make sense of these challenges is far more likely to succeed than one who is left to navigate these difficulties alone – no matter how hard that child may work at it.
CARNEGIE, KENNEDY AND HEARST, OH MY
Years later I had the opportunity to meet with the historian David Nasaw who has written three critically acclaimed biographies about men whose life stories are viewed by many as the epitome of the American Dream – Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Kennedy. I asked him a similar question: What made these men successful? Did they simply work harder than everyone else at that time?
Unprompted, Nasaw also began with the importance of ONE parent. “They all had one parent who was there for them throughout their life. All three men actually had two parents present, but in each case, one was supportive while the other not so much. For Kennedy, it was his father. For Carnegie and Hearst, it was their mothers. Pressing him on the question of hard work, he responded, “Yes, of course they worked hard. But did they work demonstrably harder than anyone else? I don’t think so.” In fact, they actually all understood the importance of balancing hard work with rest and leisure. Kennedy famously took off months at a time after working on a project. And Carnegie once encountered a manager at one of his plants who, eager to impress his new boss, told Carnegie that since taking the job he made sure he was the first person there in the morning and the last person to leave each night. Carnegie’s response? “Well, you must be doing something wrong then.”
MY SINGLE PARENT
In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Obama put economic mobility and the American Dream at center stage, stating that only in America could the son of a barkeep (Speaker John Boehner) and the son of a single mom with little means (President Obama) rise to their positions of power.
Not to be outdone, I was raised by a single mom with little means who WAS a barkeep. Except she didn’t own her bar, she just worked in many.
As is often the case, your appreciation for your mother ages like a fine wine. When my siblings and I were young, there was no doubt that our mom loved us and did the best she could to provide for us and to protect us. But these were not easy times and the context of our upbringing invited too much danger and damage to be easily forgotten. Like any childhood, ours was marked by a handful of amazing memories that we will carry with us forever. But with these also came much darker moments that we have either suppressed into an emotional lock box, never to be opened, or turned into a story that helps shape the way we think about ourselves, but that we never share with others.
Looking back now, it is almost impossible to imagine how my mom managed to raise three children on her own – while working full time, moving from home to home, and experiencing one bad relationship after another.
How did she do it?
I have three children of my own now and even with the most amazing wife and support structure, access to great schools and doctors, and almost anything else you’d want for your child – I still find it challenging and exhausting.
My brother and sister and I never really gave my mom much slack for what she didn’t do or provide for us. We knew she was trying her damnedest for us. We saw her fight for us. We saw her kick, scream and claw for us. We saw her sacrifice for us. We saw her do without for us. We saw her in pain for us.
But at the same time, perhaps we never gave her enough credit either.
TONIE FROM BELLINGHAM STREET
Several years ago, I brought us all back to our old neighborhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The poor immigrant town just over the Tobin from Boston that used to be filled with Italians, Jews and Irish was now a poor immigrant neighborhood filled with Dominicans, Somalis and Muslims.
As we walked down the streets, I noticed that although signs of stores and bars had changed, the marks of poverty and the absence of progress had not.
We saw the Salvation Army that clothed us, and the social services office that aided us. We walked by the school that tried to educate us. And we walked by the bars that provided for us and offered us our extended family.
My sister and I were like kids in a candy shop. Each memory seemed sweeter than the one before – including visiting the actual candy shop on the corner. Any painful recollections were set aside out of a shared fondness for where we had been and an appreciation for having escaped it. It was harder for my older brother who too often had to shoulder the burden of a surrogate parent while my mom was working or dealing with her own pain.
Harder still for my mom, who at one point refused to go into a bar she once worked, where my brother’s confirmation party was held. And who, as we approached houses where we used to live, kept her distance. Never getting too close, never physically touching any place we had been.
At one point later in the day, sitting around a table back at our hotel, we were poking fun at my mom and the many dinners that had featured Spam or the hand-me-downs that didn’t fit. Our playful nostalgia was her painful reality coming around again. She stormed out in tears - having had enough of the painful memories, relived guilt, embarrassment and insecurity.
She had escaped all of this to try to make a better life for her children - which she had successfully done.
We had forgotten that she was just a girl in her early twenties, on her own with no family support and no education, who was just fighting for herself and her family. Like a veteran of a foreign war, she did not want to relive the battles for her children.
Only once during this excursion to our past did we actually see our mom truly in the moment. At one point, walking down Broadway a familiar smell captured my attention. It was talcum powder. One of the very few memories I have of my father is being taken for haircuts. Walking through a door that jingles, being lifted onto a booster seat, getting a trim, trying to have my cowlick tamed, getting a lollipop for sitting still, and always receiving a very generous dousing of talcum powder, a signal to all within 30 feet of me that I had just gotten a fresh haircut.
As we followed the scent, we found Ralph’s Barbershop and Ralph himself, still there as if frozen in time. We explained that we had lived there 30 years ago and hadn’t been back in some time. He paused, looked at my mom, and said, “You’re Tonie from Bellingham Street, right?” “Yes, you remember?” She smiled widely and they exchanged a big hug. They talked for only five or so minutes, and at one point Ralph seemed to be congratulating her on making it out, while he shared a story about being robbed and stabbed a few years back.
Two veterans of the real war on poverty sharing stories of battles won and lost.
Looking back at the Horatio Alger stories President Obama shared in his State of the Union speech, The New York Times’ Catherine Rampell wrote that these tales are becoming less likely. “In other words, it has actually become increasingly impressive over time for the son of a barkeep or single mother or school bus driver — or other parent likely to have low earnings — to rise to a highly paid position like head of state, executive or legislator.”
To which I will only add, it has ALWAYS been impressive.
Thank you, Mom.
Images by Bob McKinnon
Among the many things my mom and millions more like her provided was a buffer - a layer of protection that softens the blows that could otherwise knock us out all together. What could have been deadly becomes just a metaphorical bruise or scar. Buffering does not save or spare us from all of the indignities and pain of growing up poor or facing extreme or toxic stress, but it lessens their impact – sometimes considerably. Buffering can come in many forms. It can be a simple explanation or reassuring a child that something is not his or her fault. Or it can come in the heat of the moment by stepping in and deflecting or defusing a bad situation. It’s the difference between experiencing something awful and thinking it’s always going to be this way, and experiencing something awful and realizing it can get better. Buffering creates a different narrative to frame our life. It creates hope.
Have there been times in your life, when someone has stepped in between you and something awful? People who have tried to take the edge or sting out of a painful loss? Or have tried to make sense out of a tragic situation that defies logic? You probably didn’t realize it at the time but these buffers did you an invaluable service. Now step back and imagine what it would have been like if instead you had to absorb the full severity of any of those blows – with no one there to step in before or after help you up. This is a life without buffers.
On one level, the benefit of buffering is obvious – protection. But it goes much deeper. We all need to develop an ability to overcome obstacles, to know how to get back up when we get knocked down. This resilience-building is a critical part of growing up. In fact, we are increasingly seeing that low levels of a negative influence, in fact, are a net positive. Randy Jirtle, a world-renowned leader in epigenetics, cites research that proves low levels of stress or even radiation at our earliest of ages can build resilience in us for our later years.
When my children fall down, after they’ve been consoled if crying, I simply ask, “What do we do when we fall?” They answer, “We get back up.”
It is natural to stumble or fall, and it must be equally natural to get back up after.
But what if we don’t learn how to get back up? What if we are introduced to too much of a bad thing that serves as an ever-growing weight around our ankles that makes moving forward seem almost impossible?
We don’t build resilience. We don’t build confidence. Getting up doesn’t seem natural. It feels impossible.
When we get back up, we achieve success. Whether we’re 18 months old and learning to walk, or 18 years old and learning how to bounce back after a bad test.
The adage “success breeds more success” rings true. The more we succeed at something the more successful we feel about our efforts. Confidence is gained and more is possible for us.
BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasion Technology Lab at Stanford University, calls this "success momentum." The more successful steps we take, the more likely we’ll continue being successful.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Failure also takes on a life of its own. The more we fail, the more likely it is that we believe we will fail again. Until eventually, we quit.
In our own life, we can probably find examples of both - undertakings where success led to more success, and other times where one failure followed another failure. Same person, different results. What made the difference?
WORDS AND NOTES
Within my own life, I can point to many examples of each. Let me choose just two to illustrate the point – writing and music.
I have always loved both, but have excelled at only one. In writing, from the very earliest of ages, I received support. In school, misspellings would get corrected, vocabulary expanded, grammar reviewed. Examples of my writing would find their way home and find a proud mom waiting. After a poor grade, we would point to a previous example, which produced better results. As I got older, I shared my writing with friends and teachers and generally received pretty good reviews. So when it came time to try and find an agent and then a publisher, despite numerous rejections and years of trying, I persevered. And now, I generally make my living by writing.
Turning to music, we find a different result. As long as I can remember I have loved to sing - in our home, in the car, on the streets, in school. Despite this, not once do I recall a word of praise or encouragement. Now it’s quite possible I didn’t have an angelic voice as a child, but I tried. I joined a choir in church when I was 12, to very little acclaim. Eventually I began taking the hint. So I tried to pick up the guitar. As a left-handed person, my first instructor suggested that I try to learn how to play right-handed, making the challenge even more difficult. After about 8 lessons, I could muster something that might have sounded like “Under the Boardwalk” – if you listened very, very closely. At the encouragement of another teacher, I traded in my guitar for a left-handed version. And while it came a little more naturally, after eight more lessons I was no closer down the road to being passable. Every lesson and every practice session at home felt like a failure. There was little success and no momentum. So now my guitar sits on a stand in my home, a relic and reminder of faded dreams.
In truth, it’s hard to say if I’ve spent more of my time in life writing or singing and playing music. I like to think I’ve worked hard at both, but if I were honest with myself I would concede that more effort has been put into writing. But does this alone account for success in one area versus another? Probably not. Early success led to more success. It built up a resilience that allowed me to overcome later failure. With music, early effort produced little yield. Getting back up got harder, not easier.
If we want to achieve, if we want others to move forward, we need to see early successes as critical and early failures as opportunities for building resiliency. At the same time, we need to be vigilant in trying to see and prevent repeated failures. Not so more people can learn to play guitar, but so more can find a better rhythm for their lives.
WILLPOWER AND MARSHMALLOWS
A study done by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1970s stumbled upon an insight so powerful that it has sent generations of well-healed parents trying to make sure their young children are able to say "no" to marshmallows.
It started out as a short-term study trying to analyze children’s ability to delay gratification (by essentially giving them one marshmallow, but saying if they waited 10 minutes without eating it, they would get a second).
But the researchers had a unique opportunity to follow up on the test subjects 10 and 20 years after the original research and found a remarkable correlation between those children who had the willpower to wait and long-term life success. They were more likely to graduate high school, go on to college and avoid negative outcomes like teenage pregnancy or prison.
This oft-cited study has become a linchpin in a movement to improve self-control in children.
BROKEN PROMISES AND MARSHMALLOWS
Given the importance of this research, it is no surprise that it has been replicated several times – often adding a new wrinkle.
One recent study explored the idea of trust and broken promises. In this scenario, before children were given the marshmallow experiment they first encountered an adult. Some children met with an adult who was unreliable – he promised them art supplies that never appeared. Other kids met with an adult who made good on his promises and produced the art supplies.
What did they find? Those children who first experienced the reliable adult were able to wait four times as long before eating a marshmallow.
Thinking about this more broadly, it suggests that children who grow up in an environment marked by broken promises are more likely to take what they can get when they can get it because they don’t trust the “promise” or that good things come to those who wait.
Now think about how often we let our children down with promises unfilled?
THANK THE BASTARDS
There is no doubt that adversity can breed resolve. Being told you can’t do something sometimes drives you to do it.
Jay Z, when reflecting on his difficult upbringing in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn says, “I didn’t become who I am in spite of where I came from. I became who I am because of where I came from.”
In other words, we need to take ownership of everything that shapes and drives us, no matter how unpleasant some of this may be.
Some psychologists suggest that this ability to create a “narrative identity” is critical to helping us overcome obstacles in our upbringing. By being able to integrate our reconstructed past, perceived present, and imagined future into one overarching story, we are able make sense of our life and find purpose in it.
As evidenced by writing this, it is something I’ve been trying to do all my life. And over time, I’ve gotten better and better at it. The ability to take a bad situation and immediately integrate it into “my story” has been incalculably valuable.
When we moved from Boston to rural Pennsylvania it was because my mother followed her heart and a truck driver she met while bartending back in his hometown of York.
At first, he seemed like a wonderful guy - saying and doing all the right things. Cool, short-term gifts were followed by even cooler, long-term promises. I think he was well intentioned but ultimately, he was looking for a wife – not her three kids. He himself had been raised in a stern household and tough discipline (I won’t say love) was what he knew best. My mom, to her credit, wasn’t so much looking for just a husband, but a stable father for her three children. It was a bad recipe left stewing in a slow cooker for almost a decade. Getting closer and closer to boiling over with each passing year.
Fear is a hell of a thing to live with when you’re a kid. As is constant criticism, kicks in the ass, being told you’ll never amount to anything. Being called lazy, stupid, a sissy, weak and on and on. The kicks in the ass were tolerable. The words a little less so. Most of this would happen while my mom was at work. When it happened in front of her, she defended me – often to her detriment.
There was enough buffering and support that I did not allow his words or judgments to define me. Instead, it had the opposite effect. “I’ll show him.”
