Schrodinger’s American Dream – Is it alive or dead? Let’s open the box and take a look.
Social Media, website hosts, domain name venders, crowd-sourcers, and just about every Fortune 500 seems to want you to believe it’s alive and kicking. The Republican Party (short of Putin’s Helsinki Pal) are invested in us believing we’re one big break away from our millions. Popular translations of the Declaration of Independence come up with “…and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of wealth.”
Yet poverty still rules the world despite encouraging numbers to the contrary. Millions of refugees now drift across the globe to meet nothing but closed doors. While many in this country insist we live in a post-racial society, the mass incarceration of millions of black men for possession of a substance now legal in 10 states, continues nearly unaffected. How can one zeitgeist so contradict the real struggles of the modern human? The only rational conclusion is that the myth continues to serve those at the top, right? The only story we love more than an underdog story, is the one starring us. In the meantime we’re more than willing to put in our 9-5 for 65 years convinced that our meteoric rise is ahead of us. An awfully convenient belief, no?
I’m not so sure about that.
While for millennia our society has been arranged in vertical stacks of caste-like classes, one of the underlying principles of the Information Age is the death of the middleman. Who needs hotels when you’ve got Air BnB and Couch Surfing? Who needs a car when you’ve got Lyft and Uber? Who needs anything when you’ve got Neighbor Goods or Shareby? Some might be pessimistic about the Shared Economy, but even they will admit that the barriers between us are diminishing. We no longer need our own TV station to get seen, our own radio station to get heard, or our own publisher to get read.
My case in point – Amanda Palmer. She did the whole major record label thing, and they fucked her over. But because she had nurtured an intimate, loving, and legionary online community, in 2012 she was able to make history with the largest crowdfunding music deal ever. With her Theatre is Evil album, Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra raised over a million dollars (her goal was $100,000) from about 25,000 donors all by making her album available for free and asking for whatever people wanted to give.
Catch up with the cliff-notes version of the story through her Ted Talk (above). If you’ve got a bit more time, you can buy her book, The Art of Asking. Better yet, you can join a community which circulates used copies of the book HERE.
However you catch her story, it's worth doing so. She tells the story of how throughout her career she has fought people who screamed at her to get a job. In her piece Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth & nothing but the truth so help your black ass, she explains the choice she’s made this way:
I agree with her sentiment… perhaps not her use of the phrase “your black ass,” but otherwise… I recognize that life is far too short and pointlessly limited to not take every chance to enjoy this life to the last drop. I would posit that this is the modern day “pursuit of happiness.” I may not get to be the next Zuckerberg, but I’m going to make the most of this run.
Moreover, like Amanda and Marketing guru, Seth Godin, I believe that success, that self-actualization, is about finding the most meaningful cause you can find.
Seth puts it this way (below):
I have dreams like everyone else and I want to conquer the world in my own way. I will face untold hardships as I have already, but that’s just what comes with the territory. Nothing was ever guaranteed in this life except that we all get a birth and a death. In the meantime, I’d like to make Amanda’s and Seth’s way gospel, and thereby argue that the American Dream is – in fact – still kicking.
The message I got most from Amanda’s book is this, “When you connect with them, people want to help you.” She’s practiced this tenet throughout her colorful list of career choices. In her book she explains of her work, “Giving away free content, for me, was about the value of music becoming the connection itself.”
I can tell you a long list of artists and revolutionaries (aren’t they the same thing?) who have informed me as a person. They and their art have changed me and directed the course of my life by leading through inspiration. In China, the state sponsored norm is media piracy, but when I encountered an artist who made me feel something, believe something, I was happy to leave some money in the hat. I’ve benefited from what was offered freely and I feel compelled to try to return the favor. Not because a price tag tells me to, but because the connection between us draws it forth from me.
I believe this opportunity and path is best version of the American Dream available to us. I mean this optimistically, not cynically. We have the right to try and build something, and the right to ask for help. Amanda again from her book:
“Those who ask without fear learn to say two things… to those they are facing:
I deserve to ask
You are welcome to say no."
Isn’t that what it’s all about?
When we ask, are genuine, and are open to receiving, I believe that what comes is predictably bounty. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference between hoping something will happen, and bringing that thing about. But we’re conditioned to think that people have successful lives in a vacuum. They don’t.
Because we inherently want good things for ourselves including good things for others, when we want meaningful things for good reasons and share our vision with other people, they start to want it too.
Watch Amanda Palmer’s Patreon video to see she’s done with such an approach:
Allow me to quote Amanda one last time (this essay) to ask what I see as the question of the age:
“How do we create a world in which people don’t think of art just as a product, but as a relationship?” I hope to answer that with my work.
Marketers the world over will tell you that the secret is to tell a good story and tell it genuinely. Seth tells us (last time, I swear), “When we face the revolution in front of us, it is a revolution that is rewarding people who figure out how to connect and are willing to be wrong along the way.”
I can’t speak or act for everyone out there. But I’m very, very willing to be wrong as I tell you my story as genuinely as I can:
I believe in art and I want other people to too. I think it starts by remembering that the global economy is made up of people who are less and less limited by the institutions and norms of yesterday. We are collaborating on scales that break records every year, month, and day. Life expectancy is up, rates of violence is down, and most importantly connection is way, way up.
If you love something, hold it up for the world to see. Declare your undying love for the thing loudly and proudly. Maybe give a speech about the thing standing on a box with a hat in front of you. Maybe write a song about it and make it free for download with a link for donating “whatever you feel fair.” Maybe open a Crowd-funding account and tell a lot of people about the thing with a little progress bar at the bottom of the screen. Maybe start a blog and scream your lungs out talking about all of the things, then tell the reader that you’re now accepting and actively seeking Paypal and Patreon contributions per contribution.
By the way, I’m now accepting and actively seeking Paypal and Patreon contributions per contribution.
But then maybe you rally the masses with calls for revolution based around the tenet that we can actually do anything that we set our minds to. Maybe you run for president. Maybe you win. Maybe you lose. But maybe along the way, you change the way people relate to each other and look at the world.
Nevertheless, after you put all the maybe’s aside, you’ve got one certainty – you’ve lived in passionate devotion to this one thing and in so doing made the thing shine a little brighter in the dark expanses of night.
Isn’t that worth a lifetime of avoiding awkward converstions, of not taking the risk, of not following your dreams, of falsely believing our species to be small and unredeemable… of not asking?
I think so.