Enslavement: The American Dream
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Passion to the Third Degree.
I am not being anti-American. I am simply taking a step back to look at where I am in my life and what’s driven me here. Probably a little too much had to do with being named Most Likely to Succeed by my graduating class in 1980.
“Succeeding,” as I learned from my colleagues in my 20-year career as a Federal employee as well as from numerous fellow authors, has a particular meaning…and it’s not truly the good ol’ American idea of freedom. Success, as most of us define it, is thinly veiled enslavement and we are a nation of slaves.
The idea is that you work hard and you have wealth to show for it. If you don’t have enough “success,” — whether it’s the prestige of the promotion, the mid-six-figure salary, the book on the NY Times bestseller list—then you just need to work harder, put in more hours, be more vigilant. Right?
It’s not enough to be #23 on the NY Times list, as one author friend who’s been there told me. Her editors and publisher—and fans—expected her to hit higher on the list with the next book. If she didn’t, then her career had hit its peak and she was obviously on her way down. She was more stressed by the pressure to break her own record than she had been to sell her first book or to make the bestseller list for the first time. She’s no longer enjoying the act of creating in her writing. She says some days she feels like a slave to the words.
A former colleague told me it wasn’t enough for him to reach the top position in his employer’s field, but he “had to” start his own company. Instead of working 80 hours a week for someone else, he was working 80 hours a week for himself—and more. Not only that, but he felt the pressure to break his record year after year as well. He “had to” grow his company by 15% a year or he was a “failure.” Only a few years after becoming a “success,” he was working 100 hours a week and had lost his family who never saw him anymore. He told me all this during a phone conversation while on a 6-month hospitalization to recuperate from burn-out.
The American dream isn’t about materialism, though it can appear that way. It’s about “more.” And in most cases, it’s really more about the image of “more.” The prestige and respect of being the best in your field or earning a progressively higher salary and perks every year, or running the biggest business.
I see this with my daughters’ generation. They and their friends have some incredible talents, but they discount the wonders that they are because somebody else somewhere is “better” so what’s the point in trying? If they’re not “the best,” then they’re “failures.”
What they don’t realize is how many “successes” are miserable because they don’t have time for a life. They’re putting every moment of their most precious commodity and most un-renewable resource—time—into being bigger, better, more important than not only anyone else but where they themselves were yesterday. They are slaves to the American dream of more, with a distant vision of retiring and then having time to live, time to do the things they’ve long to do and go the places they’ve longed to go.
I’m having lunch this week with a former mentor who worked extreme hours and had plenty of prestige and wealthy from his career. He planned to travel when he retired because then he’d finally have “time to do the things I want to do.” He often referred to retirement as “freedom,” all the while socking away several million so that one day, he could take a trip to Italy with his wife. He retired a little earlier than planned, just a couple of years. Forced to. He does travel a lot now, but it’s to a hospital in Gainesville for cancer treatment.
He, like so many others I know, lived to work instead of working to live.
The lesson I take from this is that I don’t want to be on the track my culture encourages daily. I don’t want to wait until I’m retired to live. I’m weary of people telling me that in another dozen or so years, I can probably retire early and then I can finally write full-time. I’m tired of the not-so-hidden disapproval from friends and family who tell me that I can do better financially if I write a different kind of book, one that I do NOT want to write. The idea of being a failure unless you are constantly doing and achieving “more” is so pervasive in my culture.
And I am fighting it.
That doesn’t mean I won’t be the overachiever I’ve always been. I can’t ever imagine not being busy. But I want to be busy achieving what makes me happy rather than what someone else thinks is the “right way” to success.