That was my story.
Who is to say that if he had been easier on me, I would be where I am now? Maybe not quite as resilient or determined. I wouldn’t wish that treatment upon anyone, yet I cannot deny it helped inform who I am. So I have to own it.
So to my former stepfather, thanks for being such a bastard, I guess.
A SIMPLE GESTURE
What we do for others matters. A simple gesture or act of kindness can have a profound rippling effect on our future actions or station in life. It could be a relative who gave you your first book that spurred a lifelong love of reading and study. A coach who sat you down and said he believed in you. The first time you did something that you went on to do forever. These are moments that not only have lasting impact but whose details are tattooed on our consciousness.
In my case, one simple gesture that comes to mind is a Sunday morning when I was seven or so. My mother woke up with the promise to make French toast – a special treat only made possible when the price of a loaf of bread dipped below thirty-three cents. Sitting in our kitchen having her morning cigarette, my mother called to me and put me on her lap. For some reason she felt compelled to hold me tight, flash a big smile and say “My little professor is going to go to college one day.”
The statement was absurd at the time. No one in our family, in fact no one she had ever met, had gone to college. I hadn’t yet displayed any special aptitude of study to suggest this was remotely possible. What I did was read. What I had were glasses. This combination led to the nickname “little professor”- a moniker that, in many ways, established an expectation and turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These moments remain vivid throughout our lives. Some refer to them as a type of “flashbulb memory.” A moment preserved in us, similar to the phenomenon commonly associated with surprising and unexpected public events like 9/11 or the assassination of President Kennedy.
They are typically random seeds sown when we are young, and at the time, there is no way to tell if they will bear any fruit. All we are left to do is to plant many seeds and tend with care.
Image from Flickr User Kent Landerholm
EDUCATION: THE EARLY YEARS
What is the first thing you remember learning? Hard to say, right? That’s because from the moment we’re born, our education begins. It’s hard to pinpoint what and when we learn because it happens so rapidly and in our early years it is non-stop.
So let me ask this a different way. Where did you learn during this time? Was it just in your home? Did you have a babysitter? Did you go to daycare or pre-school? Maybe an older brother, sister or grandmother looked after you?
When we think about our early education we typically think back to our “first day of school” when we were four or five and marched off to kindergarten for the first time.
In reality, what you had learned before that magical day had already set you up for success or failure.
And who wants to start behind on their first day?
This isn’t a question of showing up to school knowing your alphabet or how to count or maybe even read. It’s a combination of hard and soft skills. Do you have any sense of self-control? Can you play well with others? Can you communicate your needs and feelings well?
In a day when parents are spending increasing amounts of time in the workplace and not in the home, how are these things being taught and by whom?
As a nation, we’ve taken a pretty laissez-faire approach to this. As individuals, it becomes a patchwork of people and places that we hope, in combination, do the trick.
For too many children that patchwork doesn’t include access to the right people or the right places.
But if that’s the case, where is all the support? Federal funding for both is constantly chipped away and for all the head nodding around universal Pre-K, we are still years away from seeing the political will necessary to expand this in any big way.
The lack of attention at this stage is incredibly short sighted. When we look at programs like universal Pre-K in Oklahoma, the Perry Pre-K study and Nurse Family Partnership, they all point to something pretty remarkable that goes well beyond “did we prepare our kids to enter school poised for success?” Instead, these programs prove that we prepared these children for success in life. Evaluations of each program independently shows that early education in the home and in pre-schools leads to an increase in positive outcomes (i.e., graduating high school) and a decrease in negative outcomes (i.e., drug use, imprisonment, teenage pregnancy).
THANK YOU BIG BIRD & BARNEY
It may sound trivial, but frankly I’m not sure where I would be without Sesame Street.
I remember early on it was my brother who often watched us, while my mother worked. He was the one who kept us out of trouble and grounded. And it was Big Bird who showed me how to fly.
Years later, I was at a meeting for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. Three high school students from some of the worst neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area were speaking. Each told stories about things they learned early on that kept them out of trouble.
One young man told about his experience with a dad struggling with addiction who was too often in no condition to teach him even the most basic of life lessons. Sometimes, he would even see his dad smoke crack in the kitchen before retreating to watch television in the living room.
Fortunately, as he tells it, there was a purple dinosaur named Barney who every day told him he loved him. Someone had to.
Today that young man is in college. And among others, he would tell you he has a purple dinosaur to thank for it.
A GOOD EDUCATION
The value of a good education is universally accepted as critical to success and mobility. Almost 90 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans see it as essential to achieving the American Dream.
The challenge is that we can’t seem to agree on what a good education consists of anymore. Declining performances on standardized tests, both inside our country and in comparison to the rest of the world, leaves us increasingly uneasy. Something doesn’t seem to be working, so let the finger-pointing begin.
We know that involved parents are the first critical building block. So when a child underperforms for whatever reason, we first ask, “What’s wrong at home?” Regardless of the answer, there is often little we can do to fix it. How does a school principal fix poverty? How can a superintendent mitigate violence in the streets that a student is exposed to each day? How will a teacher engage a parent who is working multiple jobs or on second or third shifts? Because these answers are difficult, we resort to simplified catcalls claiming shirked responsibility.
No doubt there is some shirking going on. But at the same time, most parents understand the importance of a good education and want their children to have one. They also expect that once a school bus picks their children up, that’s where the magic happens. Parents have to, in some respects, “outsource education” to the schools, with minimum input from them. After all, that’s their job. Not quite realizing that when their children get on the bus, that trip and its destination is markedly different from what other students in different towns will experience when their bus ride ends.
There is a distinct difference in class in this country. Not measured just by money in the bank, but by resources in the classroom. Make no mistake; by almost any measure there is a remarkable disparity in what some children have access to versus others. Whether looking at class size, spending per pupil, teacher quality, etc. Some kids are enrolled in schools that practically ensure a good education, while others will have to fight tooth and nail to become the exception, not the rule, at their schools.
So when the cards are stacked against them, what can we possibly do?
Meet, the great teacher.
Research tells us that a good teacher represents our best hope for a good education. Class size and school spending matter. Great teachers matter more. That’s why organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested so heavily in trying to understand teacher quality and improve it.
Most of us can probably point to a few teachers whose impact on our lives have been profound and lasting. But too many others can’t. So why can’t we guarantee a great teacher for every student?
Some will choose to point fingers at teachers unions, tenure, and too much time off as examples of things that create an army of complacent teachers who just aren’t working hard enough for our kids. Just like parents who aren’t as involved as we think they should be, there are teachers who we wish would do more for our kids. Yet let’s assume for a minute that most people become teachers for the right reasons. They aren’t taking these positions with the belief that these are cushy jobs with summers off. If they are, they realize very quickly how wrong they are.
Over half of all people who enter the profession are no longer teaching within five years of starting. Teacher pay is largely stagnant; upward mobility, in terms of pay and responsibility, is largely non-existent. A recent study showed that over 60 percent of teachers have a second job.
We see movies of heroic teachers doing heroic things in the most harrowing circumstances. Think Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, Blackboard Jungle and To Sir With Love. These are certainly inspiring, many based on true stories. But is this the standard we should be setting? In order for a kid to have a shot at success, he or she has to win the lottery and have the sports equivalent of John Wooden in the classroom?
For a more realistic portrait of the challenges teachers face today, I encourage you to check out American Teacher. This is a film that follows four teachers from around the country as they try to make a difference for their students while trying to make a life for themselves. It’s moving and it’s real. (Full disclosure, I am on the advisory board for the group that made the film, The Teacher Salary Project).
If we value education, then we must value teachers. They are the linchpin when it comes to what our children learn. We can invest in shiny new technology for the classroom, innovative curriculums to teach students and more effective ways to measure their progress, but if we don’t invest in, value, and respect our teachers, then we’re putting lipstick on a pig. And we wonder why we’re still finishing last at the fair?
Think back again to a teacher that impacted your life. What do you remember about him or her? Do you remember a textbook, the material she taught, the props he used? Or do you remember the type of person she was? The way he addressed you? The way that teacher made you feel about learning and life?
MEET MR. DOWNS
Later in my life, I can point to a handful of teachers who inspired me, nurtured my love of learning or who just frankly made me want to show up and do well.
In my early years, I honestly can’t remember any. Perhaps this was a product of the schools I went to in Chelsea, where my main memories revolve around showing up early to get the free breakfast or being just another kid on the bus during the charged Boston busing controversy in the 1970s. This isn’t to say there weren’t great teachers in those schools, or that I didn’t even have one myself. They just didn’t leave much of a lasting impression. I vaguely remember a kind kindergarten teacher at Williams Elementary – the excitement of school for the first time. Later at my last school in the Boston area, Everett Middle School, I remember being encouraged to run for Class President. My campaign posters featured endorsements from R2D2 and C3PO. Unfortunately they were unpersuasive and I lost. Still it was an encouraging environment and seemed like a better school than I was accustomed to (in fact, one of my classmates at the time, Ellen Pompeo, would eventually go on to become the star and title character of Grey’s Anatomy).
It wasn’t, however, until I moved to rural Pennsylvania, that I met a teacher whose presence stays with me today. At a critical time in my life, after being forced to move from a city I loved to a county (York) that seemed utterly foreign, there stood Mr. Downs. He carried himself like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Always showing respect. Never raising his voice. He created order in a world newly disoriented for me. From the prayer and pledge that started our day, to the egalitarian way he ran his classroom, where everyone was expected to participate. I felt welcomed at a time when I could have easily begun to drift. Good performance was rewarded. Poor performance was met not with punishment but with more attention. The world in this classroom felt just. For the first time, I felt that my potential was more than mere words and hope. It was something real that could be nurtured and developed.
Later there would be other teachers, those who instilled in me a love of history (Mr. White), science (Mr. Hummer), and words (Mr. Hartman). I would learn patience from Mrs. Campo, humility from Mrs. Holtzapple, respect from Mr. Reynolds and responsibility from Mr. Davis.
None of these teachers looked like the mythic creatures we see in inspirational teacher movies. They were human. They were flawed. But they showed up every day, prepared to make a difference. Provided we were prepared to do the same.
A COMMON CORE
As a parent now, I am just entering the world of education from a different perspective. Our oldest began kindergarten last year. Pre-school is like a warm up to real school. In kindergarten, full days replace halves. Goodbyes happen at bus stops not at doorsteps. It all feels more consequential.
The homework starts as does standardized curriculums and eventually tests.
Yes, it is only kindergarten but it is still given an unusual air of importance, fostered by other anxious parents, attentive teachers and engaged principals.
So it was with this context that we entered our first parent/teacher conference in our daughter's classroom, sat in tiny chairs and anxiously waited to hear how Carlin was doing.
As this was the first year of Common Core, her teacher, a wonderful woman, began launching into how she was performing against a set of skills and concepts designated as the proper building blocks for kindergarten. So we patiently listened about number bonds, associations and other relatively foreign terms.
Finally, I interjected. “I’m sorry, can we just step back for a minute? This is our first time at the rodeo, and we were just wondering... how is Carlin doing? Is she enjoying school, getting along with other kids, is there anything we should be doing more or less of at home?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, she is doing great. She is such a kind, little girl. Always ready to help. Loves to learn new things. Whatever you’re doing at home, keep it up.”
Sometimes we get too caught up in educational pedagogy and what’s new or wrong with our systems, teachers, or curriculum and we lose sight of what’s really at the common core of schooling: Do our children enjoy learning?
EDUCATION: THE ESCAPE
Let’s begin by dispelling a growing myth. College is not becoming irrelevant to success. On the contrary, all signs still point to a college education being the primary ticket out of poverty and on to a more successful life. On average a college graduate will earn more than $500,000 more over the course of his or her life than a high school graduate – after accounting for the cost of that education. And the benefits are hardly just economical. On average, a college graduate will live 10 years longer and enjoy better health.
So for every Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates story out there, consider this: they are still the exception and not the rule. They may have dropped out of college, but remember first that they were able to get into schools like Harvard and Stanford. They had educated parents, world-class high school educations and lived in thriving education centers. While their formal education was limited, they had access to an informal network that most of us could only dream of.
Is higher education becoming disproportionately expensive? Yes. Is there increasing inequity in the quality of college education opportunities available to people? Yes. But is a quality college education still an essential part of moving up? Resoundingly, yes.
If anything, we must guard ourselves against this growing belief that education has become democratized to the point where anyone with a laptop and Internet connection can access “higher education.” Or that, somehow, college is optional.
College is not for everyone. But everybody should be able to make that choice based on their merits. And if they make that choice, then there must be a social compact between that college and each student that the student’s investment in time and resources will have been more than worth it. More education, not less, is almost always the best way up.
THE PENN STATE EFFECT
I arrived in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania at the age of 17, dropped in the middle of a campus with over 35,000 other students. I remain the first and only person in my immediate family to attend a four-year college. I had no idea what to expect.
Before its name evoked the singular most disturbing scandal in college sports, Penn State was simply a place where good people went to get a great education.
I didn't know at the time that the college completion rate for those who come from backgrounds like mine are especially low. An incoming student with an SAT score like mine but who comes from an affluent family has an 82 pecent chance of graduating. A student like me from lower means has only a 44 percent chance of graduating.
We often think that getting to college is the real challenge but getting through college may be the more difficult task.
