We need a new American Dream

Today is the 4th of July. This has always been one of my favorite holidays – I love the summer weather, the fireworks, the grilled meats, and the occasion to reflect on the meaning of America – this baffling, often exasperating country that I love. (But mostly I love the grilled meats.)

Even though today is a “holiday,” I worked for a couple of hours. When you’re self-employed, there are no “paid holidays.” But you know what? I don’t resent a single minute that I spend working for myself. Being a freelance writer has truly been a new birth of freedom for me. I am grateful that I can earn a living on my own terms, working from home, spending lots of time with my wife and kids, without all the bureaucracy and organizational stupidity of a corporate job. (Being a freelance writer means that I only have to put up with my own stupidity.)

But seriously: I never knew what “freedom” really meant until I was running my own business as a freelancer. I’ve been doing this now for 3 years full-time, and I have never once regretted the decision to quit my old corporate job. Every day feels like a paid vacation. I work when I want to. I work from home, or from a coffee shop, or from a hotel room while on a road trip with my family. I can make more money during the two hours when my wife and kids are taking a nap in the afternoon than I used to make from spending 8 hours a day in a windowless grey fabric-padded box.

I recently started a new freelance project where I had to recruit a team of writers from various regions of the U.S. I reached out to old college classmates and friends from Facebook – I happen to know a lot of talented writers – and quickly built a great team. It’s been a lot of fun for me to be able to hand out some lucrative, fun projects to people I know and respect. And this experience reminded me, that many more people could work the way I do – if they could get past the old way of thinking about work, and redefine their idea of “success.”

America needs a new “American Dream.” The old American Dream was all about having a steady 40-hour-a-week job and a nice car and a big house in the suburbs. I think the new American Dream is going to be more mobile, more inter-connected, and more diverse. We don’t need “a” job anymore – it’s easier to get connected to 50 clients who will each give you $1,000 worth of work (or 100 clients who will each give you $500) than it is to find a single $50,000 a year job.

The new currency of the American Dream will be connectedness and sharing and trust. Instead of wealth being defined by having access to scarce resources, now it’s about “who do you know” and how connected are you to what is going on. Who would you rather be right now: a business owner of a big, entrenched business in a stagnant industry (with a six-figure income but slow growth), or a 24-year-old recent college graduate with 2,000 Facebook friends, making a living in social media and developing apps with Facebook friends at night? My money’s on the 24-year-old.

As part of our new American Dream, we need to change our ideas of “success.” For example:

Social capital is more important than money. If you have a strong network of people who care about you and who will support you and spread the word about what you do, the money will take care of itself. I have seen this happen in my own “side venture” as a stand-up comedian. Using nothing more than my own network of “fans” on Facebook, I have produced and performed in sold-out stand-up comedy shows at various venues in our city. For one of the shows, I didn’t even have to pay any money to the venue as a deposit, because my Facebook audience bought so many tickets so quickly. With the new American Dream, we all have the opportunity to build our own audience, on our own scale, and ask them to support us in doing great things.

Free time is more important than wealth. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about being self-employed is that free time is the new “wealth.” Having control over your own schedule is more powerful than having lots of money in the bank – but having no time to spend it. Why spend 40 years doing a job you hate, just so you can eventually (maybe) afford to buy the freedom to do what you wanted to do all along? Yesterday my wife and I had an impromptu “Date Day” where we sent our kids to my parents’ house for the day, and we just spent the whole day together – we went out for a great lunch, we went shopping for some new shoes and clothes (for ourselves – the kids always get whatever they want, but I hadn’t bought myself a new pair of shoes in 4 years. I had holes in my soles). I love being able to have control of my own schedule so I can make my work fit into my life, instead of the other way around.

Generosity and trust are the ultimate status symbols. Instead of showing off your big house or your expensive car or your expensive possessions, the new American Dream’s measure of prestige is: “How much of a difference are you making for others? How influential and giving are you to your community? How much do people trust you and want to follow you and listen to what you have to say?” As Kevin Spacey says in “House of Cards,” power is more valuable than money. And there are more ways to influence people and wield a new kind of “power” than ever before – even if you don’t have a traditional “powerful” job or title or office. Who is more powerful in today’s world: the Governor of a small Midwestern state, or a blogger with 500,000 fans on Twitter? Who has more people who are eager to listen to what that person has to say, and who will eagerly take immediate, meaningful action as a result? I’d rather be a blogger than a Governor. Seriously.

Failure is to be welcomed. With the way we are all interconnected, with the amazing apps and tools available online to help us be more productive than ever, with the ease in which we can get connected to the right people and resources to launch any project…the cost of failure has gotten cheaper than ever. The riskiest thing you can do today is to NOT take a risk. I quit my steady job with good benefits 3 years ago, even though we had a new baby and two kids under the age of 3, and I was terrified to fail. I was afraid that I was making a terrible mistake by venturing away from the safety of the corporate “nest.” But the thing is, I hated that job. I felt like there was no future in it for me – if I had stayed at that job, my skills would have stagnated and I would have gotten trapped in a career path that I didn’t give a damn about. Today, I feel more fulfilled than ever by my work. I feel great optimism for the future – because I’m conversant in lots of new industries and subjects, I’ve been through good times and tough times, and I’m no longer afraid to fail. The new American Dream requires us to redefine our idea of “failure.” New college graduates need to try lots of things, even if some of them don’t work out. You’re going to be more successful in the long run if you have a spirit of inventiveness, agility and courage – and it’s hard to get those things if you just go and get on a corporate career path without ever trying anything else.

