The Future of the American Dream

As you may or may not know, a couple months ago I had the distinct privilege to speak at the TEDx Carnegie Melon event in Pittsburgh.  It was my first big speaking engagement, and for as nervous as I was, I was actually pretty pleased with the way it came out.

While I’ve mentioned the talk in our newsletter and via social media, I have yet to do a proper write up of the talk and the content.

I understand that sitting through a 15 minute video can be a pretty painful thing these days, so this post is essentially a recap of my thoughts on the current state and the future of the “American Dream”.

There are a lot of things that are broken in our society, but the good news is that we’ve never been in a better place to change it.

Here’s the talk, I’d love to hear what you think:

The Moment Where Everything Changed

Throughout the course of our life, we have a few key moments where everything changes.  Where you’re given a choice of exactly how you want to proceed, and your decision will completely alter the course of your life from there on out.

For me, it was in February 2009 on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

I’d saved up all of my vacation time for the better part of a year, to head down to Carnival with my buddy Ryan.  It was on that beach after two weeks of hang gliding, partying, dancing, and socializing that I realized something had to change. I had little freedom in my day to day life.

I was working a job that left me uninspired, and I wasn’t getting any closer to the goals I’d set for my self.  It was that day in Rio that I said, “screw this, time to start doing what I want.” A couple months later, Location 180 was born.

Six months after that I was jobless.

The Reality of the 9 to 5

Here’s the problem with the “traditional” American Dream.  Most of the people on this path, never chose to go down it.

They followed the path of least resistance.  Society has set us up to follow a very clear path.  Go to school, get a degree, get a job, get married, get a house, save up for the next 30 years until retirement.

You just slowly slip into the role you’re supposed to play, and before you know it, you’re 45 and have too many financial obligations to you and your family to change course and start doing what you really want.  It’s easier to accept, “ok” or “comfortable”, than it is to take a risk and do something extraordinary.

This starts the moment you take your first job out of school.

All of a sudden you’re making 40 grand a year, and you can’t believe that they are going to give you two weeks of paid vacation. SWEET. They are paying you to go party with your buddies in Rio or Vegas for 2 weeks out of the year.

Eh, not so much.

Maybe it’s like that for a year or two: spend a week with your family over the holidays and take a couple trips with your friends, it’s great!

But have you ever really thought about what two weeks of vacation looks like over the longer term?

A couple years down the road you decide to get married to a nice woman from out of town.  Well, gotta go spend some time with her family, so there goes a few days.

Then what happens when you buy a house? Probably going to take a day or two off here or there to make some repairs and put on that new roof.

Two years later, you decide to have kids.  And them? As much as you’d like to believe they are, they are NOT invincible.  Chalk up a few more days to sick days.

Before you know it, no more time off, and the “vacation” you’re taking isn’t really a vacation at all.

Lucky for you, ten years down the road you’re at the point where you have a MONTH of time off.  How sweet is that? You finally get to take a real trip with the family!

Yeah, one those where you spend the entire time worrying about what might happen, rather than actually enjoying the experience. “What happens if it rains? What about if Space Mountain is broken and Timmy throws a fit? What if there’s no snow on our ski trip?”

You end up more tired and stressed than you were when you left.

To make matters worse, in America, most of us don’t even use most of the time we do have.

Then finally, once you hit 65, you get to retire.  At that point all you do is take long walks and the occasional cruise. You’re so beat down by the last thirty years of work, that you get bored and don’t have the energy to really do the things you’d been looking forward to!

That’s the traditional American Dream.  That’s what so many people are trapped in, without realizing they’d ever set the trap.

So, what’s the NEW American Dream?

Luckily we live in an era where techology makes it possible to do just about whatever we want.  Hell, I’ve been able to run my business from no less than 7 different countries over the last two years.  This wasn’t possible even 10 years ago.

The new American dream is really simple, it essentially consists of three components.

  1. Making a conscious decision about what you want to do
  2. Doing what makes you happy
  3. Helping others in the process (leaving your legacy)

That’s it, because each one of those three things builds on each other.

Making a conscious decision about what you’d like to spend your time doing, is going to give you the motivation to reach out and go for it.

When you’re working on things that are meaningful and fulfilling to you, you become happy.