What separates the 44 percent from the 56 percent of low-income kids who don’t make it to graduation?
In my case, it began with the luck of the draw. I lucked into a dorm assignment with a great roommate, on a floor with good guys, in a dorm building filled with people who would become my friends for life.
I partied as much, if not more, than most students, but was fortunate that none of my bad choices had long-term consequences.
I showed up. I rarely missed a class, thinking that I had an obligation as my family’s sole representative in this new journey to make the most of it.
Every semester, I wrote down the name of a different family member or friend and placed it on a three-by-five inch card above my desk and dedicated that semester’s performance to them. Mom, Lisa, George, Grandma, Lorna, Diane, and my Dad in that order; the last semester was just for me.
Luck, friends, showing up, dedication; was this the recipe for my success?
What about the admissions officer who let me in, the financial officer who awarded me Pell grants and student loans, or the person who endowed a scholarship that I received?
What about my teachers, the administrators, the TAs, and the RAs?
And going further back even still what about all those who attended or taught at Penn State before me who made the college what it is today? And yes, that includes Joe Paterno. As a student at Penn State over 20 years ago, Paterno filled a very important role for me. He was larger than life, yet his ideals set the tone for the entire university and were well within our grasp. For boys like myself who were trying to become men, the way he conducted himself, what he said, how he acted set the standard for what we should strive for - "success with honor.” The admonition that his father gave him when Joe told him he was going to be a football coach instead of a lawyer, "Make an impact!" was the same one implicitly passed on to each of the over 500,000 living alumni who identified with Paterno so strongly and who mourned his passing and the tragic circumstances that led up to his death.
And if we really want to go back in time, hats off also go to Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, who was not an instructor of mine, but rather a professor at the University of Illinois in the 1850s. He was behind the movement to establish land grant colleges, which made schools like Penn State possible. Ultimately, Justin Smith Morrell of Vermont introduced a bill and the Morrill Land Grant Act was signed into law in 1890. Eventually over 70 colleges were established under this act.
Did you go to one? Find out and then tip your cap (graduation, that is) to Mr. Morrell, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Lincoln. Without their actions it could have been much more difficult for many college students to get a great education at a reasonable price.
AVOIDING THE “GOOD NIGHT, MOON” EFFECT
In the early 1990s, a study came out that quantified what has come to be known as “The Word Gap.” The idea that children living in poverty were hearing significantly fewer words in their early years and this was leading to learning deficits as these children started kindergarten. The gap was more significant than had previously been imagined. Children from poor families heard 30 million fewer words by the time they reached the age of three than their richer counterparts. While this led to calls for increases in universal preschool and other reforms to address the issue, the gap, by some counts, has actually increased since then. Why? Because the people who were largely exposed to this news were parents of children who were already doing pretty well with the words in the first place. But they still felt like they weren’t doing quite enough. So they read more and spoke more, ultimately increasing the gap.
The phenomenon, called “The ‘Good Night, Moon’ Effect” after the popular children’s book, is one that seems to frequently occur when it comes to research intended to shed light on a disparity. Instead of fueling progress on one end of the spectrum, it actually fuels more activity on the other end.The people reading books like Paul Tough’s Why Children Succeed and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers are educated parents who are looking to do more for their own children. Now some readers undoubtedly use these texts professionally to help others. It is like the field of diet books. Everyone is looking for a solution to help them do something that is way more complicated than only eating carbs or avoiding wheat. There is no silver bullet express to the dream.
Image from Flickr user Richard Lee
TO HEALTH WITH IT
So what do you think is more important, to be successful, health or education?
When we asked Americans which five-year-old child is more likely to be successful - one with access to a good education but no healthcare or one who had access to a great doctor but poor schools, people overwhelming choose education by a margin of 4 to 1.
On face value this makes sense. We know more successful people who are educated, but unhealthy, and fewer who are uneducated but healthy.
Dig a little deeper though and you quickly realize how interwoven these two aspects of our development are. Better health makes learning easier.
Consider the following:
If a child is sick with untreated asthma, he or she will miss school and opportunities to learn.
If a child is exposed to early trauma in the home,for example, if she knows someone who was shot on her block, she will have more difficulty focusing in school.
If a child’s early diet includes more salty and fatty foods, he is likely to not only gain weight as a child, but also continue unhealthy weight gain as an adult.
If a baby is breastfed for at least the first six months of life, the child is likely to see gains in IQ of up to ten points.
Better health provides a stronger foundation on which to build an education. It shouldn’t come down to forcing parents, a community or society to have to choose between health and education – especially for our children. Yet we make these choices every day. In terms of where we place our resources, time and energy.
YOUR FIRST 1,000 DAYS
We can overcome everything. So the American story goes. As a result, we fail to give much credit to things we’re told will impact us down the road. If the impact isn’t proximal, the belief is that we’ll have time at some point to work around any issue that may have been caused by our early years.
So it is with what happens within the first thousand days of a child's life. Science shows us that this period of time is an absolutely critical juncture in a person's development. From the moment a baby is conceived through its first two years of life, its brain and body is literally being built from scratch. The foundations for health and education are being laid down through the nutrition and care the child receives in this window. What mom eats while she's pregnant, how long and how often she is able to breastfeed, whether she will patiently allow her children to adjust to foods that take getting used to (think peas) or whether it will be dismissed by the adage, “Well, my baby just doesn’t like peas.” These are all critical decisions that gain too little attention because frankly, we don’t really believe they are all that important. Nice to have's versus have to have's. In fact, moms get this sense too. In research we conducted for the organization 1,000 Days that focuses on this issue, almost three out of four moms said they don’t feel as if people appreciate how important the bond between a mother and her baby is when it comes to nutrition.
We can all point to great thinkers and doers who weren’t breastfed, or whose moms didn’t eat well or couldn’t serve fresh fruits and vegetables as often as they’d recommended. We see them as exceptions that disprove the rule. Instead of understanding the definition of exceptions.
IT MUST BE THE SYSTEM
When it comes to our health, taking personal responsibility is key. We all could do a better job of eating the right things, being more physically active, and just taking better care of ourselves. But being healthy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All around us there are people, places and rules that either make it easier or harder to get and stay healthy. How these things connect and interact is called a system.
We’ve all heard the adage, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat today. But if you teach him how to fish, he can feed himself forever.” Sounds nice, right?Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. Where does the man fish? Who else is allowed to fish there? How many fish should one person be allowed to catch? Are the fish safe to eat? Who oversees all of this to make sure that everyone who is “taught to fish” has a fair shot at catching good healthy fish to feed himself and his family?
Again, all of the people, places and rules in this process and how they interact form a system.
Some systems work really, really well. Think the Apple Genius Bar. And with others, there is room for improvement. Think the Veterans Affairs administration. At its best, a good system works to make sure that good things are flowing freely and fairly to the greatest benefit of those involved. At its worst, a bad system consists of misguided rules, inaccessible places and people who, for one reason or another, block change that could. While often hard to define, we seem to know a good system when we see one and, similarly, recognize when one needs to be changed.
Some systems are personal and limited, like the systems we create for ourselves to pick up and drop off our children to various activities. Other systems are impersonal and massive. In fact, they are usually comprised of so many people, places and rules it is almost impossible to understand how exactly they work. Our health care system is a good example of the latter.
How do we think our systems for helping people make progress actually work?
Image from Flickr user Korean Resource Center
CONNECTING THE DOTS: PART ONE
These factors that contribute to our success do not work in isolation but are interrelated. As with the ACE research, we see that traumatic experiences in our youth have rippling effects on health and education. Interestingly, when the federal government set up departments and cabinet level officials to oversee our nation's efforts in these areas, they were at first combined. In 1971, under President Nixon, the Department of Health, Education and Human Services was created.
These areas remained integrated until 1979, when they were divided into the Department of Health & Human Services and Department of Education. When a country expands both in its size and the basic services it provides, it’s often necessary to reorganize in order to better manage growing needs. It’s logical but eventually can lead to silos that fail to coordinate efforts. The result? Increased bureaucracy and inefficient delivery of services to those who need them. As a leader of a United Way in Connecticut once summed up for me, “Being poor is a full-time job.”
CONNECTING THE DOTS: PART TWO.
Beyond the inconvenience, there are more serious repercussions of uncoordinated social support for our children. When support comes in isolated doses, someone “can do his job” without addressing the underlying issue. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician by training and founder of the organization Children’s Health Fund, once told me a harrowing tale of a young boy he met many years before. The boy had been labeled "special needs," fell behind in school, and had a major speech impediment. Clearly an education problem, right? Wrong. This boy was born with an unformed palette in his mouth, making it almost impossible to learn how to speak and communicate well. In retracing how a boy could grow to the age of eight without having, what is a relatively minor, medical procedure to correct this issue, Dr. Redlener tracked down his medical records – largely through emergency room visits as the boy’s family did not have health insurance. Doctor after doctor would treat him for “urgent” needs like the flu or ear infections. And each doctor would make a simple notation regarding needing to repair the palette – but never doing so. So the boy would leave the hospital, palette still in tatters, speech still poor, still falling behind in school and labeled incapable of learning. No one is connecting the dots. No one is helping him really move forward.
CONNECTING THE DOTS: PART THREE.
Even when a kid does “make it,” say he is in the minority. He works hard to overcome his challenges and has a protective parent who helps him navigate the uncertainty and danger of their surroundings. When he needs care, he gets the right support at the right time. Someone connects the dots. He grows up and becomes the first in his family to go to college. The future is bright. He achieved the dream, right? Well, not quite. New research from Gregory Miller and Edith Chen of Northwestern University and Gene Brody from the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia shows that this climb exacts an unseen toll.
Their research tracked resilient kids who seemed like they were on their way to making it. They realized that, while these kids were seeing success in some areas like education and staying out of trouble, their health suffered as a result. Higher rates of obesity, higher blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones were found, a lasting legacy of their struggles.
Image from Flickr user Doug Geisler
WHO BUILT THIS?
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there - good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” - Elizabeth Warren, running for U.S. Senate in 2012.
On one level it’s hard to argue with now Senator Warren’s logic. Yet, Americans are split right down the middle when asked if the American Dream is “mainly something that people do for themselves” or if “communities and government should take steps so every child has a fair chance achieve the dream.”
You may have built a business from the ground up. Or maybe you’ve just built a good life for yourself. But you built them on top of a foundation that was there for you. You built them with materials that were available to you. You probably built them with the help and efforts of others.
Who helped you build what you have?
Bill Moyers is one of the most respected journalists of his time and his journey as the son of tenant farmers during the Great Depression, who went on to work in the White House with LBJ trying to build the Great Society, is a remarkable one. One that easily could be distilled into a familiar story- a boy who overcame poverty through sheer will, determination and hard work. Although that’s not the way he tells it.
“I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had the use of a good public library, played sandlot baseball in a good public park and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyers had been included in the American deal. “'We, the People'” included us."
In a poem that many feel is incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, exists perhaps one of the best definitions of success I’ve ever seen.
The author writes,
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
“To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.” Such a beautiful thought. It, of course, neglects to insert the flip side – to know that one life has NOT breathed more difficultly because you have lived. Perhaps it may be assumed, but should be noted.
After all, making someone’s life a little easier is something that most of us probably accomplish. We do our jobs. Feed our kids. Pay our taxes. It’s not too high of a bar to set.
On the other hand, if our challenge is to make as many people's lives a little easier while not in the process of making it more difficult for others? Well, how are you doing on that front?
If we want more people getting ahead, it helps if each of us asks ourselves every day – who are we helping get a leg up and is there anyone we’re holding back?
WITH OR WITHOUT YOU
Within our own lives, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the impact that various experiences or people have had on our station in life. In these times, it’s helpful to turn the mirror outward. What impact have we had on others? Or perhaps, more telling, what would the world look like without me?
In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is faced with the same question. To anyone watching, and certainly to the other characters in the film, Bailey’s impact is unquestionable. Yet to himself, he feels as if his life has had little meaning. Unable to “escape” his little town of Bedford Falls for the big city of New York, Bailey feels as if he has not been able to have any significant impact on the world. Yet as the film points out so beautifully, his actions have had a profound impact on everyone around him.
And so it is with each of us. It has always been posited that it’s difficult to argue the negative. And in this case I’d beg to differ.
If you weren’t here, what would your world look like? Think of all those who have benefited from your existence in ways big and small. Would a friend be worse off? Would a family member not have gotten the right encouragement at the right time? Would an employee never have that raise or promotion that moved his or her family towards a secure life? And what of your children? Without you, they wouldn’t exist. And all of their actions and their children’s actions go with them.
Take five minutes. Close your eyes. Think of the world without you and what now is missing or lessened.
Each of us impacts others, whether we intend to or not. And this in turn plays out in how others achieve success and happiness in life in ways direct and indirect.
This kind of exercise can’t even possibly capture the full extent of your impact, for it doesn’t take into consideration what we don’t know or realize has had an impact. The kindness paid to a stranger. The impact of our work on the lives of others who benefit from our products or services.
The intent isn’t to create a neat and comprehensive list. In fact it is just the opposite. It's to suggest it’s impossible to ever truly know the full impact of our lives and actions. But in realizing this we gain a greater appreciation for the impact others have also had on us.
FOR OR WITH?
If you have children you have undoubtedly experienced the frustration of a child asserting his independence. “I do, I do, I do.” A common refrain, toddler speak for “I don’t need your help.” Although many times, they ultimately do. When we assess how we help someone, it is good to keep this paradox in mind.