Connectedness is more important than control. Here’s what I mean by that – lots of traditional corporate jobs are a matter of doing things “the right way” and controlling your own little domain of knowledge and resources. (“That’s not how we do things around here.” “Follow the established procedures.” “Check with Legal.”) The new American Dream, powered by working online and being supported by our own “safety nets” of social connections, will be about not “how well can you control” your little domain of expertise, but “how connected are you” to the right people and the right ideas? This new idea of connectedness is also going to transform our lives outside of work. For example: have you heard of Airbnb? It’s a site where you can rent a room in people’s houses, all over the world. Instead of paying big money for hotel rooms, you can crash at someone’s house for a fraction of the price – and you can check them out on Facebook in advance. This is an amazing new reality – instead of only “hotels” being able to offer you the value of a clean, safe place to sleep, now we can rely on the invisible safety net of thousands of “strangers” – but most people are trustworthy, and not everyone is a “stranger” for long. Have you heard of Lyft? It’s a new ride-sharing app (available only in select cities, for now) where people can use their mobile phones to immediately locate a nearby “citizen taxi-driver” who will give them a ride. Instead of owning a car (and paying the huge costs associated with that), perhaps in another few years, the new definition of success will be about living close to downtown and sharing rides with “strangers.” And Google is working on driverless cars – which could also be used for ride-sharing.

Here’s the point: instead of creating our own individual safety net with wealth and savings and physical assets (“I want to have a nice house and a safe car for my family”), the new “American Dream” is going to be about relying on the invisible safety net that was always around us all the time – but that we are now able to connect to and see and touch. Does this all sound like fantastical, overly optimistic techno-enthusiast hippie nonsense? Imagine how much your life has changed from having a smartphone. What if, instead of using your smartphone to find a restaurant or take photos, you could use it to hail a driverless Google car “taxi?” And then save thousands of dollars a year by not having to own a second car (or maybe not even own any cars at all)? The technology is almost ready.

Community is more important than individual wealth. As part of the new American Dream, I think more people are going to buy smaller houses, closer to their friends, closer to the communities and amenities that they care about. Why sign up for a big house in the suburbs and a big time-sucking commute, when you can work online and spend your “real-life” time with the people you love? We don’t have a big house, but we love it. We never want to move – unless it’s to a smaller house or condo closer to downtown. I love being self-employed because it gives me more time to hang out with my friends. This summer, I’ve spent most of my time taking my kids to the pool, going to movies with my wife, meeting my friends for drinks at our favorite neighborhood bar, having coffee with awesome, talented people, and eating at my favorite restaurants. And I’ve still managed to somehow make more money than I used to make from 40 hours a week in a cubicle.

Side projects are the new social currency: In the “old days,” watching TV sitcoms and watching Johnny Carson were the ways that Americans got their “social currency” – their sense of what is worth caring about and knowing about so they can have something to talk about with their peers. Today, I hardly ever watch TV. (Unless it’s a massively critically acclaimed show like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” that I get recommended to me by my hilarious, savvy Facebook friends.) The reason? There is too much other great stuff to do today! Why passively watch TV when you could be writing a blog, or building a website, or coding an app, or starting a band, or hosting a wine party, or starting a business to make some extra money on the side outside of your day job? Moonlighting is easier than ever before – and more lucrative. That’s how I started as a freelance writer – I got started on Elance in January 2009 as a way to make extra money outside of my day job, and then it blew up and took off to the point where I was making so much money in 10-15 hours per week (and enjoying the work so much more) that I wondered, “What if I did this full-time?” People have the opportunity now to do so many more interesting and valuable things with their time other than watching TV. And the best way to make new connections in the world of the new American Dream is to share your passions with people. Talk about that new side business you’ve started. Share your artwork with people on Facebook. Post YouTube videos of songs you wrote. I want all Americans to be more creative, to share their talents, to share their gifts! Stop wasting time at jobs you hate. Stop watching lousy TV. Go online and make a difference instead. We are still barely scratching the surface of what is possible.

During the past 3 years, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some really great projects and amazing experiences. I love working online. I love working with clients all over the world. I love having Skype calls with clients in London and Australia and Germany and Japan. I love writing creative website content and brainstorming ideas for blog articles. I love being able to be part of multiple collaborative teams and learn “a little about a lot,” without getting pigeonholed as “only” being an expert in one particular subject area (as tends to happen at too many corporate jobs).

I’m grateful to truly be free. I hope I can keep the momentum going with my freelance business, and stay as busy as I want to be, and keep earning more money, and keep making more of a difference for my clients and my community.

I think more people are going to live like me. Not to brag, or anything – I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a trendsetter. (I’ve never been particularly “cool.”) But it just makes too much sense! The way the economy is changing, the way people’s social and cultural preferences are changing, the way we spend our time – it all points to a new sort of American Dream where we all hopefully can enjoy more freedom and a truer kind of wealth and a more democratic form of “success” that anyone can enjoy, no matter how much money they make.

Does this sound so impossible? I used to think it would be impossible to earn a full-time income working from home and getting paid over the Internet from clients all over the world.

Happy 4th of July!

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