American Dream: Finding the Secret to Success

If the American Dream is an idea, then what is the American reality? Allow me to start with how I perceive the American Dream. I view the American Dream as a symbol of opportunity, an idea that facilitates individuals to realize their full potential, achieve success, and uplift their current socioeconomic status (SES).

The main factor that shapes a person’s American reality is SES. Many people myself included are born into impoverished families. Some call living in dearth the “American Nightmare” from which there is no escaping.

Although there is nothing beautiful about poverty, I do not adopt this viewpoint, just because American laws, for the most part, provide equality of opportunity for their citizens, allowing the American Dream to be attainable.

The same balance of opportunity is not afforded to citizens of other nations. I believe this is why the American Dream is unique and highly sought after by immigrants from other counties, my family included not long ago.

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Everyone under the American Dream starts at different levels of SES, creating more or fewer obstacles in the way of achieving success. Therefore, in the face of barriers how would one take advantage of the opportunity to manifest their potential and attain success in the U.S.?

One possible answer could be taking a stroll through your local Barnes & Noble in the self-help section. You will find plenty of successful authors who offer their advice on how to unlock your potential and achieve success. Three of these authors are Psychologist Carol Dweck with her “Growth Mindset,” Anders Ericsson with his “Deliberate Practice,” and Angela Duckworth with “GRIT.

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All three psychologists are certain their prescription for success is sound. Dweck’s answer lies in the psychology behind motivation more specifically self-perception and how it influences performance. Ericsson’s solution is how to apply that motivation into high-level performance.

Duckworth’s revelation comes in the form of perseverance. I think all three psychologists have good intentions, but they suggest one variable equation for success. I consider life to be a multi-variable equation. I believe in attaining your full potential and succeeding in the U.S you need good general intelligence and motivation. Lastly, if you are lucky enough, a strong family structure does not hurt your chances for success.

I mentioned two traits needed to navigate your way to the American Dream. I indicated one circumstance that could increase or decrease obstacles on the path to the dream. I will define intelligence first, and then I will explain why it is needed to achieve success. Intelligence is a controversial topic. I believe this is mainly due to IQ testing and the misappropriation of the test results.

Examples of this I consider appalling catastrophes are the Eugenics Movement formulated by Francis Galton to the 1994 publication of “The Bell Curve” by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. The overwhelming misuses of IQ test results have a profound influence on every aspect of American life from government policies to academics. These areas are significant obstacles on the path to achievement of success.

Nonetheless, IQ is still is the most extensively researched, reliable indicator of general intelligence and potential future performance. Several theories propose multiple intelligences, but there is much overlapping in the functions of these intelligences’ that one is lead back to the question; are these functions just one intelligence.

Therefore, what is general intelligence and what is its served purpose? My definition of intelligence is one offered by Educational Psychologist Linda Gottfredson describes:

“[Intelligence] involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Instead, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings “catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.” (Gottredson)

This simplicity of this explanation struck a deep chord within me. Whether you are SpaceX CEO Elon Musk or a single parent working to support your children, Linda is describing essential mental functions we use every day in every aspect of our lives.

I challenged myself to think of any situation where the above describe qualities were neither present nor needed. I could not find one example. I encourage you to try to find one example. I believe the fatal flaw in the work of the previously mentioned psychologists Dweck, Ericsson, and Duckworth is in the fact they minimize or ignore general intelligence and put motivation at the forefront of their idea.

Factually, it is the other way around; intrinsic and extrinsic motivations reveal and guide your intelligence. This is the reason having a good general intelligence is a vital element in the formula of success.

Motivation is the second trait I mention needed to achieve success. Motivation can be broken into two types, intrinsic and extrinsic; both are very important for obtaining and maintaining success. Allow me to give a brief definition of the two kinds of motivation. Intrinsic is engaging in an internally rewarding behavior.

Extrinsic is engaging in behavior driven by external rewards. Dweck, Ericsson, and Duckworth philosophies are rooted in the domain of motivation. I will explain how each psychologist promotes motivation and point out potential flaws in each.

