Is the American Dream Holding You Back?

“Two weeks a year?! That’s IT?”

Sigh. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been drawn into this conversation. I’ve had it with Australians, with Germans, with Brits, all staring at me in wide-eyed amazement. They’ve probably just asked me why American’s don’t travel, a common enough question in Asia where I can go weeks without seeing another of my kind. I have a whole host of theories on that one, but it’s easiest for me to point out that well, most of us don’t really have time.

I get the same disbelieving look sometimes when I share with my friends back home that most first world countries get a minimum of 4 weeks of vacation time a year. It sounds so luxurious to be able to actually take a vacation longer than a week or two, to be able to actually visit another continent instead of squeezing in long weekend trips to see family. To be able to visit somewhere like Asia without having to quit your job or take a sabbatical. What a luxury of time.

Honestly though, it shouldn’t be a luxury. Recently I read an article on CNN entitled “Why Is America the No Vacation Nation?”It basically lamented the same issue I’ve been going on about across the world. Mainly that America is the only advanced nation in the world that doesn’t mandate employers give their workers vacation time.

I was nodding along enthusiastically with the article, then I made the classic mistake: I read the comments.

PoonjobAs it is the world thinks we’re fat, lazy and stupid. Some people work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Others work like dogs. If you want to be a bum, leave the USA and be fat, lazy and stupid in another country. Our work ethic is what makes us strong.

Ouch. I know Poonjob up there is just one person, but I’ve seen that attitude reflected in so many people. This idea that working like a dog is virtuous and personal enrichment is self-indulgent. As a country we don’t want to change- many people don’t even take advantage of the vacation time we have! Just look at poor Don Brock, profiled in the article. The last time he took even a week long vacation was ten years ago.

Look America- I love you, but your priorities are WAY out of whack.

if this is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

What are we working so hard FOR? It’s true that some people are just trying to make ends meet, to survive, and my quibble isn’t with them. For many Americans though, their needs are well met, and they still can’t wrap their heads around the idea of slowing down. For many Americans though, what we are working for is money. And things. We’ve been taught from a young age that what we really need is STUFF. A nice car, a nice phone, a nice designer handbag.

I’m sorry, but that’s crap. It’s a trick: an endless void of things we can throw money at: there’s always a new phone, a nicer car, a bigger house to be aspiring to. The problem with the American Dream is it’s always slightly out of reach.

Someone has played a cruel joke on us. They’ve taken advantage of our deeply engrained Protestant work ethic, our passion for being the best, and twisted us worker bees who can barely wrap our heads around the concept of time off.

I’m not a minimalist, I like shopping and owning nice clothes and I have an addiction to used book stores that I can not shake. It’s not wrong to want nice things, but maybe it’s time to start examining WHY we think we need them so much. Why has a country we take out massive loans and rack up loads of credit card debt for stuff we do not need. At this point, the stuff you own literally starts owning you.

It’s more insidious than that really. It’s a herd mentality, that I’ve railed against before: this idea that you need to do what everyone else is doing. This extreme pressure to go to school, get a job, work really, really hard for 45 years, and then maybe when you’re retired you can do the stuff you really want to do. It’s a powerful cycle and it’s extremely hard to opt out of it. I think, more so then the lack of vacation time, that is why Americans don’t travel: so few realize that the only American Dream you should be pursuing is your own personal one.

So- don’t think you can afford to travel the world? Maybe it’s time to think about what you’re paying for instead.

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184 thoughts on “Is the American Dream Holding You Back?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more… I sometimes wonder if we can be too greedy for the more. Because I don’t just want to travel and have freedom/flexibility. I also want community and I want a nice house and a good education for my children and a sense of accomplishment… And I want to save for some toys and some privileges… And on the list goes. We aren’t satisfied very easily.

    As exciting as it sounds in other countries, I wonder if the real challenge is to determine what we actually want and what we are willing to sacrifice to get if.

    You can’t always have your cake and eat it to!

  2. I think the author of this article is fairly presumptuous to assume that achieving happiness in one’s life requires travel and vacation. This speaks with a universal sense on an issue as un-universal as personal happiness. I personally hate to travel and I find the extravagant cost of hotels, flights, and rental cars not even close to worth the cost. The money my significant other and I spent on our last vacation could have paid for us to attend a pro sporting event and a concert every single day for 2 months, and that was a really cheap vacation. I think the authors enthusiasm for vacation plays right into his own discontent with the American dream. When all you are living for is the make enough money to escape your home life for a few weeks a year, maybe the answer isn’t more weeks of escape but instead improving and embracing the life you have in the area you live the rest of the year. Some people love travel, and that’s great, more power to them. But I know and observe so many people who strongly defend their vacation time and value it like it’s the only thing that will make their year of work worthwhile. More vacation time seems like a workaround to the actual problem for these people. This article suggests a societal-wide issue when one doesn’t necessarily exist.