You being happy and fulfilled makes it much, much easier to help others in the process.  How are you going to help anyone do anything if you’re hating your life?

Exactly, you’re not.

All of the tools are out there right now for you to be able to do this.  For me personally? While leaving my job and moving to Thailand was without a doubt one of the most difficult times of my life, I realize that it may have been easier for me than it could be for you.

I didn’t have a family or a mortgage. My car was my only major financial obligation.

However, it all comes down to priorities.  If you want a new life, and a new dream, bad enough, you can have it.  It’s just going to take a little discipline and sacrifice.

Why Do We Choose Unhappiness Over Uncertainty?

Tim Ferriss once said:

“Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” -Tim Ferriss. Tweet it!

It’s absolutely true, but why is this?

It’s because of fear.  It’s much easier to follow the path of least resistance than it is to take a risk.  The idea of what “might” happen is so terrifying to people, that most will never do a damn thing about it.

Now that we’re talking about fear, I want to ask you a question.  I want you to come up with three things you’re afraid of.  Think of the three things that you’re most afraid of in the world.

Alright, got it?

Cool.

Ok, so that was a trick question.

Why? Because there is only ONE thing in the world that people are afraid of.

Can you guess what it is?

The worlds only fear is…

Uncertainty.

That’s it, that’s the only thing you’re afraid of.

Think about it:

  • You’re not afraid of spiders.  You’re afraid of the uncertainty surrounding whether or not that spider is going to bite you.
  • You’re not afraid of death. You’re afraid of the uncertainty surrounding what happens when you die, and the process of it.
  • You’re not afraid of aliens.  You’re afraid of the uncertainty surrounding what happens when the beam you back up to Mars.

See where I’m going with this? Uncertainty is the ONLY fear in the world, and it’s what keeps most of us in our nice little bubble of the “traditional” American dream, which has never really lived up to expectations.

So now that we recognize that uncertainty is the only fear in the world, what can we do with that information?

The Three Phases of Uncertainty

There are three phases of uncertainty that we can go through.  You see uncertainty is one of the most powerful forces in the world.  It can be powerfully positive, or powerfully negative, depending on what phase you’re in.

The first phase: Fearing the Uncertainty.

This is where 90% of the American population will spend their whole lives.  They’ll follow the path of least resistance, not do most of the things they said they would do one day, and look back on their life and say, you know? I probably could have done more than I did.

The fear over what might happen is greater than actually experiencing it.

Phase two: Overcoming the Uncertainty

A small percentage of people will get to phase two, overcoming the uncertainty.  This is where you recognize you need to make a change, and even though you’re still terrified, you do it anyway.  You say “screw it, I’m quitting my job and moving to Thailand.”

When I did this, I had absolutely zero idea of what I was in store for.  I didn’t know if it would be positive or negative, but I knew that if I didn’t do it soon, I never would, and it would lead to a lot of regret later on in life

Phase Three: Embracing the Uncertainty

The final step that probably 1% of Americans will get to, is embracing the uncertainty.  This is where you take what was once a debilitating fear and you turn it into the greatest gift you could receive.

When everything is uncertain, anything is possible. Click to tweet.

Where would we be if people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t embrace the uncertainty of the potential of the computer? The world would be a very different place.

If I didn’t embrace the uncertainty surrounding this lifestyle, I’d still be at a job I didn’t love – and so would a lot of others.

If you can teach yourself to embrace the uncertainty, you’ll approach life with an entirely different lens.  One where instead of having everything around you hold you back, everything becomes an opportunity.

The Next Step

You now know what’s possible with the future of the American dream.  You no longer have to conquer dozens of fears, because you realize there’s only one you need to focus on.  So what’s the next step?

Like I said, in the new American dream, the first step is conscious choice.

Immediately after I got back from Brazil, I created my bucket list.  I listed out a bunch of stuff I wanted to do before I died, put it on the internet and told people about it in order to force myself to stay accountable.

Since then? Well, I’ve done a lot. More than I ever thought I would.

If you haven’t done it much in the past, start making conscious decisions right now. What do you want to do? Write it down. Hold yourself accountable. And quit saying you’ll do it “someday”.

Afterall…

There are only seven days in a week, and someday isn’t one of them. Click to tweet.

A Few Other Talks

There were a few other killer talks at TEDxCMU, so you should definitely check these out if you havent:

Faaz May 24, 2012 at 7:27 am

Great Talk.