Carol Dweck promotes Two Mindsets. Growth and fix mindsets are how Dweck categorizes the motivation of people into two groups. Growth mindset “is the belief that intelligence can be developed.”(Dweck) Fixed mindsets are people who believe “intelligence is fixed.”(Dweck) Dweck explains the conclusion of her mindset research:

“In collaboration with my graduate students, we have shown that what students believe about their brains-whether they see their intelligence as something that’s fixed or something that can grow and change- has profound effects on their motivation, learning, and school achievement.”(Dweck)

Notice the wordplay Dweck uses to blend several distinctively different traits; belief, intelligence, and motivation into a seductive and misleading practice called Growth mindset. Is she suggesting that we teach people to believe their general intelligence can grow and change, that believing is enough to raise one’s IQ? Countless research has concluded, “IQ tends to remain relatively stable over the lifespan.”( Kaufman)

The important phrase here is relatively stable. Carol exploits “relatively stable” to impose her Growth Mindset onto the ongoing educational psychology conversation. The significance behind the IQ staying “relatively stable” is “Developmentally speaking; an individual’s intelligence is not fixed at birth.”( Kaufman)

The fact is that intelligence development is not a product of a growth mindset; it has to do with the cortical maturation. In the closing of the study-Stability of Individual Differences in Mental Ability from Childhood to Old Age: Follow-up of the 1932 Scottish Mental Survey Ian Deary and Lawrence Whalley released this statement:

“Brainy children are not cleverer solely by virtue of having more or less grey matter at any one age. Rather, intelligence is related to the dynamic properties of cortical maturation.”( Deary and Whalley)

I believe this raises suspicions as to the misleading nature of Dweck’s Two Mindsets philosophy. The growth mindset is an overly complicated attempt to instill intrinsic motivation into young students. I ask myself why educational psychologists like Dweck do not direct their motivation to how academics can unlock individual students’ intrinsic motivation as opposed to prescribing a placebo pill of motivation.

Our next Psychologist’s work is the centerpiece of Colvin article “What It Takes to Be Great’. The article is about Anders Ericsson Deliberate Practice. In which Ericsson describes how motivation can be harness into focused high repetition practice, which in turn can allow someone to achieve high-level performance and success. It is important to note that deliberate practice is a form of extrinsic motivation because the practice goal set is an external reward.

As opposed to painting, the intrinsic value is in the process of creating the work not necessarily in the finished artwork. Colvin uses many examples of famous people to strengthen the argument in favor of deliberate practice. Examples used range from Tiger Woods to Warren Buffet. Despite all the name-dropping to inspire a wide range of audiences, Ericsson’s work leads to success in limited fields. Brooke Macnamara tested the effectiveness of deliberate practice; here are the results:

“We [have] conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”.(Macnamara)

Therefore, what this means for succeeding through deliberate practice is, if your goal is to become a successful athlete this can help. If you aspire to graduate college or become a successful CEO, deliberate practice does little to evaluate your chances of achieving your goal.

Our final psychologist, Angela Duckworth’s GRIT, it is more of a philosophical idea than having to do with the psychology behind motivation. Duckworth defines GRIT as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”(Duckworth)  Valerie Straus, a writer for The Washington Post interprets as Duckworth saying “Life is hard, grit tells us, but good things come to those who tough it out.”(Straus)

Duckworth believes that GRIT is more important than intelligence. I find her work lacking in any serious scientific research. In addition to this, I find her work very harmful and personally insulting for families and individuals on the lower end of SES. I am not alone in this view, once again Straus states:

“My investigation led me to two conclusions. The first is that the widespread assumption that grit is a salient concept for low-income students is a stark misconception. The second is that while grit theory offers little of value to those disadvantaged students, it can certainly harm them, by romanticizing hardship.”(Straus)

What Straus is expressing is that children of low SES families already have GRIT due to hardship usually related to poverty. Duckworth is doing these children no favor in glorifying, repacking and selling these children their survival skills back to them. GRIT is a philosophy

that acts under-exploiting low SES families and promotes ignoring the problems that usually come along with low SES. Duckworth’s mishandling of motivation compels me to talk about the reality of the children she takes advantage of to make a monetary profit in my personal opinion, children who share my childhood in not having a strong family structure and how it increases the challenges, they face in achieving success.

Allow me to explain; my mother had me at the age of 15. My dad abandoned her and chose drugs and the nightlife over being a father. Luckily, I had great grandparents who helped raise me so my mother could finish school and work. Many children are not that blessed, and the above situation turns into the following statistics. Let me start with a statement by former President Barack Obama:

“children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it”. (Obama)

Since 1965 to 2015, single mother births have risen dramatically. “Blacks went from 25% to 73%, Whites 5% to 25%, Hispanics 24% to 53%”. (CDC, National Vital Statistics Report) “This rise in single-parent birth coincides with Presidents Johnson war on poverty.”(Elder)

In turn, effectively incentivized women like my mother the option to marry the government “welfare state” and men like my father to abandon their responsibilities. Based on the statistics given above I think it is safe to say that a strong family structure has taken a hit over the years.

