Seize the moment!
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?
When Cam Newton of Auburn won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, he said, "Who'd have ever thought that a person from College Park, Georgia would get an award with such prestige and tradition?"
Newton is the lastest example of the American Dream come true. By all accounts, Newton is a remarkable quarterback, and many people thought his talent should get college football's most prestigious award even though there was a scandal involving his father's alleged effort to get Mississippi State to pay Cam to play, a violation of NCAA rules. Regardless of that incident, Newton will surely move on to a successful NFL career.
Popular American philosophy says that anyone with enough ambition and smarts can make it to the top -- just ask Barack Obama. But for every Cam Newton, Oprah, Merle Haggard or Bill T. Jones, countless other people find the American Dream elusive.
Through the last century, on the great waves of immigration, civil rights and expansion of educational opportunities through the highest levels, people who came to the United States achieved great progress in overcoming poverty and barriers of class, race and gender to secure remarkable professional achievements.
I never knew my grandparents who came over on boats in that immigrant wave from Italy and Ireland early in the 20th Century. From what I learned from my parents, they had hard lives, little money, and faced much discrimination. Just two generations later, the families they created now boast levels of economic security they could not have imagined, and professional achievements that are clearly a result of the American Dream achieved.
Today, ending the first decade of the 21st century, such progress seems far more elusive. A nation of immigrants is turning its back on rising generations of people thirsting for the hope of new lives and achievements in this country. (Pass the Dream Act, darn it!) Schools are deteriorating, jobs are at risk, and even the ultimate symbol of the American Dream -- home ownership -- has become a nightmare for too many people.
Worse than declining property values, we run the real risk today that we are losing the values of optimism and self-determination to get ahead.
In this grim era of economic decline and national xenophobia, we need exceptional models of startling achievement -- the Kennedy Center honorees, Heisman trophy winners, Olympic champions or even the World Series-winning Giants -- to remind us of the possibilities. We will only find triumph again by believing we really can do it.
In the end, I have found that the most likely pathway to success is a winning attitude, even in the face of daunting barriers, and a willingness to work very, very hard to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to master whatever arts or sciences are required for success in any given line of work.
The right of primogeniture -- privileges and property passing to the first son of the aristocracy -- is gone with the wind, along with that old aristocracy.
Instead, we have the idea of equal opportunity for all -- but that opportunity only becomes real when individuals work to seize the moment, refusing to let opposition or disappointment become crippling setbacks to ultimate success.