T Nation

Motivation, Searching for the American Dream


I was discovering that life just simply isnâ??t fair, but the difference emerges among the people that accept that idea--embrace it even--and bask in the unsung glory of knowing that each obstacle overcome along the way only adds to the satisfaction in the end. Nothing great, after all, was ever accomplished by anyone sulking in his or her misery.

---Adam Shepard, Scratch Beginnings

In his provocative book, Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, Adam Shepard undertakes a year-long experiment to ascertain first-hand the state of the American Dream. Challenging himself to start with next-to-nothing and--within a year's time--accrue $2500.00 in savings, live in a furnished apartment (solo or with roommate) and possess a vehicle, Adam travels out of state, where he has no contacts, arriving with only $25.00 and the clothes on his back. Within ten months, Adam has met his stated goals and exceeded his own expectations by saving $5000.00. He achieves this without help from friends, family or the credit card he keeps in his pocket for emergencies.

Further, when applying for jobs, he never discloses he is a college graduate. A crucial ingredient to Adamâ??s success is his lack of self-pity: he is instead occupied in taking action to reach his objectives. This is a trait you will always see with successful people.

Adamâ??s journey starts in Charleston, South Carolina, where, with $25.00 in his pocket, the first roof over his head is the local homeless shelter. From this humble base (and with the help of food stamps) he takes on any job offered. Breaking with the current social norm, Adam cheerfully accepts as fact that when you have nothing, no job is beneath you, and from cleaning up dog crap in backyards in summer heat to every other form of day labor he works from sunrise to sunset. Adam firmly applies his work ethic to his goal of leaving the shelter as soon as possible. He considers any job better than sitting around and by working an odd assortment of jobs, creates a forward momentum, eventually getting hired by a moving company at a starting rate of $7.00 an hour, which, over time, grows to ten dollars an hour, enabling him to vacate the homeless shelter and progress to a shared apartment.

After observing other shelter residents prematurely leave, only to end up back in the shelter again when hit with unanticipated expenses, Adam pointedly remains at the shelter until he's saved up adequate funds all the while maintaining an extremely frugal life style, scrimping every dollar possible i.e. neither restaurant meals nor vacations, and all clothing purchases are second-hand. Adam's imperative to leave the homeless shelter is tendered with patience--as well as the sacrifices necessary to ensure that once he gets out he'll stay out.

Adam understands that which many people miss: forward movement often requires personal sacrifice--or, you can't have it all, all the time. Such choices may bring about phases in your life which are out of balance, e.g. you might even have to work seven days a week, and not only without a vacation, but going to bed each night wiped out from the day's work, all the while saving every dollar possible and delaying all your favorite gratifications. However, you'd be surprised what you can make happen in just a year of deliberate and focused work. Later, once things get going, you can ease up on the reins and into a more balanced--and comfortable--lifestyle.

Adam encounters all sorts of people throughout his journey. There are some content with living and hanging out at the shelter all day, while others have ended up at the shelter with more ambition, forming determined plans to get back on their feet and depart the shelter circuit. He notices this second group don't blame anyone else for their circumstances, but accept full accountability, bolster it with a solid work ethic and a vision of where they want to be--and how to get there.

Scratch Beginnings is a rebuttal to (and rejection of) Nickel and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreichâ??s undercover investigative account on whether the so-called "working poor" could survive on minimum wage employment. Over the course of several months, Ehrenreich hired on as waitress, Wal-Mart associate, nursing home assistant, and franchise service house maid, concluding that holding a single minimum wage job was insufficient for reasonable subsistence.

What Barbara failed to realize is that increasing the minimum wage will drive up the price of everything else and people will be right back where they started. In paying higher wages to workers, employers will, in turn, charge more for products and services. The question is not whether people can subsist on the minimum wage, but why would anyone settle for a subsistence lifestyle? If you have to start out there, fine, I respect anyone who works over those who would mooch off others.

But why stay at a minimum wage job? People can do better than that and should strive to do so. In fact, in a labor market, minimum wage jobs are supposed to be terrible--this motivates people to accumulate relevant skills. I worked a few minimum wage jobs in my previous life and never in my mind did I consider staying at any of them.

In our current economic retraction, I hear more bitching from people than ever. People complain about the difficulties of the job market and how the government isn't helping them enough. While there may may be some truth to this, I never hear these same people bitching about their own complicity in this mess. This doesn't surprise me, as blaming others, and circumstances, is a common denominator among the unsuccessful.

Find yourself in a predicament? Instead of blaming others, why not take the time to make an honest self-assessment? If you are willing to be this ruthless with yourself, of understanding why you are where you are at this point in time, then you will be able to move forward from here. Clarity may not always be pleasant but there is beauty in the truth and, often, dramatic life changes can result.

The single thing you have control over is this: what are you prepared to do now? Are you content with blaming others, effectively avoiding progression, and ensuring your continuing plummet into mediocrity and irrelevance? Or are you prepared to take responsibility for your life and focus on your potential?

In my experience, moving forward requires your becoming completely fed up and disgusted with yourself--otherwise it's easier to give up and blame others when things get tough. People who give up at the first roadblock were never serious about the goal in the first place. Perhaps it sounded good or someone else recommended it to them. In contrast, when there's a real commitment, roadblocks are simply obstacles to blast though on the way to the goal. They are not only expected but overcome with full force and no regrets.

A good friend of mine always claimed to want his own business but the timing was never right. Then, one day he went to the office and was overcome by nausea. The idea of even one more day at that job caused him to feel sick to his stomach--a sure-fire sign he was ready to move on. The state of being completely fed up with yourself and your circumstances means you are ready to move on and push forward with full commitment. Pursuing a goal with an ambivalent or cavalier attitude is a red flag for ensuing failure.

Occasionally, people tell me that if their entrepreneurial pursuit fails to bear fruit, they'll just return to their old job. I tell them to give up now, since they lack sincerity in their effort. At such times, the last thing on your mind should be visions of your plans not working out. Focus so intently upon what it is you intend to achieve that such thoughts never enter the mind. That sort of negative reality only serves those people who strive for mediocrity, not those who wish to see positive--and dramatic--outcomes to their dreams.

Life seems not always fair, no doubt. Everyone encounters problems, ranging from the inconvenient to the immense, yet ultimately each of us must take individual charge of our lives. As long as you remain focused upon what others should be doing for you (i.e. the past), you cannot move forward into the future. This is the realm of the loser. Winners are too focused on what they can do--and are too busy doing it--to concern themselves with circumstances.

Live Life Aggressively!


With all the twists and turns life throws at us, sometimes we only realize which way is up when we have hit bottom.