FastCompany recently posted an article examining how the “American Dream” has evolved to reflect the attitudes of a new generation. It’s no longer the stereotypical house with the white picket fence, two-car garage and 2.5 kids. The Millennial version of the American Dream shifts focus from the materialistic to the intangible: connecting with one another, looking for career flexibility, and getting passionate about a cause.

The article resonated with me on a personal and professional level. And it compelled me to ask myself, what is my American Dream?

I was born in the late ’70’s, so I either just miss, or just make it into the “Millennial” generation. I grew up rather poor. I had to move a lot. It wasn’t until I was already in high school that my parents were able to finally buy a home. But I see that instability growing up as a huge benefit to me both during and after my military career. I wasn’t exposed to the reality or importance of home ownership, so I don’t consider home ownership as being a part of my “American Dream”. In fact, my dream looks more like this:

Appreciating the simple things.
One advantage of growing up poor is that you are given the opportunity to truly appreciate finer things in life outside of material possessions. I can say that being poor and having to constantly face adversity has positively shaped my “American Dream”. Growing up, I never had a lot of material possessions. I knew how it felt to sell them and/or have them taken away. From an early age I learned the importance of hard work, responsibility, and spending wisely—and the need to do them in order to get something in return. To this day I make sure everything I purchase is not only a need and smart investment, but is something that is going to sustain and/or improve my quality of life.

Keeping that childlike creativity.
There’s the notion that the less money you have, the less opportunities you have to do things. However, it doesn’t mean you are or have to be unhappy because of it. As painful as it was to learn growing up, I can now appreciate that money isn’t everything. I can’t remember much from a week ago let alone from my years as a child, but one of the things I do recall is making our own toys from baking dough and then painting them with food coloring. It really had a positive impact on me as a child.

Learning from and honoring others’ sacrifices.
My grandmother was the most influential person in my life growing up. If I had to choose the one most important thing I learned from her it would definitely be do something you enjoy. Ironically, I learned this by watching her sacrifice.

My grandmother never went to college—no one in my family did. I was the first to achieve an undergraduate degree. She spent her career working at the Hershey’s factory to provide for her children and then, later, to provide for us grandchildren. She spent long, hard days on her feet and rarely did anything for herself. Needless to say, it wasn’t work she enjoyed doing. But it was a sacrifice she was willing to make to bring just a bit of happiness to us. As I got older, I could definitely see how the daily grind of doing something she wasn’t passionate about affected her. I soon realized why it was so important to her to support and encourage us to do things we cared about.

I guess you could say my “American Dream” is having the opportunity to do what I enjoy. To be challenged. To find meaning. I don’t need a fancy car, a big house, expensive toys. I simply need to do something that matters.

Edited by: Matt McDermott

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