In America, it seems success is judged solely on our productivity and our net worth

Having a conversation about what one “does” in life (in America) always boils down to money. When talking to a stranger, a friend, a roommate, a lover, a brother, a sister, and even a child, what you do correlates to what you make doing it. American values at its finest. It’s America’s favorite show: Your Life as a Dollar Sign.

I have been asked many times, “what do you study” or what do you do?” At first, I was happy to give honest answers. “I study history and literature” and “I work odd jobs” were my answers. Now, it seems that these answers illicit the look of surprise or smiling contempt.

When I was asked by a fellow student about what I studied and what I did for money, the reaction in his eyes was what one would expect to see from a bad hot-sauce enema. It was an immediate widening of the eyes, followed by a patronizing grin. The kind of look a snotty relative would give after they figured out you didn’t believe in God. The reaction was followed by a solemn, “Oh, okay.” Condescension can be an art-form, especially when wrapped in subtlety.

Indeed, there is a wide mindset in America when it comes to “what you do.” In this country, your life only becomes valuable if “what you do” makes you lots of money. When people ask “what do you study”, they ask it to learn the types of jobs you seek. More often or not, judgement is passed on those who don’t engage in practical jobs which focus on either technical or monetary skill.

Writers, artists, musicians, and any non-business passion seekers are generally frowned upon. Your worth to America is based on your willingness to become a millionaire. You are always judged based on your monetary value, not your creative values. Some manage to break this mold and become successful. But again, success is judged in how much someone earns, not how good of a person they are or how beautiful their creativity can be.

Even those we call “successes” in the arts, are judged based on how much they sell and how much they get paid doing so. They are only a success based on the money and fame they earn, rather than the heart and intelligence of the art itself. America’s money culture corrupts every facet of life. Everything becomes a business deal.

Artists and gonzo personalities feel that their art is unappreciated. Many people unfortunately do not appreciate these things or understand them. Far too often America uses a Donald Trump instead of a David Foster Wallace as their scale for value. Too often, the American Dream is defined by your ability to be part of the machine, rather than your ability to live free.

We are always told to follow our passions, and chase our dreams. Yet, if these dreams do not fit into a practical money making machine, then you are deemed a failure. Success does not equal talent, but how much you can profit from said talent. Many of us have no talent and make huge profits anyway. The American Dream is twisted these days.

Everything is an “investment.” You are an investment, like notes in a bank account. The question arises; why does profit drive our value? When will there be a day when capital gain is merely an option, rather than the given rule? We need a cultural shift in America. They problem stems from what the established culture values, which generally surrounds a profit motive. Not everything should be judged by money. Sometimes, movements are important. We need a movement, not of markets, but of hearts and minds.

There is more to life than the dollar. Sometimes being rich in the mind is more essential than being rich in the wallet. The American Dream should be much more than making a buck.


  1. Materialism sucks. Add a huge population propagandized to want,want ,want and you get the depletion of natural resources, the degradation of air, soil, water, and oceans. Everything has been monitized. Holidays are no longer an opportunity for gatherings but an opportunity for the year’s grandest sale. The economy depends on this style of life.
    This model must be attacked and destroyed and it is easy. Live simply.

  2. Your column has continued to evoke reflections/thoughts/memories/new paradigms for me in the day or so since I first read it. That is a real compliment from me as I read a great deal in my research area and much of what I read is quite meaningful, but your essay/column has remained at the forefront of my thinking. Indeed, I have begun to sketch notes out of which I could see a future course evolving.

    It is interesting that you published it during the same week that Yale decided to publicized a new set of courses focusing on “The Good Life” and doing so both within and without various religious traditions. Indeed, some years ago I spent a summer doing research at Harvard under the tutelage of Peter Gomes, who was in the midst of writing a follow-up to “The Good Book” entitled “The Good Life.” We spent far more time talking about his thoughts and struggles with how to approach such a subject than we spent on my research, but I was immensely invigorated by those conversations and remain so today. Thank you for bringing them back to the front.

    “The Good Life” need have nothing to do with religion, of course, especially that religious form which one of your respondents describes as “useless dribble” and seems to imply that it stifles “curiosity and free thought.” I have no need to defend religion in general or in particular per such statements—some of it is right on target. But, not all of it. And I just happen to be one of those persons for whom it generates “curiosity and free thought.” And, as opposed to being “useless dribble,” it provides needful paradigms for my personal understanding of “The Good Life.”

    At any rate, I am feeling pushed to move forward in my thinking/reflecting on such a foundational subject. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. Best line I have read this week: “Condescension can be an art form, especially when wrapped in subtlety.”

    Most generalized line I have read this week: “Having a conversation about what one “does” in life (in America) always boils down to money.”

    I suppose I would respond to the latter by saying that, for some people, that is certainly the case but, for a surprising number of other people, it really isn’t. Like you, I think, I am around college students all the time—in class, on football fields, at the gym, in my neighborhood. Some are all about the money they are going to supposedly make. And some are all about just making enough money to support doing the stuff they really love to do—climbing, mountaineering, traveling, “tinkering” (a bio-medical engineering student), hanging out, etc. And others are all about, for lack of a better phrase, “making the world a better place.”

    Allow me, if you will, to brag a moment about my son. He is 32. He has bachelors and masters degrees in computer technology. He had a job that, relatively speaking, paid pretty well. He called me one night three years ago and said, “Dad, I joined the National Guard about six weeks ago and I leave for Fort Benning the first week in May for basic training.” Huh? “Oh, and I quit my job.” Whaaaa?

    He said he felt stuck in his work, that he liked playing with computers but he didn’t like playing with computers as a job—he wanted to play with computers on his own terms. He said he needed an adventure. And he said that, when he finished with basic training and advanced infantry training, he’d come home and do what he really wanted to do—work in a gym and eventually manage or buy one. So, he had his adventure (and, one weekend a month, still has it), came home and went to work with some friends managing a gym. I don’t think he makes a lot of money, but he seems to be getting by. Most importantly, he’s having a large, large time.

    Which makes this dad very, very happy and very, very proud. As far as I’m concerned, he’s about as successful as one can be—adventuring, doing what he loves to do, having a large, large time doing it and being a good man.

    The money?


  4. I certainly fit the rich in mind rather than the rich in monetary value mold. I have my economical as possible life and it gives me enough time to write, to read, and to learn, which is what I value as a necessary part of my life. Being an Atheist frees the mind from useless dribble and promotes curiosity and free thought. Not afraid of burning in hell as Ronald Reagan Jr. states. And yes it is a shame that we value people more on their success of accumulating expensive stuff and being seen as “rich” to others versus the value unseen.

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