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Monday, February 22, 2010

Dream Big vs. Quit Dreaming

If you grew up in the United States, you've probably been told these phrases time and time again throughout your life:

"You can do anything you set your mind to"
"When there's a will, there's a way"
"If you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything" (I think I heard this one on the Simpsons of all places).

This seems to sum up why the United States is viewed as the land of opportunity to many outsiders, because we are taught at a young age to dream big and pursue those dreams, no matter how outlandish they may seem, nor how many obstacles we may face. If a youngster in the U.S. says he wants to be an astronaut, then he is more likely to be encouraged than ridiculed.

There are some huge benefits to this way of thinking. The United States has a very high rate of ingenuity per capita, the second highest in the world behind Japan and significantly higher than the rate of France. Even with the economic crisis, people in the U.S. are equipped with the ability to change their ways of thinking and as a result, many (but by no means all) have created new jobs or found jobs in fields completely different from their previous occupation.

Another benefit that arises out of the American system is the ability to have a second chance. I can't count how many times someone has quit what they are doing to take a chance to follow their passion. My boss quit his well paid job in an accounting firm to start a bike tour company, which a decade later has become successful beyond imagination. Another friend of mine's father quit his job as a financial planner to open a restaurant, which did so well that he was able to open a second one. I could go on and on with these stories. Many seem to question, yet secretly admire the people who stop everything to pursue a long sought after dream.

The great thing is that higher education in the United States is more accessible than most anywhere in the world. If you decide to get through high school, even if your grades are poor, you can still get a college degree. Mind that degrees from certain colleges can hold greater weight than others, but the opportunities still exist. If you don't have enough money to attend college, if you work hard enough in school, you might be able to earn scholarships, which are plentiful, or one could attend a community college, where prices for tuition are significantly cheaper than a four year university. If you are 18 or 45, single or married, white or black, rich or poor, almost everyone that finishes high school can move on to the university level.

Something I did not realize until traveling abroad is that this mindset is not taught universally. Admittedly, there are many countries where opportunities such as those above really are impossible. It would be asinine for me to say that the chances for one to succeed financially or to achieve their aspirations are the same in Somalia or Afghanistan as they are in the U.S. But I do feel that I can safely say that citizens in both France and the United States have a fairly equal shot, given the right mindset, to follow one's dreams. However, the mindset is an important factor. Though there are exceptions, this mindset is a rarity in France.

In France, the system seems to want to avoid disappointment and encourage settling for something a little more realistic. If one tells their mother that they want to be an astronaut, they will probably hear "That's probably not going to happen." It seems that from a young age, people are taught to avoid too high of hopes so that when they are older, they seem less disappointed when they finally settle upon a profession. It's taught that it is a better idea to play it safe. I've met numerous highly intelligent people that are working at positions far below their potential, but still quasi-complacent because they feel lucky enough to at least have a job. The American ideal of dreaming big is almost laughable.

As I never attended school in France, I can't beat on and on about the education system, I can only go by what I am told and what I see. On the contrary, I can relate about the way of thinking that it seems to teach.

From personal experience, I remember when I first started dating Julie, she was working as a hostess in a company where she made minimum wage answering telephones for 6 hours a day. It was mind-numbing work and she loathed it, but it brought in a paycheck. I asked her if she thought about getting a different job, and she reacted by telling me, "I've dreamed of that, but then what will I do?" I told her that maybe it was time to take a chance and perhaps get into some work that she would like. The way she reacted provided evidence that she no longer thought she was crazy for wanting to leave her job to take the leap to find something more pleasant for a job. After a week of reflection, she turned in her letter of resignation and she suddenly saw the world in a completely different light. A month later she was dancing on the back of a truck down the Champs-Elysées promoting a DJ competition. Many of her former colleagues thought seemed to look at her as if she lost her mind for giving up a steady paying job to take a risk like this. Her parents were more vocal about expressing their concern. It wasn't the best paying job by any means, but as she loves dancing, she was far happier than she had been with her work in the previous years.

One year ago, Julie and I were back in the U.S., and I was contemplating attending law school for the fall of 2009. If I was going to be moving back to the U.S. to do studies, we'd have to find a way for her to come back as well, but neither of us were ready for marriage. Around the corner from my house is Webster University, which has a fairly reputable dance program. Why not give it a shot?

Julie couldn't even believe that this was an option. She was almost 26, and had never attended college in France. Was it possible to do it in the United States?

She spent some time practicing with the dance program, and filled out most of her application, and took the English as a Foreign Language exam (TOEFL). Julie speaks English very well, but I even had my doubts about how she could do it at a University level. Without even studying for the test, she received a high enough score to qualify to attend any public university in the United States. We were both shocked that she did so well. For me, that wasn't the only reason.

How is it, that in her home country, she was told that she was not destined to attend college, while in the United States, which contains 37 of the top 50 universities in the world (Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2009), she could actually attain a four year degree? It makes little sense to me.

To reiterate, I am no expert on the French education system, and far from it. I'm just writing down my observations about what ideas it seems to promote and how I see a marked contrast in the way those in the United States are raised. In addition, I am not saying that every American takes a chance and goes for some dream job, and far from it. There are plenty who hate their jobs, but will stick to them anyway because they have the obligation to bring in some income. My personal opinion is that people in the United States are more willing to take chances to reach their dream than here in France, where taking a risk while you have a paycheck can be considered foolish and unrealistic.

But maybe my experience is different than others. If you think so, let me know.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

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