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Jamie Alexander May 24, 2012 at 7:39 am

Nice one. You’d never guess it was your first time. It was a good talk, as well. I’m sure half the planets going to be self-employed in 10 years: Viva la revolution!

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Dan May 24, 2012 at 7:41 am

I still need to know: how did you hide the nerves!? You look like a pro. I really really enjoyed watching this. Bravo.

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Sean May 24, 2012 at 9:10 am

I’m pretty sure it was all that practice in front of thousands of people on the Lifestyle Business Podcast that prepared me for it :)

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Jeff @ Digital Nomad Journey May 24, 2012 at 8:09 am

You kept cool, good stuff!

Defining you own purpose/dream, while shunning the pressures from friends, family, society is too much for many. Luckily, that leaves more opportunity for those with bigger balls to reach out and grab what they want.

As you said, there is nothing wrong with the American dream, for those who enjoy it.

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Jonny May 24, 2012 at 8:36 am

Great article, completely spot on about people being so scared of uncertainty- my partner has just had be salary cut by 20% and simply won’t move jobs because it too comfortable in the one she has.

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Sean May 24, 2012 at 9:07 am

Getting my pay cut by 20% literally the day I got back from Brazil was kind of the solidifier that told me, alright someone is trying to send you a message here haha

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Turner May 24, 2012 at 8:42 am

Sean-

This was a fantastic speech, post and topic to choose for TED. I like the redefining of the American dream and the call out on the uncertainty for being a primarily culprit in what hinders us taking action in our lives.

I am on my own location independent/transition to an abroad lifestyle journey and it has been tough going out on the ledge when no one I know is going through the same process or understands why I am not doing what the rest of them are doing and succumbing to a boring job that isnt me.

Your story and your journey remain an example for me that my path is both obtainable and makes me feel like I am not the only lone ranger riding out in the plains.

Thanks for this.

-Turner@80worldjobs

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Sean May 24, 2012 at 9:06 am

You definitely aren’t the only one – even thought I get how it can sometimes seem like it. Thanks for the comment, and if there’s anything you’d like to see me write more about that would help you on your path, shoot me an email, I’d love to hear about it.

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Sarah May 24, 2012 at 9:04 am

Awesome stuff, Sean, as always. I have always loved being a position of not knowing what the next day brings, and even I was tempted by the lure of certainty for a while. It’s amazing how strong that fear can be when you live in a culture where it is so deeply ingrained. Kudos for sharing such an important message and I am super-impressed by your public speaking abilities.

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Sean May 24, 2012 at 9:15 am

Thanks Sarah! Also couldn’t be more excited to hear more about your upcoming adventure, and looking forward to showing you a spot or two around Portland!

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Matt Horwitz May 24, 2012 at 9:33 am

Sean! You rocked this man! Dropping wisdom left and right, all while keeping it fun and telling great stories. The audience loved it, and so did I! What a great item to have crossed off the list :-)

Thanks again man for spreading your message – people are listening! Because of this talk, I came up to NY for your meetup. From that event, I met two great people, shot a video interview, and found a solid mastermind partner. Awesome!

Keep rockin’ man !
~Matt

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Expatana May 24, 2012 at 9:51 am

Sean, your talk was so eyeball-targeted it was almost scary! That was me, too, 12 years ago when I first headed out. Everyone screamed bloody murder when I went because I had almost no money and no real idea of how I was going to earn any. You’re right — 10 years ago it simply wasn’t done the way it can be done today.

Now I’m back, after 3 moves abroad, trying to get this location independent thing going for real. One of those big uncertainties that scare people so much hit me hard and I ended up with nothing, so I’m starting again from absolute scratch. And I must say it’s a lot harder when you’re much older and female. But have I given up? No way! I’m going out again. Life is too short … and getting shorter. You rock!

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Veadra May 24, 2012 at 9:53 am

Amazing post and amazing speech, Sean! Couldn’t be more true.

Six weeks ago I took the plunge and quit my job. I’m working on earning a living without working 9 to 5. Even if it doesn’t work, quitting my job and choosing uncertainty will still be the best decision I ever made for myself. Sometimes I’m terrified, I doubt myself, I feel guilty, but above everything I’m determined to make this work.

