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Can You Still Get Rich In America?

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 12: Pioneer Steve Jobs is displayed in memoriam onstage at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The American Dream

There is a very thin line between the American Dream and the American Nightmare.

“What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.” — Mark Twain, 1871.

Twain might as well have been voicing that same sentiment in 2013 as well as the 1870’s. Most people in America today feel that if you have been successful in life you must have followed the principles laid out in Twain’s quote.

It’s not possible to get rich in America unless you do it illegally or unethically. And that economic belief somewhat tarnishes the American Dream for most Americans. Many feel they have bought a losing ticket in life’s lottery.

How is Wealth Acquired?

According to the Forbes List of richest Americans, only about 30% have inherited their wealth. The Walton family is the most notable of those. The other 70% did it the Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, way. They started with an idea and made that idea work. Any mistake along the way could have put any of these well-established companies out of business.

For example, Circuit City is gone yet Best Buy is still here; Borders Books gone, Barnes & Noble still going, Linen’s and Things are out of business and Bed, Bath & Beyond if filling that void. Famous names like Montgomery-Ward and Mervyn’s are out of business.

Why? Because all of these companies were unable to adapt to the very people who are classified as the victims in the wealth scenario — their customers. Without the customer no business can survive.

Good Cop; Bad Cop

I’m not going to try to sell you on the idea that everyone who acquires great wealth is a nice guy or gal. Many are not. But that doesn’t mean that they are not genuinely honest ethical people.  The one overwhelming truth if capitalism is this, “No one stays in business long unless you help someone.” Two businesses in Bozeman, Montana. Owenhouse Hardware and Kenyon-Noble Lumber have been in business over 100 years.  That can’t happen unless you satisfy customers day in and day out.

By all accounts Steve Jobs was not a jolly happy person at work. The story is he once fired someone riding with him in an elevator. But the effect of Job’s work is undeniable. Almost everyone in the world has been touched in some way by his vision.

Income Inequality

Almost every day I see news reports about the inequality of pay between average workers and CEO’s. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer is the cry of the supposed have-nots. I don’t think there has been a time in history where this gap has not existed.

From 1870 to 1900, the so-called “Gilded Age,” the industrial revolution began and the early crop of millionaires began to surface.  At the same time poverty, particularly in the south, was rampant. Immigrants were swarming to America because poverty here, while extremely unpleasant, was so much better than where they came from. There are countless stories of immigrant’s who came to America with nothing and were able to work, start businesses and prosper in spite of the language barriers and discrimination.

Some Final Thoughts

Is it still possible to become rich in America? The very short and accurate answer is yes. And you can do it on your own. I’m not saying that you don’t consult people in the know to help you but businesses are started everyday with an idea and an empty wallet.

The biggest difference between the entrepreneur of the Gilded Age and today’s American is very simple. The pioneers of the early 20th century went after the American Dream; today people expect the dream to be handed to them.

Of Twain’s two options I believe the honest approach will insure that your business will prosper and endure longer than if you had chosen the dishonest path. Have you got the next big idea?

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