The dream lives on
Q: One did time in prison. Another was raised by migrant farmworkers. All came from humble origins. One recent night, Oprah Winfrey, Merle Haggard, dancer Bill T. Jones, Broadway composer Jerry Herman and a guy named Paul McCartney received one of the world's highest awards for artists: the Kennedy Center honors. What does this tell us, if anything, about the will to succeed, the importance of personal history and the theme of the American Dream?
Rumors of the demise of The American Dream are greatly exaggerated. I have met many people who have lived this dream. Most were unlikely candidates for success -- but in their stories there is a profound lesson about why people from all over the world want to live and work in the land of the free.
Millions from around the world will risk anything to live in America. We have a Constitution, protecting their liberty and giving them rights to do profound activities like vote or criticize their government's policy or leaders.
At the outset in any serious discussion of success we are wise to look at our society and accept that social stratification exists. In looking at the question about Oprah, et al., who have "made it" -- where did they make it to?
These people made it to a higher social class -- with prestige, accolades and influence. Money is a part of it, for sure. The rags-to-riches stories that inspire us tend to be of people from modest means who become influential. The President and First Lady come to mind. Let me tell you some stories of people who I have met.
Some very inspiring people began arriving in America in 1975. They were largely penniless. Most began in California refugee camps.
One had to wait until 1978 to escape, Viet Dihn. The Communists placed his father in a re-education camp. His mother planned their exit on a 15-foot boat that barely made it to Malaysia. The Malays sent them to America. They picked strawberries in Oregon.
Poor but bright and determined, Viet Dihn graduated from Harvard. He is an entrepreneur now, teaching law part time at Georgetown. The last time I saw him, I gave him advice on purchasing a boat for his waterfront house. The boats under consideration were bigger than 15 feet.
A pal of mine is the son of a truck driver. No one had ever gone to college from his family -- or graduated from high school! He made it through high school and was encouraged to become a diesel mechanic. He ended up as a rifleman in Vietnam and was injured badly. Rifle and grenade wounds became infected. He nearly died.
When he recovered, his ambition to succeed was significant. He excelled at one thing in particular -- law. The last time I saw him, I took a friend over to see his 1970 MG and a 1951 Chevy Pickup -- both in showroom condition. His Harley Davidson is something to see as well. He succeeds at the top of his competitive profession -- and loves vintage vehicles.
Betty Nguyen left Vietnam in 1975 in a lumbering U.S. military aircraft. She says "It was stepping into the unknown. Nothing was guaranteed except that turning back was not an option. And that meant leaving behind my grandparents ... As hard as it was, fleeing not only saved my life, it gave me a new one, in a place called America." A graduate of the University of Texas, Betty is now an award winning correspondent for CBS.
David Moses walked across the desert being pursued by brutal Sudanese (over 1,500,000 Christians have been murdered there). He stealthily escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya, ending up in South Dakota at a meat-packing plant.
He is now leading American soldiers as an Army officer, joining after seeing the Twin Towers fall. This is what he told NPR: " ... Many people went out of their way to help me out, especially when I came to this country. And so joining the U.S. Army was a way for me to give back, to serve my adopted country, because I know I'm representing something that is greater than myself."
These are examples of refugees and a working-class kid who made it in America. Why did each make it ? I have noted in each the ambition to succeed, the willingness to sacrifice to get their education credentials and the non-negotiable refusal to quit. Each faced more adversity than most Americans can imagine.
Not everyone tries hard enough or works smart enough to achieve their potential. Why do some people from families with many financial advantages end up accomplishing so little, while those who have no advantages end up doing so well?
I remember hearing Kirk Douglas , the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, being interviewed. He noted that America was a place where "everyone at least has a chance."
Success is not guaranteed. But in the USA, you do get the chance.
Most with ambition, persistence and drive will succeed for many reasons, one of which is they live in the right country- the United States of America.