We like to do things “for” people we love. We enjoy giving or helping. Neurologically, we can see the pleasure centers of our brain fire up when in the act of giving or helping.
Yet at the same time, we also know that people enjoy learning and mastery. And similarly when someone learns or masters a new skill, their pleasure centers in the brain will fire up.
There lies an underappreciated rub.
People may need help and ultimately they will take it if there is no alternative, but they would most likely prefer to help themselves.
It's a new spin on the classic “teach a man to fish" parable.
The challenge? Sometimes it’s easier just to give that guy a fish than teach him to catch his own – especially if he doesn’t have the right equipment or tools that would make learning to fish quicker.
I have spent too much of my personal life doing things for people, instead of doing things “with them.” In doing so, I am cheating them. Cheating them out of the opportunity to learn and the pleasure that comes with it.
The net result is, as one wise person pointed out, “I am happy for you. But not happy with you.” Put that way, ouch.
“For” is nice. “With” is way, way better. “With” takes time, patience and more upfront resources. But in the end, the dividends are far greater.
Life shouldn’t be a spectator sport. Sounds obvious, right? Well how much of our lives do we spend watching the lives of others? On average, Americans spend 40 hours a week in front of a screen watching TV shows or movies. Over the course of 40 years this will mean that we will have spent almost a full decade of our lives watching people we don’t know doing something we’re not doing. If we live to be 80, then it means we will have spent 20 of those years watching instead of doing.
Pete Seeger, who spent his whole life doing, once said “Participation – that’s what’s going to save the human race.”
How are you participating?
Image by Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here
Consider these two passages from the HBO series Newsroom.
“Who is Giuseppe Zangara? I don’t really know. He was a guy with a gun who fired five shots on February 15th, 1933, killing the mayor of Chicago. Why? Because Zangara was standing on a wobbly chair and the mayor of Chicago wasn’t his target, it was the guy the mayor was shaking hands with, the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt.
If Zangara’s chair isn’t wobbly, Roosevelt never takes office and we swear in his running mate, John Nance Garner, a man whose political ideology was the basis for his opposition to a package of legislation that would be called The New Deal and we don’t survive the Great Depression.”
“March 2nd, 1955. A young black woman is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama. Civil Rights leaders and the ACLU rush to her side and she will be a symbol of the struggle against segregation. Her name is Claudette Colvin and she’s 15 years old. She’s also unmarried and pregnant. The Civil Rights leaders and the ACLU decide Colvin is not the best foot forward and they stand down. Eight months later Rosa Parks happens but, during those eight months, a brilliant and charismatic young minister gets the attention of the community and is chosen to lead the bus boycotts. If Claudette Colvin didn’t get pregnant, if they’d gone in the spring instead of eight months later, Martin Luther King Jr. is a preacher you’ve never heard of in Montgomery.”
These lines written by Aaron Sorkin and delivered by Jeff Daniels playing the show’s lead, Will McAvoy, powerfully make an obvious but unappreciated point. Things happen outside of our control. They can be capricious and random yet their impact can ripple through lives and history like a tsunami.
Other people’s wobbly chairs, decisions, and actions impact our lives yet we don’t seem to give them much credence when thinking about our own success.
Why? Because the idea of living in a world largely beyond our control is inconceivable and bleak. We need to feel a sense of agency in our lives, regardless of what the facts may tell us.
SHAKY GROUND STORIES
As a sophomore in college, Kirsten Lodal started an organization called Lift Communities. In 15 years, it has grown to service ten communities and over 100,000 people/families.
Her model deploys volunteers to work with and advocate for their "members,” people who are down and need lifting up. Her first member was a homeless man from New Haven named Wimpy. In interviews, she said he practically wrote their first business plan.
Critical to their model, LIFT works “with” not “for” people in need and there is a deep empathy for the challenges that their members face and what has landed them at their doorstep in the first place.
In a talk given at the Chicago Ideas Festival, Lodal described challenges she faced as a first-time mom. And how, even with all of life’s advantages, she felt like she was on shaky ground. Tired, not sure of what to do, how best to provide, etc. In seeing the strength of her own support system, she felt even more deeply for those who perpetually live on “shaky ground” or who don’t have the support system to move on to more stable ground.
She encouraged us, and I encourage you, to think of your own shaky ground stories. When did life deal you a situation that left you reeling? Have you ever lost your job, been in a bad relationship, had some trouble paying a bill, maybe had a little scrape with the law? Or maybe it was just the normal strain of a bad boss, a missed deadline, a big move or a small scare. What happened when you were on shaky ground? Who was there for you? How did you stay on your feet?
Please remember and tell that story when someone chooses to pass judgment on someone else, without appreciating how scary shaky ground feels.
MY SHAKY GROUND STORY
When your child is sick, your life is put on hold. Sometimes it’s just something minor. You have to stay home from work until they recover from the flu. Other times your world is rocked and you are unable to comfortably walk on stable ground for any extended time - such is the case with friends of mine whose children have Cerebral Palsy.
And then there are the occasions in between. Something truly bad is happening. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but you are unsure when you will get there. You are living in a fog of darkness. Everything in your life is wobbly. And you're fine with that, as long as your child gets better.
We found out only two weeks before she was born that our second child, Rory, would require immediate surgery within a day of being born. Her stomach and intestines were not connected and would need to be attached immediately. After the surgery, she would remain in NICU for up to two months while she recovered. During this time she would be fed exclusively through a feeding tube placed directly in her stomach. In addition, we were told that this condition, duodenal atresia, was a marker for Down syndrome. We would have to wait for genetic tests after her birth to know if there were further complications.
When life shakes you to the core, personal resolve alone is not enough to create stillness. You reach for something, someone to provide balance and support so your whole world doesn’t fall apart. If you are fortunate, you have access to things that make the unbearable bearable. That keeps you up through tough times.
In our case, I was able to reach out to former colleagues like Jim Marks from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Irwin Redlener of the Children’s Health Fund, both pediatricians by training, who could explain the procedure and risks providing soothing context to the severity of the condition. They also provided suggestions on course of treatment and, in Dr. Redlener's case, connected us directly to the head of Pediatric Surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Charles Stolar. Dr. Stolar met with us immediately, assuring us that this was a procedure he had done routinely and that all would be fine. He took the time to walk us through exactly what he would be doing, what recovery would look like and how risks would be minimal. Our insurance coverage was good and we had the financial resources necessary to pay the out-of-pocket costs associated with Dr. Stolar performing the surgery himself. My wife had paid maternity leave from work and I ran my own business with a great team who could make do in my absence from the office for nearly six weeks, while I shuttled between my home and the hospital. So, financially, we could manage fine. Our families were tremendously supportive and our caregiving situation, extraordinary, as our babysitter Mary was giving of her time and love to make sure that our oldest daughter never felt the impact of only one of her parents being home at any given time during Rory’s hospital stay.
After the surgery, the highest level of care continued. The nurses were miracle workers carefully balancing their need to provide direct care to our child and being accommodating to the needs of my wife and I. Patiently moving cords, feeding tubes and wires in such a way that we could finally hold her while she was still daisy-chained to her equipment.
The parents in NICU also provided support to each other. Some had been there much longer than us and helped show us the ropes. A woman whose child had been in NICU years earlier came back to provide dinner for families like ours who were resigned to “celebrating” Thanksgiving in the hospital. An act of compassion and generosity all the more remarkable given that her child’s stay in NICU ended with her losing her battle with heart disease.
This is all a way of saying that in our shakiest moment we had an abundance of stabilizing forces that allowed us to carry on. People who made sure that when we came out of the other end of the tunnel, with Rory healthy, we were not met with unnecessary darkness.
We were blessed on so many levels. Our shaky moment ended and we could go back to our lives with only two small scars on Rory’s belly to show for it. And of course, an increased appreciation and gratitude for everyone who kept us on our feet.
Not everyone is so lucky. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, the number one reason for bankruptcy was related to healthcare costs. Stress of all sorts from these moments can come from lost jobs, broken marriages, neglected children and suboptimal health outcomes. In short, even if people survive the first punch that makes them wobbly, another will usually follow that can stagger them even more.
What is your shaky ground story and who made sure you didn’t get knocked out? And maybe more important, what will you do the next time you see someone else getting shaky?
Of course our own actions matter tremendously. The actions we take drive our lives, but they are not our only vehicles on the roads we travel. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of our actions are subconscious. We don’t think about how we brush our teeth, we just do it. How often have we driven from home to work, only to arrive there and not remember any part of our journey? We were on autopilot. Our daily habits form early. Our parents, friends and those around us shape them. They say bad habits are hard to break. But they are easy to form. As children, we are either taught to make our bed in the morning before we leave for school or we aren’t. These habits are our culture; they don’t just come from nowhere, they are ingrained. Putting aside these actions, let’s focus on the 15 percent of our actions that are deliberate and require choice. What constitutes a bad choice and a good choice is subjective, but we own the repercussions regardless.
When we are young, we feel bulletproof. We do stupid things. Just think about driving. How many of us have had maybe one too many drinks, yet still get behind the wheel or perhaps more innocuously try to send a quick text while driving? For most of us, we escape repercussions and live to drive another day. Take another chance. Tempt fate once again.
But we play a collective game of Russian roulette. Somebody will get into an accident after that last drink, or not look up in time while texting, injuring others or even themselves. Lives potentially shattered in a way that hard work will not overcome.
What separates the person who gets away with a bad choice and the person whose life is ended by one is nothing more than dumb luck. Emphasis on the word “dumb.”
CHUTES AND LADDERS
There is no shortage of metaphors for what kind of game life is. Some say it’s like chess, where success is about making the right moves, anticipating those of your opponents and outsmarting them - a game of strategy. Others say Monopoly, where money rules the day, buys opportunity and ruthlessness pays. I, myself, prefer the idea of chutes and ladders. There are opportunities to climb higher and move forward faster and there are an equal number of, pitfalls or chutes, where the luck of the dice will can set us back, sometimes in a minor fashion, other times devastatingly so. We take turns and eventually all end up in the same place. Some of us will enjoy this game, others will not. There seems to be an arbitrary fairness to it and while some skill helps, the game has its limits.
You roll a six when you're born into a great family and rise up a ladder. Someone else rolls a two and they go screaming down a chute. That's the luck of the dice.
When the ground around us is shaky, falling is a natural part of life. Falling down and getting up are what life becomes. Often this can build resilience. Other times we just lose the strength to get back up or do so less frequently.
We like our narratives neat. Someone gets knocked down, they get back up. They go on to future success. We can stomach only so much getting knocked down and we always need the story to end up, not down.
Take Rudy for example. In the movie about his life, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger wants to escape a future working in the same plant as his father and brothers. College is his out. However, his real goal is not just to get an education, but also to play football at his family’s beloved Notre Dame. He tries repeatedly to get in only to be denied. When finally admitted, he makes the team as a walk-on for the practice squad with little chance of ever playing in a real game. Throughout the movie, he is rejected and knocked down (literally) countless times, but he always gets back up. Just when we think he is ready to quit, he sticks with it one more time and finally accomplishes his dream of playing in a game. He famously makes a sack and is carried off the field.
It is an awesome story, one of my favorite movies of all time. It reinforces everything we want and need to believe. Underdogs can make it. Effort pays off. Never give up.
After the movie came out, Ruettiger was able to find a successful career as a motivational speaker, earning more than he could have possibly dreamed.
His life was a story of “up.” Until "down" visited again.
Eventually, Ruettiger would lose most of his money in the housing market collapse. In an attempt to recoup his losses, he was caught up in a sports drink “pump and dump” scheme where he ultimately was charged by the SEC with securities fraud and later agreed to pay a large fine to resolve the charges.
The story of "Rudy" is a high-profile example of a little known truth.
Our trajectories are seldom singular. They are less steady curves and more often jarring zigzags with hard edges.
Kirsten Lodal of Lift shared with me a troubling fact I had never previously heard. Almost two-thirds of all people who cross the poverty line fall back below it.
Similarly, most people who make it in the top 10 percent of earners don’t stay there for more than a few years.
Money should never be the ultimate measuring stick for moving “up.” Yet it is our default. Understanding the elasticity of our incomes can go a long way towards both managing our expectations and finding more valuable things to invest in throughout our lives.
Do you feel like you don’t have the time to read this? Or to take that day off? Are you constantly checking your email for fear that you may have missed something? Do you sometimes feel scattered, overwhelmed or unfocused?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you are probably suffering from diminished bandwidth, caused by a palpable sense of scarcity – presumably related to your time.
In Sendhil Mullainathan's book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, he discusses this concept of bandwidth both from the perspective of those of us who have a poverty of time and those who have a poverty related to debt.
It's the idea that when we are short on something we can’t help but focus on it.
Think about when you’re hungry. All you seem to think about is food. In one experiment described in his book, two groups of people are asked to go through a word recognition exercise where they are asked to quickly click a button when a real word versus a made up word appears on the screen. Response times are measured to reflect how quickly you can find and focus on the task. One group was asked not to drink anything for six hours before the experiment and then was given pretzels, to increase their sense of thirst. The other was a control group and could drink at will. Both groups were equally skilled at finding words in general. But the “thirsty” group was significantly faster at words related to drinks and liquid.
Scarcity can be good. It’s why we often work well when we're up against a deadline. We are forced to focus and can block out distractions.