Anyway, I’d like to thank you- you’re one of the people who made me feel empowered to take the plunge. This is my first comment on your blog, but I’ve been reading it for the past few months. It’s really comforting to find like-minded people, people who want to choose how we’ll spend our lives. That Tim Ferris quote is one of my favorites, definitely something I recite to myself when I’m wondering if I’ve done the right thing.

I look forward to “seeing” you around! I haven’t got my blog up and running yet, but when I do you’ll be the first to know.

PS: “There are only seven days in a week, and Someday is not one of them” Bahaha, love it!

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Sean May 24, 2012 at 10:54 am

That’s great! Glad I could play even a small role in helping you get to that point. Also thanks for the comment, it’s always great to hear from new readers :) Keep me posted on how things evolve post day job!

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Mariza May 24, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Sean,

Right on, dude! For years, I joined my colleagues in complaining about our corporate jobs. Why do so many stay jobs they hate? It took a bad case of depression and a poor review during my last annual physical for me to re-think why I kept going to a job that I spent every minute of an hour commute dreading. Do I miss a 6-figure income predictably distributed bi-weekly? ABSOLUTELY. Do I regret leaving, ABSOLUTELY NOT.

So now I live on less while I build my business. I get up on Saturday and work, not because I have to, but because I want to. Actually liking what you do so much that you get up excited to get to work is so liberating.

I still have friends that tell me to that I could get a great job in Brazil with my finance background. But I don’t want a job. I’ll never have a “job” again. I have a passion for helping people and I get paid to do it.

Thank you for summarizing the transformation of the American Dream. We now recognize that you can have certainty, without happiness. So why not embrace uncertainty for a chance at happiness?

I look forward to hearing you speak in person one of these days. Keep dazzling those crowds!

Cheers,
Mariza

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Chad May 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Great job Sean! Very engaging and entertaining.

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Jarek May 25, 2012 at 12:54 am

Hey Sean,
I am reading your blog for some time now, but this is my first comment so far. It truly was a great post! I am not from America, so I don’t live American Dream, but I am stuck at my studies right now here in Poland. I know what I would really like to do, but here it is – I have only like half a year of normal studies and that just practice. If I quit know it would mean I have wasted four past years of my life and that I will not have quite good degree just as a backup plan. Anyway, I am just trying to say that I admire your decision to quit the job, cause right now I would like to be there, but still I am waiting with everything.

Keep up the good work you do here, cause you really help to keep the spirits of folks like me up.

take care
Jarek

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Tristan King May 25, 2012 at 2:24 am

Excited to finally see the speech, after the months of suspense ;-) Found it very engaging and story-oriented with a great message. And, as Dan said, you looked like a pro. Especially with the Carnival wig ;-) Great job!

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Ron May 25, 2012 at 4:21 am

Nice talk Sean. We wouldn’t have been able to tell it was your first if you didn’t tell us.

Phase Two is scary, but Phase Three is an awesome place to be. You have to keep at it though and not become complacent. It’s easy to get too comfortable when things are going great. Then things can spiral downhill on you if you don’t stay on top of things. Continually take action and do the work necessary to keep your new freedom business moving forward.

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Scott @ New Clients Each Month May 25, 2012 at 4:28 am

Sean,

Excellent!! Your inspiring, I hope this is a wake up call to so many people who are living their lives on someone else’s terms! My journey started when I was a sales manager in the medical device industry traveling every week. I was wandering through the airport in 2007 waiting on another delayed flight when I found the 4 Hour Work Week, my life was changed forever!

I spent the next four years doing everything I needed to accomplish in order to be FREE! Finally in November 2011 I was able to leave the corporate world forever. There is nothing like waking up every single day and doing what you love!!

I read your blog regularly but rarely comment! Keep up the GREAT work and thank you for your inspiration!

To Freedom,
Scott

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leigh May 25, 2012 at 6:20 am

Did well man

its the one thing i hate is public speaking, i so got to toastmasters or something

the only time i dont get my tongue tied is when i have a couple of beers

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Matt Horwitz May 25, 2012 at 7:52 am

Hey Leigh, I highly encourage you to attend one of their meetings. Practicing public speaking in an encouraging environment like Toastmasters , is amazing for personal growth (if that’s what your after).

