“Pick Yourself”

I posted here about my father watering the seeds in his learning packet of “Find Meaningful Work”. His first-in- his-family goal of going to college and his willingness to lay hard wood floors to pay for it was the main factor of my father realizing his dreams. He is the Classic American Dream story–start with nothing, work hard, get educated, get a good job and achieve the Dream. On a trip recently I was talking to a woman who was telling me that the minimum wage has remained stagnant for years and the possibility of the American Dream is over. I couldn’t disagree more. I see people living the dream all around me–my married tenants who have shared with me out how they have gotten through school with no debt, each working jobs during school, hustling in the summer between semesters and driving a crummy  car with plastic put up for a broken window . I also recently talked to a painter from Peru  who charged a hefty, but fair price for painting a couple of rooms for me. He told me of his plans to buy real estate and how his painting business has taken off. He had put a notice in my mail box and that’s how I hired him. He was so excited to share his future plans with me. The secret to the American dream is to be awake and work. The American Dream goes south when we aren’t aware of loans we are signing up for or feel stuck in a low wage job. Even then, we can dig ourselves out.  People are figuring it out all around me–all races, income levels and ages. Listening to the media or people who insist we can’t prosper anymore is not going to propel us forward. Stop listening to those who say we can’t.

Seth Godin, the business author and blogger, said:

“The opportunity of a lifetime is to pick yourself. Quit waiting to get picked; quit waiting for someone to give you permission; quit waiting for someone to say you are officially qualified… and pick yourself.”

One of my favorite books on achieving the American Dream is The Ditchdigger’s Daughters. It is a memoir about growing up poor and Black  in Philadelphia in a family of six girls. The father, Donald Thorton did menial labor–a ditch digger–and their mother, Iztasker,  was a maid. Donald was determined that he would raise his daughters to be doctors. That is an audacious, hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark dream given the poverty that surrounded them. The book chronicles how they formed a family band to earn money for everyone’s education and the grit and hustle they did  through years of hard work. In the book Donald is controlling in the way parents were in earlier times. As I have thought about it I realized if I was doing hard menial labor or cleaning people’s houses everyday  I would put the same energy the Thortons  did into putting education at the forefront of their family’s life. They did this  in order to change their daughter’s futures. The Thorton daughters ended up figuring  out their way in life with their parent’s strong template placed over it.  They had to learn to  be strong to tell their father what they wanted to do. Did they achieve their father’s dream? 

Four did go into medicine. Yvonne, who wrote the book, is an obstetrician-gynecologist. Linda became an oral surgeon, and Jeanette is a psychiatrist. Betty became a nurse and Rita, the youngest, got a  BS in chemistry,  a law degree and then  worked as a chemist for 17 years. She  got  a PhD in 2005  in environmental science becoming the fourth doctor in this remarkable family. The oldest sister Donna and the only one without a degree in science became a court stenographer. Her career choice was still  meaningful for her and eclipsed her parents hard, humble  jobs.  

The Thortons  taught their children to creatively work their way through obstacles. They didn’t take no for an answer.   When a bank wouldn’t accept Donald’s mortgage application because he was Black,  he bought land with their savings  and built the house bit by bit, buying ten to twenty  concrete blocks at a time, finally finishing the house. He didn’t let someone else decide if he could have a house or not. He “picked” himself to build and own a home.

Helping our children learn to “pick themselves” will change them. When they come to us and want to start a business, or build a sled in our garage, let them and encourage them. Limiting their screen time , teaching them to work and sacrifice around the home, and then later with a paid job outside our house will help give them a head start in reaching their full potential. Doing hard things will help them feel like this is a normal way to live. Allowing “teenage retirement”, where our children don’t work at a job, is not teaching them how the world works. Encourage the hustle and grit it takes to succeed!

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