Why are we working? What’s today’s American Dream?

Startups and tech are a special community. It’s the best and brightest who will go to astronomical lengths to achieve great things. The reason people do this is simple: get rich. However, when I boarded the CalTrain in Palo Alto anytime before 9 AM, I wonder what’s the point?

The reason I ask myself this question has nothing to do with me. Rather, it is the sight I see. Hoards of nurses getting off the CalTrain in Palo Alto headed to their shift. There are no smiles, no standing tall, no spring in a step. For me, I see this and shrivel in fear. If I lived in Palo Alto, and I was at my most vulnerable state, these are the people who would be providing care for me? Maybe it’s just a bad moment and no one had their coffee yet. At the same time, I can understand if their feelings are as they look.

Working to make dreams

Standing with the mascot of the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics

In 2014, I went to a wedding for my friend’s Chester and Daisy in Nanjing, China, a historically significant city but now a Tier Two city. It was an enlightening trip that starkly contrasted to my work experience in India. The theme of the trip was learning how the local Chinese aspired to live out their own dreams and lives. When I talked with Daisy’s friends — who all spoke perfect English and most had never left China — I asked them about their lives. Everyone — American and Chinese — seemed to have the same problems: worked hard, did well, and figuring out how to create a life they wanted to live.

Coincidentally, the Summer Youth Olympics were held in Nanjing at the same time, and President Xi Jinping was also staying at the Hilton. His presence and the theme from a bunch of millennials hanging out was the Chinese Dream. President Xi’s campaigned for the Chinese Dream seeing what the American Dream did for the US economy. The vision of a great life and more fruitful opportunity really drive a workforce. The irony was that as I talked with Daisy’s friends who still lived in China, I realized that it was hard for me to relate to any dream, despite my intimate familial history with it.

The history of the American Dream to me

I often get tossed flack for how much I believe in the American Dream. While growing up in a white, upper-middle-class suburb, I was often told by teachers or peers how the American Dream did not exist anymore for minorities. True or not, who were they to tell me? I was the only minority in this conversation. I was also one of the few who had memorable immigrants in my family.

My dad’s parents were Japanese-American laborers, who were interned during World War II. I told this story before, but the point is my grandfather made quite a career for himself out of nothing. He became an optometrist because some guy on a bus told him there was an unlimited opportunity in optometry. Then he used his charm to build the busiest optometry practice in Chicago. His clients were all the famous names and organizations from Chicago, most humorously Playboy. Randomly, through the Chicago Democratic political machine, made contact lenses for President Lyndon Johnson. My grandfather was the Horatio Alger American Dream.

My dad learned to ski at Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club because it was a work trip for my grandfather to see his patients (and, yes, we are all rolling our eyes).
Photo courtesy of Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

My mom’s parents were this American Dream too. They were post-World War II German immigrants. Both my grandfather and grandmother worked on factory lines in rural Illinois. They saved everything and sent my mom and brother to college, who were the first two in the family to go to college. Across all socioeconomic classes and levels of accomplishment, the dream to make a better life with hard work drove a workforce to create a lot of economic prosperity.

This Dream was not one for my parents. By the time my parents started their career, the American Dream had evolved: provide the perfect lifestyle for their kids. The white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a dog was this Baby Boomer cliche. It’s led to helicopter parents and other things millennials grapple with today. While my parents’ strategy was entirely different and got out of the race altogether for a better life, this new American Dream for Baby Boomers had sweeping implications and drove the workforce to economic prosperity.

The American Dream today

What is the American Dream for millennials? There does not seem to be any. All the pundits just weigh in on how dismal the future is for millennials. This makes no sense to me. Yes, the national debt and forthcoming financial burden of retiring baby boomers make the financial future for millennials look financially dismal. Yes, there is global competition. So what? It’s not like everyone will roll over dead tomorrow.

There needs to be a serious look at what is the American Dream today. I cannot tell if anyone knows it. It’s not, “Make America Great Again,” and I don’t think it’s in anyone’s political agenda. This is because the American Dream is not an answer to today’s problems: more problems will come tomorrow. It’s a vision that brings people together to overcome problems. It’s not an answer; it’s an algorithm. It does not just help the wealthy but brings hope to everyone. It’s not what leaders prescribe; it’s what everyone wants.

A starting point

Since July 29, 2013, I have been in a “quarter-life crisis.” It started with a traumatic assault to someone I loved. Then it got worse in too many ways. I fled to the Bay Area, learned a lot, and it was a relief. However, new darkness emerged and really set in when I moved back to Colorado: in spite of everything, I had achieved more than I could have imagined by this point in my life. Now what? This depressed me for a while.

The comfort and clarity of being back in Colorado, though, let me be my most creative yet. I am no longer at a loss for what was but start to ask, “What do I want? How can I make it better?” So I had to push myself out of the depression and think, “What have I learned that I would pass this opportunity onto my children?”

I do not know the answer. However, where I would start is recognizing that today we live in a networked age. If you let it and make it happen, it’s possible to get access to and build meaningful relationships with anyone. I know because I am a no one, and I still had engaging conversations, over email, with my heroes. There is currently an integration problem with how our networks with our physical presence, but I think if we can start building communities that integrate our digital and physical networks, it’s a place to start, and this is crucially important for our future.

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