But scarcity can also be dangerous. The urgent trumps the important and too often we lose sight of what would be better use of our time or money.
Consider a person living in poverty who spends his day just trying to make ends meet. How can he focus on something that takes two or four years (like an education), when he is struggling to figure out how to pay this week’s rent?
In an article in The New York Times titled “The Changed Life of the American Poor: Better Off but Far Behind,” a Kansas City man who works three part-time jobs but is still struggling day to day, sums it up best.
“It’s hard on my psyche. There’s no break. There is no time to breathe. I always have to think about the next step just to survive. It’s not like I can look forward and plan, because I’m just trying to think about tomorrow.”
He has no bandwidth to figure out how to move up. Instead, he’s focused on trying not to fall down any further.
WHO’S TAXING YOUR BANDWIDTH?
In our lives there are people, places and rules that tax our bandwidth. Taking unnecessary amounts of our psychological reserves that could be going towards something more important. Think of people who are always putting demands on your time, who put problems on your plate, leave messes for you to clean up. Sometimes this is a matter of necessity – you have to be responsive to the demands of your children, help them work through their problems and clean up their messes. It’s part of being a parent. But it is also something that we’re more comfortable doing for our children when they are 3 years old as opposed to 30 years old. Then there are friends, colleagues, bosses and clients who will similarly tax them inordinately.
Conversely, there are people in our lives who often do the opposite. Every conversation with them provides some level of relief. They help us sort out our problems, come over on the weekends to help clean up a mess or finish a project. They are a breath of fresh air.
It is a fact of life, that there are people around us who either weigh us down or lift us up. We don’t often think in these terms. After all, what is our recourse? You don’t pick your family, it’s not always easy to change jobs, and good friends are hard to come by.
But it starts with recognition. By realizing who in your life taxes your bandwidth, you can either make sure that you engage with them when you have plenty of it to go around or maybe even have a conversation with them about it. Importantly, it is also an opportunity for you to share your appreciation for those people who make your life a little easier. When they take something off your plate, it not only helps you with that issue, but also creates more space for you to handle something else.
Next time someone takes something off your plate, remember that nod of appreciation. And maybe look to take something off someone else’s. Sort of like a “pay it forward” bandwidth exercise. If we each did this, the world would feel a lot lighter and clearer.
Image by Flickr user Basheer Tome
IT’S THE ECONOMY STUPID
By now, you may be asking how we’ve made it this long without talking about the economy. After all, isn’t it our capitalist society that provides the engine for growth and success?
Well, yes and no. No doubt more opportunity is made possible in a system that allows a great idea to flourish. But in looking at whether this is the result of the individual who worked on that idea or the system that allows it to move forward, Americans come down on the side of the individual’s initiative not the systemic greasing of the track.
Only 41 percent of Americans believe that a “free enterprise system that encourages people to take risks without too much regulation” is essential for achieving the dream. That number drops to 27 percent when talking to Democrats (compared to 61 percent of Republicans).
It has always been assumed that economic growth is a chief driver for eliminating poverty. It was, ironically, a Democrat who posited that a “rising tide lifts all boats” when it comes to economic growth. Not withstanding that the top tax rate during his time was between 65 to 90 percent.
For most of modern history, this relationship has held. When the economy grew, so too did wages for those at the bottom.
However, a shift began to occur during the 1970s. According to research from the Economic Policy Institute and as reported in The New York Times, typically when GDP per capita grew poverty declined accordingly. Yet during the period from the 1970s to 2007, while GDP per capita grew 147 percent, hourly pay for the bottom 20 percent grew only 3.2 percent. So for nearly three decades, people living in poverty saw no appreciable increase in their hourly wages.
The tide indeed rose and those with nice boats were lifted. But for people with life rafts, it only resulted in stormier waters that were more challenging to navigate.
There is little doubt that the economy and capitalism in general create opportunities for success that are not available in other systems. Yet we shouldn’t assume that just because we have a better system that it works equally well for everyone.
When you enter the job market, the industries that rise and fall during your prime earning years, shifts in your local economy, the changes in tax policy, industry regulation, all form your own personal economic story.
Just ask a steelworker in Pittsburgh in the 1960’s versus one in the 1970’s. Or a software engineer who worked at Pets.com during the Internet bubble of the 1990’s versus one who joined Facebook during the current surge in the digital economy.
What is your personal economic story? How has your job market been? What wave did you catch or what undertow dragged you under?
Moxie and drive are great, but it helps when you’re going with the tide not fighting against it.
THE PRIVATE SECTOR & THE PUBLIC GOOD
In 1914 Henry Ford shocked the business world by announcing that he was increasing the daily wages of his employees on the line to five dollars a day, doubling the previous amount. At the same time, he would reduce the workday to eight hours, allowing him to add a third shift in the process.
Ford famously justified this action by stating that it was in the best interest of his company if his employees could afford to buy the cars they made. And while newspapers publicized this as an incredible gesture of goodwill, there were legitimate business reasons for the move – including trying to stem labor turnover that was proving very costly to his business.
Regardless of motivation, it was hard to argue with the results. Workers made more and lived better lives. Both the Ford company and its hometown, Detroit, prospered.
Flash forward 100 years. While Ford is expecting to have one of its best years ever, Detroit, undoubtedly, is heading for one of its worst.
This is not to say that Ford is responsible for Detroit’s rise and fall, but what used to be a symbiotic relationship between a company and its hometown is no longer.
Which begs this question: In the age of increased emphasis and sophistication of corporate social responsibility programs, what is a company’s responsibility in its own backyard and how does the condition of a company’s backyard impact its business?
Increasingly we see dichotomies popping up in cities like Detroit - where in the shadow of large corporate headquarters, towns are increasingly left in the cold.
In Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble (P&G) employs thousands of people, generously supports community events, and has an active corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform that is saving millions of lives in developing countries through its extraordinary efforts to provide clean drinking water. Yet in its own backyard, 50 percent of Cincinnati’s children are living in poverty.
In Silicon Valley, companies like Apple and Facebook are creating not only jobs but also whole industries in which others can prosper. And there is no doubt this has spurred incredible acts of philanthropy, including Mark Zuckerberg’s famous donation of $100 million to help Mayor Cory Booker jumpstart Newark schools in New Jersey. Yet at East Palo Alto High School in Facebook's hometown, the dropout rate is 65 percent!
There is no shortage of reasons as to why the chasm between company and community grows. In a global economy, the idea of a “company town” seems quaint. When corporations have stakeholders across the world, it tries to maximize impact in different ways that logically take it outside of its HQ footprint.
Clearly, there are companies who are making significant investments in their own backyards, or who establish foundations that serve as their proxy for doing incredibly important work there. Individual lives are being improved, just not enough of them.
It seems as if we are ripe for the creation of a new type of corporate NIMBYism (also known as "Not In My Backyard"). Child poverty? Not in my backyard. High dropout rates? Not in my backyard. Our town going bankrupt? Not in my backyard.
Are there more opportunities for the win-wins of Ford’s act in 1914? Or are we destined to see our companies do great things for the world, but less for their neighbors?
What if more companies developed a backyard strategy that resulted in a similarly virtuous circle to what Ford created in 1914? Can P&G end childhood poverty in Cincinnati? Can Facebook and Apple drive up graduation rates in East Palo Alto? Can Ford save Detroit?
Maybe, maybe not. But these are resourceful organizations with incredibly talented people who strive to make a difference. And it sure would be exciting to watch.
HAPPINESS IN DOLLARS AND SENSE
Moving up the corporate ladder and feeling “up” in your life are two entirely different things that sometimes can feel as if they are mutually exclusive. There is no doubt, at the most basic level, that money can buy happiness. We should all be able to relate to how difficult it would be to “be happy” and secure while constantly struggling with finances or mired in poverty.
Yet studies show there is a law of diminishing returns once you get to a certain point in the income curve. Somewhere around $80,000 people stop feeling happier with the more money they make. Realizing that this is a national average in some places where the cost of living is considerably higher, the number would rise slightly to accommodate. We are still left to ask ourselves, if this is the magic number, why do we invest so much of our time chained to a desk or logging overtime when neither appreciably impact how we feel about our life?
THE PRODUCER AND THE PLUMBER
A friend of mine, who is a top earning television commercial producer, once shared this story with me. He himself is constantly struggling with balancing the increasing demands of his job with his desire to be there for his family and friends. He spends two hours everyday commuting. He often has to work long hours and travel for weeks at a time. Granted, he loves his job. He gets to work with amazing people and travel all across the globe. And he is one of the best at what he does. Loved and respected by his peers and across the industry.
Yet he often finds himself scrambling to get home to make his son’s baseball game or daughter’s play. One day after showing up late to a game, he started to think about the town’s plumber. You see, the plumber was his son’s baseball coach, a job my friend would have loved to have, if his schedule allowed. The plumber has more flexibility than he does. And while my friend undoubtedly makes more money than the plumber, the plumber still lives in a nice house in the same town and sends his kids to the same great school. People in town love the plumber. He is a great guy, runs a good business and is there when people in town need him. Not just to fix a leaky faucet but to coach their kids, help a neighbor, support the community.
You tell me: Who do you think is richer, the producer or the plumber?
INEQUALITY MATTERS…SORT OF
The gap between the rich and the poor is growing and with it comes huge implications related to influence and who makes the rules in our society.
Yet, at the same time, a disproportionate amount of our time and attention has been focused on the top end of the spectrum. We are outraged over the rich getting richer. Yet very little time has actually been given to examining the plight at the very bottom and what exactly we need to do to create more opportunities for the poor.
In talking with Sendhil Mullainathan, he puts it this way, “Let’s say a person is making $20,000 a year and another person is making $150,000. The income inequality is $130,000. If we are able to reduce the income of the top earner to $125,000, we have decreased income inequality. But what have we done for the person at the bottom?”
In essence he’s suggesting that we’re asking the wrong question. It is not how do we decrease income inequality but how do we increase opportunity at the bottom?
WHY WE NEED TO SEE THE DREAM
The American Dream is powerful in many ways and for many reasons. As more than one person told us in focus groups conducted as part of our project, “Without the American Dream, there is no America.”
But perhaps its greatest purpose is to help provide focus. Both for individuals who envision something better for themselves, and for our leaders who must see through the macroeconomics to the real people behind the numbers.
"There's a tendency to talk about the American economy and its performance in terms of GDP," said Pulitzer Prize author Hedrick Smith. "When you're talking about the American Dream, what's useful, even though it's amorphous to some people, [is focusing] attention on what we're delivering to the individual."
Image by Flickr user Mike Freedman
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
As reported in The New York Times, farms in Humphreys County, Mississippi have received over $250 million dollars in government subsidies since 1995. Ironically, this is also a county where half of its residents receive food stamps.
The farm subsidies are intended to help guarantee farmers a significant portion of their income in case of poor yields or declines in prices. Food stamps are intended to help guarantee that poor Americans can get some food assistance even with limited means.
In the case of Humphreys County, this means that a farmer can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in subsidies. A family can receive less than two hundred dollars monthly in food stamp benefits.
We are deeply conflicted regarding when and how the government should intervene to help prop up the American Dream.
When asked in a national survey, Americans will tell you that the role of the government is pretty far down the list of what is necessary to achieve the American Dream. Yet, education is third on the list (behind hard work and a strong family) and is largely financed and run by the local, state and federal government.
KEEP THE GOVERNMENT AWAY FROM MY MEDICARE
During the debate over healthcare, many Americans expressed concern that the new Affordable Care Act would result in government-run healthcare. Ironically, some of the most concerned were those who were already receiving Medicaid or Medicare. In other words, those who were already receiving government-run healthcare, and by most studies, very happy with it.
This is yet one more example of what Suzanne Mettler refers to in her book, Submerged State. When we can’t see the help we’re getting, we don’t value it.
HANDOUTS, HAND-UPS OR HANDCUFFS
The role of government in helping someone rise is one of the most hotly contested debates in our country. One stoked by political extremism, media coverage and talking points that obscure the reality of its ultimate impact.
From the New Deal plan through the War on Poverty, there was a concentrated effort to provide an essential safety net for the poorest among us. Making sure that Americans can eat (food stamps), can make enough to get by (minimum wage) and, have access to healthcare (Medicaid), are ideas that generally we support.
While we agree on the principles, when it comes to the government delivering these benefits, they become polarizing and stigmatizing. Why?
Freeloaders. Welfare Queens. Abuse. Fraud. Working the system. And most of all, lazy and irresponsible. Whatever you call it, there has been a steady drumbeat of stories and misinformation that overstates and stereotypes the negative elements of government programs that help others, and understates the fact that these programs, by and large, help people.
The key question is, how do they help people?
If you are conservative, you may think this kind of help is simply a government handout. It might help people, but it does so only in a way that leads to dependence.
If you are progressive, you think this kind of help offers a hand-up. In this instance, the government is trying to help someone get off the mat by providing temporary assistance. This is done with the hope that once help arrives,; you’ll be in a better position to elevate your station.
If you are a recipient of aid, you might even think of this kind of help as a pair of handcuffs. This was a term used by one working mother in Akron, Ohio, when we asked her if she thought food stamps could ultimately help in her quest to achieve the American Dream. Initially the response was jarring. But as she went on, we realized that what she was getting at was an underlying issue around these programs.
