The American Dream vs. True Wealth

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: The first time the American Dream was written about and called “the American Dream” was in 1931 by writer James Truslow Adams. You were alive during this time. Back then, how did you and people, in general, think of the American Dream?

JM: I can’t ever remember the term “American Dream” back in those days. I can’t remember anyone talking about the American Dream. We were just trying to survive.

BW: Approximately when was the first time you heard the term?

JM: I think I was beginning to hear it more in the 1960s and 1970s. It coincided with the rise of affluence in the post-World War II era. People began to have the feeling “I can have more in my life.” And that’s when people also began to believe more and more, “The sky’s the limit.”

BW: The American Dream, in tradition, means the possibility for every person to reach their full potential regardless of what social class or background he or she comes from. People in most cultures are defined, labeled, and restricted by some form of class system. The American Dream in the most positive sense means people aren’t defined by what social class they come from. All people are considered equal and have the freedom to develop and express their gifts and talents to the fullest extent possible leading to creativity, new ideas and better models, innovation, invention, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship that gives opportunities for many other people. They bring the best of different cultures and with hard work and perseverance, create something fresh and new. But in reality, the American Dream has come to almost strictly mean the achievement of material success. You haven’t arrived unless you’ve climbed as high as you can up the social ladder, achieved this or that, or you have x,y,z material possessions, or reached a certain income level, or acquired a certain amount of wealth. Everything is defined according to the material. You lived a long time in America and have been through personal crises such as bankruptcy and foreclosure as well as global crises such as World War II and the Great Depression, so I believe you have earned the right to comment on this. Have you thought of another definition of the American Dream?

JM: No, because I think it’s undefinable. It’s a big, fat abstraction.

BW: You can’t deny that what people call the American Dream over time, has come to be associated with obtaining a higher standard of living and this is usually defined in material terms.

JM: That’s true.

BW: Do you feel, in our culture, we have the wrong definition of what wealth is?

JM: Oh yeah. I do.

BW: Have you thought of what true wealth is?

JM: A great deal.

BW: What is true wealth?

JM: The common conception of wealth has to do with things outside of yourself. So if a person has a big house, they would say he’s wealthy. If he has a beautiful car, he’s wealthy. If he takes his family to Hawaii every year, he’s wealthy. Everything people think about with wealth has to do with things outside of ourselves. I have come to realize that true wealth has to do with everything inside of you. Are you happy with yourself? Do you find joy in life? Are you doing things that you love to do? On and on and on. It has to be very personal, in my view. And so a person could be relatively poor in terms of things and money, but be very rich in terms of genuine wealth. But the word wealth to most people means money and things. Not me though.

BW: A poor person would argue you need a certain amount of material wealth in order to survive, be minimally comfortable. You were poor yourself and you reached a point in your consulting where you wanted to be paid more...

JM: Right. It’s important to realize that we need to be earning enough money to pay the bills, to have money set aside for emergencies, to have money for aging and all those things. It’s very, very important to be building work where we can have that kind of money. You’re quite right. It’s where the money becomes dominant. If a person is relatively well off, say has a decent home, the kids are through school, and they are able to put aside money for the future and so forth, that’s one type of person. But what happens with a lot of people is that they come to believe that they need to become wealthy to be happy. And wealthy can mean many different things, but people who, no matter what they have, how much they have, who keep saying, “It’s not enough, it’s not enough. I need a bigger house. I need a better car”—they’ve let their desire for money become too dominant.

BW: So it’s the belief that’s the issue. It’s not the money or the material goods themselves. The real problem is that people believe if they horde a lot of money and acquire a lot of things, they’re going to be happy and secure once and for all.

JM: Yes.

BW: It’s sort of automatically assumed that once you obtain material wealth, you’re going to be secure once and for all, and be protected from the vicissitudes of life, but nothing could be further from the truth.

JM: That’s right.

BW: Your money doesn’t protect you from anything, not in the long run. It even attracts a whole other set of problems.

JM: Right.

BW: So it’s this belief that you can obtain security with money—that’s the issue, that’s the problem. This belief, along with consumerism, drives a lot of our economy—this belief that if you’re successful with money and own the right things, you are going to be secure and happy once and for all—but the ups and downs in the economy have proven this to be a form of false security, a belief in a false security.

JM: Yes, it’s a belief in a false security.

BW: So would you say true security is in the intangibles, say things of the spirit, a relationship with God...

JM: Yes, true security is definitely spiritual in nature.