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Benny May 25, 2012 at 7:48 am

Great speech Sean! You were a natural up there though I’m sure you practiced your butt off.

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Izzy June 4, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Learning to deal with uncertainty is insanely powerful. I remember when I was in college and being scared about getting a “real job”. I had a realization that for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what the next few years would consist of.

But as time went on I realized that uncertainty is a beautiful thing as well. With uncertainty comes opportunity. When I put myself into crazy situations, it allows me to potentially learn some amazing things. I, can confidently say, I am in the process of learning how to embrace uncertainty.

I used to have a job that made me want to punch myself in the face. After some serious thinking I decdided to quit and pursue my childhood dream: to become a ninja :)

What do ninjas do? They go to a far away land and train in martial arts. So 10 months ago I left America and moved to Japan to focus on my dream. In the process, I have had to make constant adjustments but the learning is very powerful. Also, as I have moved forward I have noticed that I am getting more and more comfortable with uncertainty. Which as you put, is very important and powerful.

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Dana Miller June 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

Very powerful speech Sean,
I have been sharing it with everyone I know. You have taken ideas and concepts that I believe are so true and have had such a hard time explaining and made it so obvious. I have been reading your blog for sometime and have received so much value from it for free that I feel guilty. I have recently just signed up for Location Rebel and look forward to all the additional information I will receive to help push my ecommerce company to the next level so that I and my family can truly be location independent.

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Sean June 11, 2012 at 11:45 am

Dana, thanks for the kind words. Looking forward to having you as part of the Location Rebel community! Also very happy to hear how much value you’ve been getting out of the site. I do my best to make it as useful as possible, so it’s always nice to hear that I’m getting it right at least some of the time! ha

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Ron S June 22, 2012 at 8:46 am

This was encouraging. As I’m enjoying my morning work from a coffee shop here in rainy oregon, in June!
But I’m taking the rest of the day off to hit the beach (even tho its raining )

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Ryan Lucas July 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Hi Sean,

Voice of dissent here. I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the ideas you bring up around happiness. The way I see it, the problem is not that we never consciously decided which direction to take our lives, or even that we are afraid to make a change because of uncertainty. The problem is that we can’t predict the future levels of happiness that our decisions lead to, or to match our imagination of the thing we want, with the reality of the experience.

Happiness is capricious. Variety is important, but so is some kind of stability. Perpetually crossing off items on our happy list strikes me as missing the forest for the trees.

Cheers,

R

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MIT July 4, 2012 at 2:35 am

Thank for this. I really didn’t need another reminder of how much garbage TEDx is, but this was nice. Talentless vermin like you shouldn’t even be alive.

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Expatana July 6, 2012 at 9:45 am

One dissenting thing I must admit is, amidst all that uncertainty that we’re learning not to be afraid of, I do have to assure myself there is always a roof over my head and something to eat. You absolutely must have something coming in before taking the plunge. That thing people are so afraid of did happen to me and I’m literally stuck where I am for the time being. That doesn’t mean I’m not going out again. I am, but it will take time. There has to be money coming in from somewhere — money independent of a traditional job. That’s my concentration.

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Spencer September 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm

You inspired this poem for me.

The American dream is not what it seems
Confined to the borders that’s ripped at the seams
Living a life of competition and greed
Igniting the terror for the sake of security
Freedom is fleeting when your locked to the key
Trapped in a room in front of a screen
Red white and blue and spray painted green
Individual voices have differing pleas

The rich ignore poor, hiding behind the closed doors
Unsatisfied hunger we always want more
Recycling nothing, building mountains of hoard
We feast on our options shoving waste in a drawer
Advertised in our eyes without chance to ignore
Islands of trash floating, from shore to shore
Paper or plastic in grocery stores galore
An abundance of wants in a Nation of War

The 9 to 5, will continue to drive
Your body to the ground and you soul to the sky
Commodities are scarce when you devalue time
And sell it for work that is selfish and dry

You can not buy eternity
So wake up from the dream
Living in modernity
Has you swimming upstream
Break out of the habit
And out of the cave
That continues obsession
With hopelessness of change

You can’t buy immortality
But you can make a shift
Buy leaving a legacy
And not sinking with the ship
Break out of the habit
And out of the grave
That perpetuates mortality
With no one to save.

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