They are well-intentioned and important; but as currently designed, food stamps are not sufficient in increasing mobility.
When a mother, like the one in Akron, has to choose a lower paying job because a slightly higher paying one would result in a loss of food stamps for her children, then there is clearly an issue in design. She has to limit her own long-term mobility for short-term security.
DESIGNING BETTER GOVERNMENT
Increasingly, we are seeing more innovation in how these programs are designed and implemented. Some good. Some bad. Some ugly.
THE GOOD. The earned income tax credit, which basically supplements income, provided people put in the hard work. This is a program that President Ronald Reagan once called, “The best anti-poverty, pro-family, and the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.” But even this widely popular program has its limitations as it only applies to families and not individuals.
THE BAD. Work requirements for welfare recipients. On principle, this effort was laudable and, in fact, was widely seen as a positive step. In 1996, in a deal brokered by President Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act” was passed, with a primary objective of moving people off of the government rolls and into the workforce. In one aspect, it was a huge success; welfare rates plummeted. But the work requirement for those on welfare did not increase substantially. Why? Because it was designed for the wrong problem. If the problem was lazy people who were taking advantage of the system, then the work requirement provides the proper incentive. However, if the issue was something like increases of single mothers who have few options for affordable day care or preschool, then requiring them to work only exacerbates their problem.
THE UGLY. If we go in thinking the worst of people, then we design ugly solutions. This is most apparent with new legislation coming out of Florida that will require drug tests for food stamp recipients. What signal does this send? It suggests pretty blatantly that we have a strong suspicion that many, if not most, food stamp recipients are drug users and that we shouldn’t waste funds on people who are engaged in such activities. That is no way to move people ahead. It just drives them further away.
WHAT GOVERNMENT SEES WHEN IT LOOKS IN THE MIRROR
It comes with little surprise then that we as Americans have a schizophrenic view of our government’s role in helping people achieve the Dream. After all, we’re merely a reflection of how our political leaders see and talk about their own roles.
At a 30,000-foot level, more progressive politicians see government’s role as trying to create systems to help people do better or fix broken systems that hold people back.
On the flip side, more conservative politicians will suggest that these systems actually get in the way of people trying to get ahead and should largely be minimized or removed.
In fact, in research conducted to understand how the two major parties thought about health, when staffers from each party were asked to create “visual metaphor” portraits of how they think people become healthier, this is exactly what we saw. Liberals produced pictures of cogs and machines and containers and systems. Conservatives put together pictures of roads and paths where people encounter barriers in need of overcoming or removal.
David Brooks of The New York Times put it this way:
“We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill.”
In this same column he calls for the re-emergence of a third tradition, popularized by the Whig Party in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which believed that government is in the tool business. If you give individuals the right tools, then they can navigate systems and remove obstacles on their path to a better place.
So if we should be in the tool business, what tools could help us get ahead?
A WORD ABOUT FOOD STAMPS
When did trying to give someone food become so politically polarizing? Food stamps are designed to give low-income people (mostly families with children) some additional resources so they can put food in their fridge, cupboards, plates and, most important, stomachs. Food Stamps help kids eat. Yet food stamps are the poster child for labeling the poor as "mooches," "takers" and "Welfare Queens." False stories about abuse run rampant. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show wryly pointed out that critics have blamed recipients for both purchasing food that was too unhealthy (snacks and soda) and too healthy (fresh fish because it’s too expensive). People have claimed that food stamps have been used to buy everything from liquor, ammunition, cars and fish bait. Most of these stories are bogus. And while there is fraud within this system (as there is in almost any system), it is remarkably low within the food stamps program and whatever fraud exists is not typically happening by individual recipients but by “better off” people creating Madoff-like reimbursement schemes.
The reality is that, for the most part, food stamps help parents feed their kids. Allowing their limited resources to cover other expenses like rent and childcare.
Furthermore, money spent on food stamps works its way through the economy, helping grocers, farmers' markets and food manufacturers. For every dollar spent on food stamps, it generates $1.64 in economic benefit for others.
Yet we stigmatize this program to the point that anyone who accepts it becomes stigmatized.
In our work, we’ve heard countless stories of mothers who sign up their families one day,; only to have their husbands, out of shame and embarrassment, drop them from the program the next.
When I was young, food stamps were a godsend. I remember how embarrassing it was for my mom to trek down to the welfare office and collect her benefits. I remember being denied items in grocery stores that went in other families’ grocery carts, because food stamps wouldn’t cover them. I remember the shame, guilt and stigma as if it all happened this morning.
Why? Because our government stepped up and said, we have families who don’t have enough to eat, we should help them?
The economist Paul Krugman wrote, “It’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much, it’s that it helps them too little.”
Thank you, Paul Krugman. And thank you to former Secretarys of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, and Milo Perkins, who first introduced and administered the program as a temporary relief plan as part of the New Deal, and to Congresswoman, Leonor K. Sullivan, who led the long struggle to make it a more permanent program in the early 1960’s.
Image from Public Domain
A ROOF OVER OUR HEAD
For as long as we can remember, a nice house with a white picket fence was the embodiment of the American Dream.
With home ownership presumably came pride and stability. A place to call home, raise a family, build a life.
As a child in Boston, I moved around more than I can remember. We rented, of course, and the addresses and memories are interchangeable. I don’t really remember what happened where.
As a teenager in Pennsylvania, we lived first in a shiny, new trailer in a dingy, old trailer park. Eventually, we graduated to a doublewide trailer home on our own property. Both were new and nice for what they were. And wherever we lived, regardless of the structure we lived in, my mother kept a beautiful home. Always clean and well decorated. Most of all, it was homey and it was ours.
In Washington, D.C. today, there is a 40 year wait for affordable housing. That’s not a typo. A four and a zero, forty. It doesn’t take much to turn a rented apartment, a trailer, or a house into a home. But it does take something and that starts with a roof over your head covering a safe and stable structure.
Without this basic security, where are we?
When you look back at the home you grew up in or the one you live in now, what do you remember? For some, memories are dominated by loving exchanges and silly stories. For others, they describe the physical space as if it were something to be overcome, if they have any recollections at all.
Today, I’m fortunate. My family actually owns two homes, an apartment we call home and another one we can visit, “the house in the mountains” as our girls say. Our children are building memories and feeling safe in each.
What helps make these homes affordable for us is the fact that we are able to claim an income deduction for our mortgage interest. This is an invisible benefit that we often take for granted, and we would never consider the homeowners who take it on their tax return as “takers.” Even though this benefit, in financial terms, is larger than the annual food stamps benefit that a family of four is able to receive.
When we have a good home to call our own, we simply live better. We sleep better, we stress less, our children can study and play without unnecessary worry and distraction.
We all don’t need a McMansion or even a white picket fence, but we all need a place we can truly call home.
THE STORIES WE TELL OUR CHILDREN
When Derek Jeter was a young boy, he told his father, Charles, about his dream to grow up and play shortstop for the New York Yankees. His father’s response, according to a children’s book written by Jeter, was to calmly explain to his son that, “The only way to make his dream come true would be to try very hard and practice for hours.”
No doubt millions of parents have given similar advice to their own children. That hard work is the only way to achieve their dreams.
It is necessary but not sufficient.
In Jeter’s case, it helped that he had a father who played college baseball, a mother who told him he could be anything, a grandmother who instilled within him a love of the game and was there to play catch with him for untold hours. That he was born with unquestionable gifts and an eventual six-foot-four-inch frame. That his birthday was in June, meaning he would always be one of the older (and more developed) kids on his team. That he grew up in a baseball-rich area. That he had coaches and teammates who pushed him. And a scout who discovered him. A team that drafted him and even more coaches and teammates who helped him through the minors until he finally stood at shortstop for the Yankees.
Of course, he had to work hard to get there. But take away any one of those other things, is he still shortstop for the Yankees?
THE STORIES I’LL TELL MY CHILDREN
As I write this, my three little girls are three, five and seven years old. And right now their days are filled with play and learning just for the love of it. More substantive talks about life will have to wait for just a little while.
Recently as part of our bedtime routine, we were reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It may seem a little grown-up; after all, issues of poverty, war and death line its pages.
But it is equally filled with life lessons best seeded at an earlier age and best delivered by such a beautiful story.
One night we arrived at the part when the March family learns that their father has taken ill while serving in a Washington, D.C. hospital tending to sick and wounded soldiers. Upon hearing the news, moments of worry are quickly replaced by action. Everyone has a role to play in helping 'Marmee' prepare to leave as soon as possible to be by her husband’s side. Her daughters help her pack. One goes to Aunt March’s to request some assistance for the trip. The boy next-door, Laurie, runs to send a telegram. The neighbor offers his carriage. Another family friend insists on accompanying Marmee on her trip.
Amidst this backdrop, people realize that Jo, the second daughter, is missing. She appears shortly after, and upon removing her bonnet, it is revealed that she has sold her beautiful hair to help fund her mother’s trip and support the family in her absence.
The pages drip with kindness. As I read them to my girls, I choke up to the point of not being able to continue reading. Needing to pause and collect myself.
I’m not sure what moves me so greatly in reading those pages but it is uncontrollable. It is not a heroic story of one person who, against all odds rose to unimaginable heights, but a simple story of how many people rallied together when someone they loved was down.
These are the stories I like to tell my children.
BEHIND EVERY GREAT…
In his one-man play, 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal tells the story of how he finally had the courage to fully pursue his dreams of being a stand-up comedian. After the birth of his first daughter, which typically could be a time to set your dreams aside, as you prioritize stable income over lofty ambition, his wife, Janice pulled him aside. She said, “Here is what we’re going to do. I’m going to go back to work during the day and you’re going to watch Jennifer while I’m there. Then I’m going to come home and you are going to go out and become a comedian.
The rest, they say, is history. It's no wonder, that during a recent interview for his new book, Crystal choked up uncontrollably when asked about the importance of his wife to him some 40 plus years later.
The saying goes that "behind every great man is a great woman," but in truth it should be expanded. Beside every great person is typically another great person. Often it is a spouse but this person could also be a parent, great friend, mentor, etc. He or she is a person who, at a critical juncture in our lives, gives us hope when hope seems gone. Who transforms that hope into faith, and faith into a belief in ourselves? A person who knows that in order for this transformation to occur they might also have to make a great sacrifice, and they do so with love.
Beside me is my wife Julie. And she is my great person.
At several critical junctures in my life, she told me to go for it. And she has made so many sacrifices.
When I wanted to leave a high-paying, stable job to pursue a more fulfilling career doing good, she said to go for it.
When I wanted to dedicate my time to writing my first book, she said go for it.
Both of these meant facing risks. The risk of lost wages and opportunity. Both were done with the prospect of starting a family that, during this period, would grow to include three girls. At times this meant that she had to suffer through jobs that were not especially fulfilling to her. Or returning from maternity leave a little sooner than she would have liked. Or to put on hold her own entrepreneurial dreams of opening a flower shop.
But her greatness to me is not measured in her sacrifices to help launch my second career, but instead in those that she made to help build our family.
Children did not come easy for us. There were many losses and disappointments that are too numerous to count. Doctor visits and painful procedures filled her calendar instead of runs in the park or drinks with friends. And then there were the shots.
A minor blood disorder with major implications meant that during each pregnancy, Julie had to inject herself everyday with a clotting agent. Every morning, another needle. Containers were filled with them, under our sink, hidden in the top shelf of our closets. No doubt that, over the course of time, she has injected herself at least a thousand times.
Before all this she hated needles.
My dream in life was not a more fulfilling career or to publish a book, although both have made my life more whole.
My dream was to become a father. For without my beautiful girls, I know I would feel and be less.
My wife’s sacrifices on behalf of me and our family continue. Her greatness in my eyes grows.
Too often, we fail to stop and take the time to articulate cleanly and clearly how much we appreciate the greatness of those beside us, those who make our dreams possible and our life fulfilled.
Take a moment. Pick up the phone if that person isn’t near you. If they are, then go to them. And tell them how much you appreciate what they’ve done for you.
Julie Ann McKinnon. Thank you for your sacrifices, your selflessness and your belief in me. Without you, I would be nowhere. With you, I am right where I always wanted to be. I love you.
Image from A Great Many Things Blog
“ME DO” vs. “WE DO”
We value our independence from the youngest age. “Me do” is a common refrain among our toddlers mastering skills for the first time.
We tell stories of individuals overcoming incredible odds to become successful.
We perpetuate myths of self-reliance and pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps.
Yet we are all social beings. And it is the strength of our social connections that goes a long way towards determining our successes, increasing our happiness and yes, lifting us up.
In Lone Survivor, the director Peter Berg opens the film with real footage from Navy SEAL training. It shows the incredible mental and physical challenges that these soldiers face in preparing themselves for service. Individually, it certainly requires tremendous commitment, resolve and hard work. Yet underpinning all of this is the camaraderie evoked in the final image of this opening. It shows soldiers lying on a cold beach at night, locked arm-in-arm, as chilling waves beat down on them. Together they are singing “Silent Night.”
The film tells the true story of a mission gone terribly wrong in Afghanistan. It focuses on four soldiers working together to survive unimaginable circumstances. Three die, along with many others in their platoon who try to come to their aid, only to have their helicopter shot down.
