The Occupy Wall Street movement brought to the mainstream the reality of the “New Normal” – something that many first generation college students were already well acquainted with. The economic crash of 2008 delivered the “New Normal” to the front porch of middle class America. The “New Normal” is – four (five) years of college, almost six figures in debt, and there are no job prospects on the horizon in the near or distant future. You apply to a job with one to three hundred other applicants not just your age, but downsized older workers with mortgages to pay and children to take care of. Was that degree worth the hype? Were you sold a pipe dream? Is the American dream dead?
I think perception of what the American dream is has changed such that it is untenable. We collectively (citizens and government) caused our economic demise. We accepted loans we could not afford, hoping interest rates would stay low forever. We maxed out credit cards. We invested in get rich quick scams (Madoff, Stanford). Good credit, no credit, bad credit – all approved! Big business and bankers took advantage with a “greed is good” mantra and down the rabbit hole we went! It was like Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit all over again.
It used to be that a high school diploma would secure a decent job with good wages and benefits. A college degree was considered a good financial investment. Companies valued workers and rewarded longevity and loyalty. The American dream was work hard and you too can have your piece of the American dream – just a piece though. However, recent generations were told if you name and claim it – it is yours. Working hard was de-emphasized and everyone was told that they were special. Baby boomers knew that life was a struggle and happiness was not a permanent state. Two world wars, the atom, and the Cold War was a constant reminder of how fragile the state of happiness could be. Now companies get rid of employees like a spouse in a mid-life crisis – seeking a younger newer model.
An article from New York Magazine titled “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness” best describes the phenomenon. “New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to realize dreams…And of course we should feel indebted to the world’s dreamers, but there’s a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of yearning…the Big Apple is a perfect moniker for the city: ‘The apple is the cause of the fall of human happiness…It’s the symbol of that desire for something more. Even though paradise was paradise, they were still restless’…Happiness is ‘less a function of absolute income than of comparative income…New York is the most varied, most heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help but feel trumped. As it were.’ Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy.”
Unfortunately, Generation XYZ was feed a constant diet of get rich quick and nothing was ever wrong with them. A whole generation of kids told by their parents that they were “gifted and special” and now “in a mindless state of yearning.” Peeved at the world for things not going their way because obviously it was not their fault. They were told that the American dream was getting what you want and being happy. In the sage words of my father, “keep on living.” When I was a young girl, I boldly proclaimed to my father that I wanted to be a career woman. His reply, “you have two strikes against you – you’re a woman and a minority. It’s good to want things, but we don’t always get what we want even when we desire it. Work hard. The only thing that beats a failure is a try.” My dad did not shield from me the fact that it would be an uphill battle, nor did he discourage me. I am a strong, ambitious woman because he made me. For every honor and award I was cautioned, “don’t get prideful because there is always someone smarter and prettier – continue to do your best regardless.”
This generation was told go to college and you will get the job you want and you will be happy. Happiness was never so promoted as in the past twenty years. An over-emphasis has been placed on it. The American dream is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Fine print – happiness is not guaranteed, but maybe you will find moments of it while pursuing. The pursuit of happiness is like the stage in between flirting and dating – the chase. Sometimes the thrill of the chase is better than the catch. That’s life. Sometimes it sucks. Other times, you get lucky.
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” It sucks being laden with student loan debt that promised a good future. What do you do now? You must adapt to an ever changing world. Become more entrepreneurial. Still dream big, but be ready for the consequences and sacrifices. “Where there is no struggle there is no reward.” I moved to New York City to chase dreams deferred. The concrete jungle can make your dreams or the weight of constant rejection can pound them into the dust that litters the streets. You must decide if you are going to fight or stand passive waiting for things to “get back to the way they were.”
My father loved boxing. I remember watching Ali, Holmes, Spinks, and Sugar Ray. To grieve the death of my father, I decided to take boxing lessons. It was an old school smelly musty gym. My trainer and his father came from a family of boxers – Golden Gloves, junior Olympians, professionals. Many amateurs trained with them to go pro. I needed to grieve and the boxing gym reminded me of my father. It did not hurt that within three weeks my body looked better than it ever did. For the first three weeks, I ran three rounds, shadow boxed three rounds, punched the bag three rounds, jumped rope for three rounds, then ended with reps of sit-ups and push-ups that hurt to laugh. After three weeks, my trainer said “enough play boxing, time to step in the ring.” Stepping into the ring separates the “fake it till you make it” from the real entrepreneurs. Until you are willing to put skin in the game, you are just looking pretty shadow boxing.
Entering the ring scared me. I saw the amateurs and pros. The speed of the punches and getting knocked out. That is okay. Like Sugar Ray, I am too pretty to get hit. Thanks, but no thank you. My trainer, “you will never learn how to box until you enter the ring.” I heard my dad’s voice, “the only thing that beats a failure is a try, so keep trying.” I entered the ring. I was slow, not pretty like when I shadow boxed. I dropped my left when I threw my right, opening me up to a flurry of jabs. Instead of floating like a butterfly, my feet were planted. “On your feet, move! Come on – back in the center.” My perfect shadow jab was weak by round two. Trying to avoid a body punch I landed face first into a punch. “Stop thinking – your body knows what to do! Don’t run from the punch. Counter-punch.”
My first day in the ring had me in pain and thinking I did not look that cute at all play boxing. The next day, back in the ring. Each day, my jab was better. I learned how to protect my body. However, I had a bad habit of being comfortable on the ropes. I hated the center of the ring. My trainer, “you must learn south paw and how to fight in the center.” Hard headed, I went back on the ropes in my defensive posture. My trainer stepped out and his father came in. Not good. His dad was old school from Mexico. I went to the ropes and he threw body punches and landed a jab on the left side of my face. Is this old man trying to kill me? I am doing this for exercise and grief relief! I had no choice but to come off the ropes and box in the center. That was when I discovered I had a mean straight right. I would have never discovered that straight right if I did not enter the ring and get off the ropes. I never went beyond four rounds in the ring. I have much respect for boxers. Like chess, boxing is strategy and adaptation. In the words of Iron Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt” The Man in the Arena” speech at the Sorbonne in Paris
Life is pain. However, there are moments of joy and gladness that make the pain bearable. Generation XYZ, you were screwed. All that “good student loan debt” is expected to be worse than the housing bubble. Depressed? Don’t be. It is okay to be upset, but you must have a plan. Staying outside the ring or on the comfort of the ropes where all you do is block punches is not living. There are twelve rounds. Sometimes you come out swinging. Other times you are taking the punches trying to make it to the next round. No shame in surviving, at least you are still in the fight.
Endurance is the key to winning. When you are young, you can be bold and brash like a Roy Jones, Jr. leaving the hand down or like Mayweather relying on speed. However, youth fades. The true test is endurance and adaptation. The greats proved that. Ali introduced rope-a-dope to overcome his younger opponents. Both Ali and Jordan adapted their game to endure and become greats in their sport.
It is okay to get knocked down – so long as you get up at the eight count. Even a knock out is not detrimental. As my father said, “the only thing that beats a failure is a try – so keep trying.” Failure and success go hand in hand. Maybe the economy knocked you down, possibly knocked you out temporarily. However, the greats take “the agony of defeat” and turn them into the “thrill of victory.” To know success is to be intimately acquainted with failure.
The elevator to success is out of order. You’ll have to use the stairs…one step at a time. – Joe Girardi
In part two and three, we will profile two young men dream chasing and showing the power of endurance. See you for round two. Remember on your toes!