    1. You definitely have a point- if you don’t like your life, no amount of vacation time is going to fix it. My point was less that American’s need more vacation time (although they certainly do), but that people should think outside the box and really examine what they want and why.

    2. Granted, Jim. But don’t you think that if you work all year long you’re entitled more than 10 of those weekdays to yourself?

      What you choose to do with that time is 100% your own business. But please understand that all of us need adequate time off if we are to live lives that are truly more in balance. Lack of time, or “time starvation” policies that are the norm in the USA but virtually unheard of in every other country on the planet, are literally killing us prematurely, enhancing the stress of everyday life, hurting our ties to family and friends and taking an awful toll on each and every one of us.

      Studies show that those people who work 44 to 48 weeks a year are MORE productive, overall, in the course of a full year, than those who work 50 to 52 weeks a year.

      On the surface, that seems that it can’t be true. But it is: Would we get “more done” if we “only” slept 3 hours every night? We we accomplish more, in our work and our lives, if we worked 18 hours a day, every single day?

      If you can accept the concept of “recharging the batteries” on a nightly basis, why wouldn’t the same hold true for the year as a whole.

      If you hate to travel, that’s your business; but we ALL deserve an adequate balance between work and life and all we have is this one lifetime. Please consider the needs for all us to have more time for any reason and help us build a more decent, humane and yes, PRODUCTIVE culture! Thank you.

  3. I love your blog and can learn so much from it. It is because I was looking for vacation club. After reading your blog I definitely agree with you and I won’t mention hear. I know I have not gone through all your blog but I am just looking for ways to travel without spending big. Thank you so much for your blog.

  4. Yes, yes and yes!!! It’s like you know my heart. I grew up in Hong Kong, traveled quite a bit within Asia growing up, then moved to the middle of Indiana right before my 17th birthday… You can imagine how stir crazy I was! Since then, I’ve lived in California, traveled to Mexico, all over Europe, all over Southeast Asia… and now, I’m back in Indiana. I have people telling me that they think it’s irresponsible for me to work for a while then travel for a month at a time, but I have trouble seeing the logic behind that statement… Here I am, almost 8 years after I moved away from my childhood home, and still in Indiana. I’ve been unwittingly sucked in to the ‘American dream’!

  5. I have actually been struggling with this a lot lately. I studied abroad in Europe during my junior year of college, and I caught the travel bug! I just graduated from college in May, and I raised eyebrows taking a year off before applying to medical school. I really do want to be a doctor, but I have travelled a lot in the last six months. The question I keep coming back to is, “Do I really have to start medical school now?” One of the things weighing on this decision is that I have student loans to pay off already, but once you start medical school, that’s it! You don’t really get a break until after residency… SEVEN years down the road! I just feel like there is so much living to do before I start to make a living.

  6. I’m Britsh & I think it’s alot worse for us than you Americans! If the average person sold their house & moved to usa, they’d get double the size home & have about 3 more cars. We get about 28days holiday & that’s if you can afford to go anywhere? Most people use it up to rest. I’ve had to quit 2 of my jobs in the past to travel..

    1. The one thing you guys do have going for you is cheap flights around Europe! When I lived in London i was jetting off somewhere every other weekend.
      The cost of living IS crazy though.

  7. Hi Steph,

    Thank you so much for this insightful and, dare I say, brave article. I found MYSELF nodding my head enthusiastically. I often say I work to live and not the other way around. Kudos for having the courage to “come-out-of-the-closet”. I still have a hard time admitting to friends and family that my idea of a quality life does NOT include working 50+ hour work weeks.

    I came upon your blog while I was researching Sayulita where I will be spending the next couple of months. I have read two of your other articles already! I’m enjoying your wit and keen observations. Keep up the good work!

  8. Ahhh Steph, it is so sadly true. It’s an exponential situation: work your ass off to afford the life you lead, the life you lead becomes more expensive as more money comes in, and such you must make more money to lead the life you are now somehow leading.

    Or you can keep the same iPhone for longer than 10 months.
    Drive a used car far past its due date.
    And save like a mo-fucka and go travel.

    It makes me sad to meet so few Americans on the road, not because I want to meet MORE Americans than I know, but because it means that nobody is getting out there!

    I know you by way of TBS, but have only recently perused your site, and I love love love it.


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