The lone survivor doesn’t make it because he did it alone. On the contrary, the entire film is a testament to the strength of our social connections from our closest friends – in this case including one who directly sacrificed himself so the others would have a chance. And from complete strangers, who ultimately come to the aid of the last soldier, risking their entire village in the process. This is to say nothing of the contributions of the people and actors we don’t see much of in the film, the people back home for whom the soldiers fight, those who make the equipment to protect them, and the many soldiers who have come before them.
If we appreciate the solidarity of soldiers coming together as a unit to rise above all challenges, then why would we minimize them under less dire circumstances?
Perhaps the most significant “ifs” in our lives don’t center on events but people. Who we bump into, befriend, fall in love with, meet, listen to, remember, honor is largely random. Even the families in to which we are born, we as children have no control. In the context of our success, many can point to a teacher, coach, mentor who helped shape their character and success. Typically we fleetingly remember just a few of these random encounters when thinking about our own success.
In the film, Inequality for All, Robert Reich tells the story of his own rise in the broader context of why he fights for the little guy. Coming into the film, I knew he was the Secretary of Labor for President Clinton. But I had no idea that his relationship with Clinton went back to their days as Rhodes Scholars. While traveling across the Atlantic to London, Reich was struck by severe seasickness. It was Clinton, playing the role of Good Samaritan, who approached Reich with soup in hand offering both immediate comfort and what would ultimately be a lifelong friendship. Two strangers on a boat eventually went on to help spur the largest economic expansion of the 21st century.
Years earlier, Reich recalled another friendship, this one born from necessity. Given his short stature, Reich was often the subject of bullying. To protect himself, he befriended boys who were much older. One such boy grew up to become a civil rights worker. He was eventually one of the three young men who was tortured and killed by the KKK in Mississippi after being “caught” registering black citizens to vote. Moved by his friend’s sacrifice, Reich vowed to go from “protectee” to “protector” and dedicated his life to fighting for those who were bullied economically by others.
Now, most of our random encounters with people will likely not bear the same historical fruit as Reich’s. But there is no doubt that we are influenced by our actions and relationships with others.
If we believe that our actions have such force as to lift us up by our bootstraps or overcome all odds, then what must we think of the actions of others? Every action must take on a life of its own, right? Rippling away from us with both intended effect and unforeseen blowback.
Martha Graham once wrote, “Every action of ours is passed on to others according to its value, of good or evil, it passes from father to son, from one generation to the next, in a perpetual movement.”
So what actions are we all passing on to others? What is their value?
YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK
Our happiness and our success is invariably connected to others, whether we like it our not.
Research from Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University shows that the happiness of others is practically contagious. The Framingham Heart Study is one of the richest datasets ever collected on a single community, spanning over 60 years. In looking at this information over time, he found that if our friends are happy then our own self-reported happiness increases by 15 percent. If our friend’s friend is happy, then our happiness increases by 10 percent.
Beyond happiness, how can our social connections lift us up?
The idea of fellowship, of being connected, has proven to be instrumental in helping people overcome obstacles.
Take Alcoholics Anonymous for example. At the core of their model is people coming together regularly to find strength in each other. The greater a person's commitment to the group, the increased likelihood of that person's own success – as evidenced by those people who sponsor or take on additional group responsibility having the greatest success in their own recovery.
Think about how you have called upon your own social network. Has anyone ever made a connection, a recommendation, or a referral for you?
Did “who you know” ever impact “how you’re doing?”
At the upper levels of society we’ve used phrases like “good ol' boys club” to illustrate this point. The idea of, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” In these cases we can sometimes look at it as derisive or unfair. But in reality that is part of what "makes the world go round." Building and tapping into our social network breeds happiness and success.
Sometimes we do not like asking for help and we do so at our own peril. I heard a story recently about a housekeeper who had fallen into legal trouble as a result of a random accident. Struggling to handle it on her own, she failed to realize that she had the solution right in front of her – if only she tapped into her social network. You see, she worked for a lawyer, but did not initially feel comfortable asking him for help. Once she finally did, he was not only willing to come to her assistance, but he was more than happy to do so.
The idea of members of a community helping each other succeed sometimes gets lost on us. We are more likely to ask for some help moving out of a house than moving up in our life.
MY SOCIAL NETWORK
Who do you know? Who have you called for a favor?
In my life, I have always been fortunate to have good friends. People who have been there for me offering support in many colors. Sometimes it was just a person to listen or off of which to bounce ideas. Other times, it was the offer of consolation and the conveying of confidence when times were low. People have made connections for me, served as references, even loaned me money.
Normally your network looks a lot like you. So when I was little, others who also had little surrounded me. As I grew older and entered school, I met others who had a little more, and when I got to college, the sphere expanded more. And when I moved to New York, even more so.
Every ring of my social circle became more educated and wealthier. And even today, I count among my friends and family people who are on food stamps or in jail and others who are millionaires and on TV.
I am not a social climber in the stereotypical sense. I have never forgotten where I came from and as I have moved up, I have tried to use new connections to help older ones.
And I typically find that the more I help others, the more likely someone is to help me should a need arise.
We are all connected in that sense. Our capacity to help others increases our ability to ask and receive help when the time comes.
Image from U.S. Navy/Getty Images
The classic definition of the American Dream, one rooted in financial success and upward mobility, is a young person’s game. At least it was in my own experience. Coming from little naturally translates to wanting more. Not just for its own sake or selfish reasons, but also because that is what we are led to believe will translate to happiness. We will be able to be better off, live less stressful lives, free from financial struggles. Becoming more capable of giving back to our families allows us all to have and do things that we previously had never been able to do.
And there is truth to all of this. In my situation, this is precisely how I defined success and it is what I was able to achieve. The manifestations of my dream were plenty. Making great but not obscene money, trips to Europe and Asia, two homes, new cars, new business titles (VP, Sr. VP, Executive VP). Being able to, help my sister go to nursing school, my mom renovate her home, my brother restore an antique truck. Helping bail my family out of financial and legal scrapes. Taking my entire family to Disney World, allowing my mom to fulfill her own childhood dream.
All of this was possible because I pursued the tried and true formulaic version of the American Dream. Hard work plus education plus a few breaks and connections equals $$$.
Yet as I got older, while proud of my accomplishments and what they allowed me to do, there was still an emptiness and a shift in what the Dream was all about.
Work needed to be fulfilling. Money took a backseat to my desire to make a difference.
This shift is common. It is something we have heard time and time again. Sometimes we recalibrate out of necessity – we didn’t achieve what we hoped to and never will, now what? Other times, we shift our focus from our own dreams to those of our children – sometimes placing an unfair burden upon them. And other times, we just wake up and realize we’ve been chasing the wrong dream and shift paths towards a different pursuit.
ARE YOU WRITING A RESUME OR A EULOGY?
Take a minute and think about your recent actions. How you approached your day, week, month or last year. How you spent your time and energy. Was it to get the job done and score short-term points? Or was it to plant seeds for a long-term legacy?
Resume or Eulogy? This is a terrific question raised in a recent TED talk by the columnist David Brooks.
In my own life there is no doubt that early decisions were all about the resume. What can I do to get ahead?
Later though, with three daughters in tow, it has undoubtedly become about the eulogy. What am I going to leave behind?
Not to sound too morbid about it, I realize that my days are numbered. And having children a little later in life means that I will sadly get to experience a little less of theirs. And even less of my eventual grandchildren.
This is a revelation that hit home early in their lives, when I had a brief health scare. If I died tomorrow, what would be left of me for them? Nice pictures and a few memories are not good enough. I want them to see me in themselves. I want to impart some of my life lessons to help provide guidance for their future actions. For them to be able to pass on to their children. I want them to see that one person’s actions can help another and another. That a life of meaning is greater than a life of means. That doing good and doing well are not mutually successful propositions, but instead a recipe for a fulfilling life. I want them to see my words and films, my projects and programs, and know that I tried to make the world a little better for them. And to know that I did it all while still being available and present in their lives in a way our achievement-oriented culture doesn’t always make easy.
SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO SHORT
“I cry because life is so beautiful and so short.”
This quote ends the poem, “Bygones,” written by Marina Keegan, author of The Opposite of Loneliness, published posthumously, when she was 22 years old.
Keegan died in a car crash on her way to her father’s birthday celebration, just days after graduating from Yale University and weeks before she was to begin her dream job writing at The New Yorker.
Her words are filled with optimism and impact. Providing a clarion call for her generation to be in the present, to find meaning in life, to do what one loves, and leave something important behind for others.
The grief of losing a child must be immeasurable. As a father of three, it is hard to even think about.
When someone so young dies so early, it is a wake-up call to us all. Our days are indeed numbered. Our promises can go unfulfilled. Fate can intervene. Our planned upward path can come shattering down at a moment’s notice.
There is a line from the song “Grand Torino” that goes, “The world is nothing more than all the tiny things we leave behind.”
In 22 short years, Marina Keegan left more tiny things behind than most of us will in much longer lives. Words, stories, poems, essays, relationships, and on and on.
She once wrote that half of her class would end up in business, finance or consulting. By some definitions of the American Dream, they were heading “up in the world.”
But by writing down deeper truths and charting a different path – albeit one never to be completed – she transcended them all.
On your way up, don’t forget to leave some little things behind.
BEING THE BEST
Many of us work hard because we strive to be the best. Long hours and questionable choices fuel a competitive ethos that runs deep in America. We encourage our children to try to be the best.
In doing this, we place an emphasis on personal growth, individual challenge.
Uffe Elbaek, a prominent Danish politician and social innovator, once told me, “Don’t be the best in the world. Be the best for the world.”
Be the best “for” not “in.” Work hard towards something better, not just for yourself but also for this world.
Working hard is an indispensable part of our character. It is one of our strongest held beliefs. We will never convince Americans that we shouldn’t work hard. Nor should we try.
But we should at least reflect on what we are working hard for.
LOSING & GIVING
Once we get to a certain age, and it probably differs for each of us, we begin to feel that we are losing more than we are gaining. It starts with the cosmetic (our hair, our physique) and ends with the very real – the death of our parents, our friends, and eventually, ourselves.
We tend to look at this period in bad metaphors about decline – “over the hill,” “on the back nine,” “all downhill from here.”
But it is also an opportunity to give in great abundance. Most of us won’t have the resources of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and be able to give away half of our assets in the hopes of eradicating polio or improving America's education system. But over the years, we have accumulated something perhaps more valuable, experience and connections. How do we pass these on? How do we make our later years about passing the torch and not just passing on?
How can we be good stewards of our lives and legacies?
Everyday can seem like more loss or it can be about more giving. The letter written, counsel made, a seed planted.
In our own success, we can often point to more than a few elders who took the time to share something with us. A word of encouragement, a connection, a lesson from their experience.
Every generation makes an implicit promise to leave their children a better world than they themselves inherited. In America, we have been fortunate to make good on that promise for almost 300 years.
Yet today, the effects of everything from childhood obesity to climate change conspire to threaten this commitment. Facts now suggest that this may be the first generation of children to live shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives than their parents.
This is despite having more resources (financial and human) and better solutions (with the infrastructure to bring them to scale) than ever before.
Mark Twain once famously remarked, "Actions speak louder than words." This is a sentiment we have all heard and with which we would generally agree. But it is the second lesser-known part of Twain's quote, "...but seldom ever do," that must give us pause and ask the question, "Why?”
My grandmother never attended the Clinton Global Initiative, but made thousands of commitments she kept. She never gave a TED talk, but when she spoke people paid attention. She was not part of the "slow food" movement, but for most of her life had a garden from which she fed her family. She never attended a protest or rally, but during her long life voted in every election since she cast her first ballot for FDR. She never blogged about politics but, after losing her husband to World War II, continued writing to a dozen of his friends who had no one at home to write to. She was not "linked in," did not tweet and you could not "friend" her on Facebook. Yet she had an unrivaled social network of friends and family who would have gladly stepped in front of a bus for her.
What makes her and others of her generation what Tom Brokaw calls, "the greatest" is how ordinary she was. How common her actions were. How unremarkable her life was. She was not a social innovator or social entrepreneur. She was just another citizen doing her part. And that is what has collectively allowed her generation to leave the world a better place for us.
Some would suggest that her times were simpler, ours more complicated. Yet I don't think anyone would trade our recession for the Great Depression. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the ones with Germany and Japan. We would not trade our childhood obesity for polio or TB.
So what of us now? What will be said of each of us as individuals and, collectively, as a generation? What will be our common acts? Will it be to talk or do? To express dissent or empathy? To focus on only those things that concern us personally, or realize that our issues are all connected? Will we continue to focus on the bickering over the suffering, or work together on the more complicated task of overcoming?
Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘can we all do better?’”
In our quest to rise personally, what are we doing to help others collectively?
My grandmother passed away a few years ago. And I am so grateful for the life she lived and having had the chance to spend so much time with her. No doubt I am a better and more complete man because of her.
My visits to her house as a boy, my road trips with her as a man, my being by her bedside during her last days, and trying to do her life justice by delivering her eulogy. These are some of the most important experiences of my life.
At some point, I think during college, she took to calling me “Sunshine.” I can still hear her saying, “How’s my sunshine doing?” I must admit, I took immense pride thinking that I brought some brightness to her life – one too often filled with immense pain and tragedy.
I hope she knows that she was my sunshine too. And while I bask in the afterglow of her memories, my days are darker without her in them.
We only have so many days in this world, 30,000 if we’re lucky. How much light will you give off? How long will your memory burn in the hearts of others?
When our number is finally up, how will the story of your life be written down?