What do these statistics mean for children of low SES families? The statistics mean these children are more vulnerable to living in poverty, more likely exposed to crime and violence, behavior problems and more at risk for not completing school. Despite my blessings, I have experienced every one of these things before turning 18.

Allow me to explain how these statistics can affect a child’s intelligence and motivation to achieve let alone visualize success. The stressor of poverty is enough to cripple an adult. So imagine the stress on children, who not only deals with poverty themselves but also deals with the effects poverty has on their parent. Under this type of pressure, a hormone called cortisol is released and is known to:

“[Cortisol] curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear”. (Mayo)

Constant exposure to this hormone causes anxiety, depression, and memory and concentration problems. This can affect the functions and performance of general intelligence, which is closely linked to memory and concentration. Another challenge is healthy nutrition for low SES children.

For these children “inadequate nutritional support, at least in part, [can] delay cortical maturation” (Keunen) mentioned earlier, is vital in the early development of intelligence. Lastly, let me speak on the results of dealing with depression in connection to cortisol. At the age of 21, I was diagnosed with chronic depression.

Chronic depression never goes away; it may just lay dormant for varying lengths of time. Any depression will strip motivation right out of you. I was fortunate enough to seek and afford help as an adult on how to deal with depression and panic attacks. Many low SES children will not receive this privilege.

Low SES children are at high risk for all the conditions as mentioned above. The impact on their education let alone success is catastrophic. Based on my empirical evidence, a strong family structure may not stop the effects of poverty on children and their future, but it can help their chances to navigate through it to have a future not ending in the above statistics.

After reading all the required texts for this essay, I notice an undertone of educational reform authorities with their philosophies and how they can be applied to academic success leading to lifetime achievement. On the surface, this sounds like a blueprint to the traditional American Dream.

Graduate from college, get a job, get married, and buy a house. However, upon closer examination, I take away from people like Dweck, Ericsson, and especially Duckworth. That trends and ideas moving through educational reform seem to target underprivileged children as experiments for their views.

The only people who suffer from the failure of the concept are the children. I ask the reader to examine and question any plan or policy that does not clearly and directly state its support in nurturing healthy intelligence and help children find their intrinsic motivation. Which I believe are two qualities that will sustain one on their journey to success and their version of the American Dream.

Work Cited

  • CDC, National Vital Statistics Report CDC. “National Center for Health Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 July 2018,
  • Colvin, Geoffrey., Fortune Media Group Holdings, 17 Oct. 2006,
  • Deary, Ian J, and Lawrence J Whalley. “The Stability of Individual Differences in Mental Ability from Childhood to Old Age: Follow-up of the 1932 Scottish Mental Survey.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 9 Mar. 2000,
  • Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Ted, TEDx, Apr. 2013,
  • Dweck, Carol S. “Brainology.” NAIS – Brainology, National Association of Independent Schools, 2008, Winter,
  • Elder, Larry. “Black Fathers Matter.” PragerU, Dennis Prager, 13 June 2016,
  • Gottfredson, Linda S. “Mainstream Science on Intelligence: An Editorial With 52 Signatories, History, and Bibliography .”, University of Delaware , 17 Dec. 1994,
  • Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Intelligence Is Still Not Fixed at Birth.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 21 Oct. 2011
  • Keunen, Kristin. “Impact of Nutrition on Brain Development and Its Neuroprotective Implications Following Preterm Birth.” NCBI, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health , 14 Oct. 2014,
  • Macnamara, Brooke N, et al. “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis.” Sage Journals, APS, Association of Psychological Science, 1 July 2014,
  • Mayo. “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 Apr. 2016,
  • Obama, Barrack H. “Obama’s Father’s Day Remarks.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 June 2008, Transcript of remarks at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago
  • Strauss, Valerie. “The Problem with Teaching ‘Grit’ to Poor Kids? They Already Have It. Here’s What They Really Need.”
  • The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 May 2016,

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American Dream: Finding the Secret to Success. (2019, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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