It’s hard to move up when we are constantly being distracted. When some tempting bauble or outsized trouble takes our eye off the proverbial ball.
In the animated Pixar film, UP, several of the characters are talking dogs. One of the running bits, executed hilariously, involves how easily distracted they are by the appearance of squirrels. Seemingly focused and riveted to the task at hand one moment, suddenly a squirrel flashes by, the dog says, “Squirrel!” and dashes away uncontrollably.
We have “squirrels” all around us – emails popping up, small errands to run, texts to reply to, sinks to fix, phone calls, junk mail, television shows, video games, online forums, sports and on and on and on.
For anyone who has seen the film, even the mnemonic, “Squirrel!” is what we most remember about the film.
Forgetting the central story and quest of the main characters. Forgetting the incredibly poignant opening sequence when the majority of a couple’s life together is captured in only a few minutes – their loves and losses, their dreams deferred.
The movie is a quest, the pursuit of a dream. Yet, ironically, we are distracted by the squirrel.
It’s okay to chase a squirrel once in a while. Much needed diversions help us recharge our battery. They provide relief and release.
But at the end of the day, ask yourself, how much of your time did you spend chasing squirrels and how much did you spend chasing your dream for a better life?
Image by Bob McKinnon
“I REMEMBER, THEREFORE I AM”
So why are we so myopic when thinking about our own success and why do we project this point of view on others? How has the idea of hard work become so prevalent that we have developed blinders to so many other factors?
Some could suggest it’s a cultural thing. After all it is relatively unique to Americans. We are the land of pioneers and go-getters, so we frame our story in this context. Others would say it goes even further back to the ideals of Puritanism and Calvinism where hard work is chief among virtues. And yet others would suggest a more selfish and modern interpretation. Americans are more self-centered, so naturally they would see success through a frame that centered around self-determination.
Rooted in each of these is the distinction between what we actually experience and what we ultimately remember. Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, articulated these two selves in his research summarized in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. If we reflect back on our own lives, there may be times when we “experienced” excruciating pain but our remembering self may instead recall the humorous circumstances surrounding them and therefore recall the pain as less than it really was. So as we go about our lives, our actual experiences will matter less to “who we are” than to how we internalize these experiences as part of our “remembering self.” The “remembering self” dominates how we see ourselves and our lives - including stories about how we achieved success.
As Kahneman writes, “Odd as it may seem. I am my remembering self, and my experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
This serves as a revelatory explanation for why two people who share similar life experiences that lead them to similar levels of success can see their paths so differently. It isn’t the path that matters. It’s how they remember that path.
A WORD ABOUT MYTHS
In his blog, best-selling author, entrepreneur and my neighbor Seth Godin had this to write about myths:
“In fact, The War of the Worlds did not cause mass hysteria when it first aired. It was a story fanned by radio-fearing tabloid newspapers.
In fact, Pam (eBay founder Pierre's wife) did not need a place to buy and sell Pez dispensers. This is a tale invented by a PR person and repeated by tech-phobic journalists eager for a simple story.
In fact, Columbus wasn't surrounded by flat-earth believing denialists before he 'discovered' America. This was amplified by Washington Irving (!) in a book that was largely invented without much research.
And George Washington didn't cut down the cherry tree and Robin Hood didn't do all those cool tricks in green tights.
The media isn't the one that needs a narrative... we do. We need to make sense of what's around us, not just the true things that really happened, but the fictional ones that we know didn't.
All this myth making reminds us just how strongly wired we are to believe in things that both make sense and feel right. They feel right because of who told us, and when. Culture creates reality.”
At an event my organization hosted on the topic of the American Dream, Isabel Sawhill, a nationally known budget expert and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, echoed this sentiment when talking about why people don’t buy that social mobility is more limited in America than the American Dream story suggests. “People need to believe this is true. They need to believe that if they work hard, they can make it. And it’s healthy and positive that they have that belief, even if reality suggests otherwise. After all, what’s the alternative?”
THE MYTH OF INDIVIDUALISM
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horatio Alger were born nearly 30 years apart in towns separated by only 20 miles in Concord and Chelsea, Massachusetts, respectively. And both are probably rolling in their graves over how their legacies have been so badly misappropriated. Emerson and “American Self-Reliance” have become synonymous terms.
His words and quotes have often been used to reinforce the pioneering, go-it-alone, rugged heroism associated with early America. And by extension, his words have been co-opted to reinforce the idea that all Americans have a personal responsibility to themselves, for themselves. But the same sage who once said, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you,” also said, “Make yourself necessary to somebody.” Similarly in Ragged Dick (1868), and many of the other stories penned by Horatio Alger, a young boy (Dick) was able to “pull himself up by his bootstraps” to achieve the American Dream despite a dire situation facing him. The “Horatio Alger Story” is one of the predominant and lasting American narratives. The only problem is that many have reinterpreted this, and other stories like it, in such a way as to lose much of the original meaning. They are now used to suggest a literal “rags to riches" story where, through sheer hard work and determination, one can amass great wealth and success. What is lost is a concern for others that was always a central theme in his stories. The net definition of success wasn’t extreme wealth, but a middle class place in society and a good reputation. Additionally, in almost all Horatio Alger stories, the protagonist is aided by a small coterie of friends and strangers who help make his success possible. The themes of self-reliance and personal responsibility as a means to amassing unlimited success is no doubt an appealing story. But it is a simplified narrative that has created an indelible impression among many Americans that there is neither responsibility nor the need to take care of one another, including those most vulnerable among us.
The idea of a "self-made" man or woman cuts to the core of this American ethos. Many suggest that this term goes back to someone who has become the embodiment of the self-made man – Benjamin Franklin. In many respects, Franklin established the enduring recipe of success – hard work, strong values and education. These three elements still top the list of what Americans believe contribute to success – some 250 years later.
Interestingly, Franklin dismissed things such as luck or relationships as critical to ones rise. Yet both played significant roles in his own.
Years later, Frederick Douglass echoed Franklin’s formula. One he too embodied. In 1895, he delivered a powerful lecture called “Self-Made Men.” In it, he offered up a definition predicated on work.
“My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.”
Later he dismissed luck and material assistance as inconsequential. What’s most fascinating though is that in the very beginning of his speech, he seemingly contradicted himself.
"Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”
Going on to add later:
“It must in truth be said though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.”
So it begs this question of why men like Franklin and Douglass, whose lives and words demonstrated a more nuanced formula of “making it,” so passionately promoted the essential quality of hard work almost to the detriment of everything else.
Consider Douglass’ own words as it relates to the situation of African Americans:
“Give the Negro fair play and let him alone. If he lives, well. If he dies, equally well. If he cannot stand up, let him fall down.”
Sounds a little harsh, right? I guess that depends on how he and we define “fair play.”
YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH
I believe in God. It is a personal belief, not explicitly tied to a specific religion although, spiritually, I would consider myself a Christian. I am humble enough to know that there is something much, much larger than myself at play in this world and that I am too small a piece in it to think I know all the answers.
I once heard a novelist say that there are two stories about the world. In one, there is a god who is the protagonist that gets the action rolling. In the other, the action just starts. She prefers the story with the god. As do I.
When it comes to our own personal success, I can’t profess to even have a theory on God’s role. Does He have a preset plan for all of us with each promotion and path set out? Does He have a vested interest in who scores a touchdown, wins an Oscar or gets elected? Seems unlikely to me but if it works for you, then go for it.
What I do know is that the power of belief is strong and vital, perhaps even critical to our own success. Recently, an article written by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times examined the question of mobility through the lens of belief and expectations. In it he discusses the importance of believing that opportunity exists and that the difference in success may come down to whether someone sees a future of economic despair devoid of hope, or one based on a visionary goal – something worth saving themselves.
Our belief systems impact our actions, - whether that is belief in a higher power or in ourselves.
So what do you believe about your own potential and from where your success comes?
THE PLACEBO EFFECT
Placebos are often thought of strictly as a fake medicine, a sugar pill or saline injection. But according to Harvard Medical School’s Ted Kaptchuk, this is all wrong. Instead “the placebo effect is people getting better without active ingredients.” In his work, people see the placebo effect as the result not of any “fake medication” but instead of everything that surrounds the fake treatment. The doctor-patient engagement, the hope and support they receive and feel. All of these “surrounding elements” actually produce a physiological effect where neurotransmitters are released that can in fact change outcomes.
What does this have to do with the American Dream? Maybe everything. Why do some people succeed “without active ingredients?” How do some overcome all odds? This is the beauty of dreams. We live in a culture that supports and pushes forward the American Dream. The steady drumbeat of “you can do it” narratives surrounds the fake treatment of failed support systems and limited opportunities. Is it possible that the idea of the American Dream isn’t a sugar pill that cynics say distorts us from wider systemic change, but instead is a mystifying placebo effect that changes outcomes for some which would otherwise defy logic?
MOMENTS OF INSPIRATION
This brings me to another influence - the power of words. Take this poem for example.
O Me! O Life!
By Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! Of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Before it was used for an anthemic iPad commercial in 2014, Walt Whitman’s poem O Me!, O Life! was at the center of the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society starring Robin Williams (who also voices over the poem in the Apple commercial).
When I first saw the movie, I was a junior in high school and went with my best friend Laurence. In the scheme of things, both of us were never expected to amount to much. Not a lot of encouragement at home. No personal role models we could point to. No large group of friends we could rely on. We had each other and we were still forming dreams of what life could be like.
It was in this fertile soil that this film planted the seeds that we could matter. It demonstrated to us the power of words to inspire. The power of art to make a difference.
For a kid who, at that time, was regularly told by his stepfather how worthless he was and how he would never amount to anything, it is hard to underscore how important the words I heard in that movie were. Or the subsequent comfort, inspiration and identity I took from a lifelong love of reading and music that followed.
There is a lot of serendipity that must have occurred for words written over a hundred years earlier to have reached impressionable kids like Laurence and me at such a ripe time.
Yet our story is not uncommon. Many of us can point to times in our lives when a song, movie, novel, poem, play touched us in a way to change us.
It is hard to realize, let alone capture or measure, the impact of the right words delivered at the right time. They needn’t always come from a famous poet or Academy Award-winning film. They could easily come from a note from your mom or shout-out from a friend.
Image 1989 Buena Vista Pictures
BOOTSTRAPS & BELIEFS
Isabel Sawhill from the Brookings Institution is one of the country’s leading thinkers on social mobility. At an event releasing research conducted by my organization, the GALEWiLL Center, she said, "We do need a more nuanced conversation, and we need to get away from this sense that is being created in the political world right now that it's either all about being a Horatio Alger or it's all about having government support to help you. It's not either/or, it's both."
Recently her colleague, Richard Reeves, called for the creation of an Office of Opportunity charged with the collection, publication and promotion of data on progress towards greater social mobility. It is a laudable idea to, as he writes, “to give empirical and institutional teeth” to our ideal of the American Dream.
Perhaps this office, armed with increasingly voluminous amounts of data, could finally give a proper accounting for the myriad of interrelated factors that I’ve attempted to bring to life here.
But I fear that no office or book, regardless of the amount of data one analyzes or copies the author sells, will be able to change this prevailing self-reliant, bootstrapping, hard working, on-my-own narrative that has been seared into our collective identity.
Fortunately, that has never been my primary goal.
Sal Khan is founder of the Khan Academy whose mission is to “accelerate learning for student’s of all ages.” He has created almost 5,000 videos on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on science and math. These free lessons have been viewed online over 400 million times, his YouTube channel has almost two million subscribers and his videos and principles are increasingly finding their ways into traditional classrooms. Time Magazine has called him one of the top 100 most influential people in the world.
When he tells his own story, it is both charming and matter-of-fact. He was born in Louisiana to immigrant parents. After attending public school, he went on to MIT and then Harvard, accumulating a total of six degrees in the process.
While working in a hedge fund, he began tutoring his young cousin Nadia who needed some help from Uncle Sal in math. Travel caused him to miss some of his planned regular sessions; so in order to keep his commitment, he made little videos for her to watch while he was away. Eventually, she told him that she actually preferred the videos as it allowed her to learn at her own pace, to go back and re-watch certain concepts, and of course share and discuss them with her friends.
When I asked Khan what advice he had for fellow do-gooders who were trying to create social change, it was simple. “Start with one.” Going on, he stated, “I didn’t set out to start Khan Academy, I was just trying to help my cousin Nadia. But finding something that could help her, I ended up helping so many more.”
MY NADIAS: CARLIN, RORY AND ANDIE
When I set out to write this, I only had three readers in mind and I knew that they wouldn’t be able to read these pages and understand its contents for at least another decade. I know, not much of a business plan.
The perils of publishing increasingly suggest that writing anything of impact is like catching lightning in a bottle. So I thought I would just light three little candles instead. Hoping to shed some illumination on what has shaped my life and, by extension, theirs.
While I did work hard, I had many other things and people working equally hard in my favor.
While being self-reliant is important, it is not sufficient. Real happiness is found by being deeply connected to the people and places around you.
While you live in a land of opportunity, you have been more blessed than many others – a fact that no matter how hard you work and how many dreams you achieve, you should never forget.
And that while there are many ways of defining moving up, it is most helpful to think of “up” not as where you go, but how you feel. Realizing also that what we should be moving is not ourselves, but others.
Always be moving up, girls. Always be moving up.
Image by Bob McKinnon
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