Ambition Won’t Save Us
Neither will the American Dream.
Central to our national mythology in the United States is the belief that hard work and determination will enable anyone to achieve the good life of comfort, pleasure, and financial security.
In two new books, authors Alissa Quart and Rainesford Stauffer argue that constant striving in pursuit of success isn’t enough to make us healthy, happy, or prosperous. In a conversation with YES! Books Editor Valerie Schloredt, they explain why it’s time to rethink our relationship to the toxic American Dream.
Valerie Schloredt: At YES!, we do solutions journalism, and I found both your books chock-full of solutions of different kinds, which was very helpful. Alissa, can you give a bit of background about the title of your book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream?
Alissa Quart: I talked to a kind of NPR person who said, “That’s a dangerous subtitle.” I’ve sometimes thought it should’ve been something a little more like “reclaiming the American Dream,” and I was like, “Nah, because the American Dream I’m arguing for is partially the old American Dream, which was coined in 1931 as something more communitarian and more open to collective possibility.” We need to be thinking: How do we get past this story about doing everything on our own? As I say in my book, if you think you’re self-made, call your mother. The big point I’m making is that the American Dream is a lie. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is an impossibility, and it has been since it was coined as a joke in 1834. All the early iterations of this idea were satire, and then suddenly someone believed it was real.
The mythology was created by people we respect today, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and by people we respect less, like Horatio Alger and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I call Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie a “little house of propaganda” because it’s very much about Pa and Ma doing it themselves. Wilder hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt and you can kind of see that was the point of those books. That thinking has continued in our political life from Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan to even the Clintons, the things they’ve said about us having to do everything on our own, that if you depended on any so-called entitlements, you could be considered a welfare queen. I see my book as a critique of that and try to offer ways forward without shame and blame for the ways that we depend on each other and the state.
Schloredt: Shame and blame is a great segue into Rainesford’s book because it’s partly about how we internalize so much and shame others. You both write about how the philosophy of bootstrapping, and the American Dream lends itself to blaming anyone who isn’t really very comfortable in the system, and certainly people in financial distress. Rainesford, you talk a lot about how we shame and blame ourselves because we’ve internalized this philosophy and this dream, which is really a con.
Rainesford Stauffer: It is, and I think that’s because the definition of ambition or these kinds of offshoots of ambition—bootstrapping, high achiever, overachiever, or the “grind life” mentality—are so narrow and are meant to uplift a certain kind of person and a certain kind of ambition, while holding everyone else to that standard, conveniently forgetting the fact that by design, our version of what it means to achieve has always been impacted by class, by race, by personal preference, by personal circumstance, by things that are so far outside any of our control. Even things like grief, moving, having a family, all of these decisions that we make in our day-to-day lives impact what we strive for, how we strive, as do, of course, the resources we do or do not have to have ambitions at all. One of the things that comes to mind when we talk about shame and blame for me is how early this becomes something that runs through the veins of what it means to be a high achiever.
Young people, children, it’s enforced so early in school, what it means to be a good student, a good learner, a good listener, and somewhere along the way, we’ve really contorted that to also mean good person. And so of course, if the only solutions given to you are individual ones, you’re going to internalize those and think, “Well, if I had only studied harder, if I had only done a little bit more, if I had pulled that one all-nighter, why can this person next to me manage just fine and I can’t?” It does become very internalized. The true shame is that we have a bunch of people from a very early point in life internalizing blame that really belongs on the institution and the systems.
Schloredt: Rainesford, I really liked the design of the cover of your book, All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive. The gold star stickers have a 3D effect. I found it very powerful, because even at age 63, I still respond positively to a gold star. That’s how well trained we are to be motivated by the so-called rewards in the game. If you’re motivated by these kinds of rewards and symbols, then you’ve also internalized the opposite side, which is blaming ourselves and blaming others when we aren’t lucky, we’re not privileged, or despite having done everything according to plan, things still don’t work out because the system is rigged. We can’t all be winners, right? You both write about the system setting us up to compete with each other.
Quart: I’m arguing for this thing I call “the art of interdependence.” We think of dependence or interdependence as codependency. It has a negative connotation. But I’m arguing that it takes a lot of skill and craft to be interdependent, to be in a family system, to be a colleague, to get welfare, to get unemployment. I wrote about what’s called “the administrative burden,” or the time tax it takes to get your needs met by your society. To get your medical insurance or send your kid to summer camp, forms and forms and forms. That’s an art, but so is caring for people, doing work together, doing mutual aid, joining a workers’ cooperative. Things like participatory budgeting, a relatively new system where people in cities participate in the allocation of sometimes millions of dollars, has taken off in cities around the country. And to me, that’s another great example of our art of interdependence. These were people who sometimes knew nothing about politics; they were just like local folks, and they were learning what it takes to create a commonwealth. We need to build this up as a set of skills.
One of the chapters I’m proudest of is about what I call “inequality therapy.” Inequality therapy tries to take individual psychological care out of this individualistic setup as far as I can tell; for a lot of liberals, their version of bootstrapping is sometimes self-actualization. This is what Rainesford talks about with burnout—you and I might not believe that we can do everything on our own economically, but we probably believe that we can heal ourselves, right? We can grind through any work assignment, right? It’s not about making it but it’s about completion of tasks or self-becoming without the aid of a counselor or therapist. So inequality therapy is like peer-to-peer counseling or even an extreme sliding scale with therapists who are willing to talk about people’s financial struggles and not just see them as people who have early trauma or something. I talked to a number of people who both participate in these new kinds of therapy or are themselves practitioners. So there’s so many ways to be gracefully and skillfully dependent on one another, and we should take advantage of them.
Stauffer: That was one of the most illuminating chapters of your book for me. I felt like it finally articulated something that I knew existed. I’d seen this idea that we’re going to either hustle or self-esteem our way out of everything show up in my own life. It’s so detrimental, but it persists because it’s the law of individualism. It’s the law that we can do it all on our own and that ambition is enough. When I first started thinking about how I would write about ambition, something that struck me were all of these how-tos on how to make yourself more ambitious, how to speak up more, how to raise your self-esteem, how to be more confident in your workplace or when you’re applying to jobs. I certainly think there’s a place for that kind of advice if people have decided to seek it out. But to me, that misses the larger framing of what we’re supposed to be operating within—very narrow confines of ambition and this idea that you’re still supposed to fix the problem yourself. It’s not fixing a problem with your workplace or with the fact that you aren’t paid a living wage. Hustle is presented as an opportunity. That makes it doubly insidious because we have to live with the knowledge that we know we’re not going to get there alone. None of our lives are constructed that way. And yet, that’s what’s pushed time and time again. The solution is more work, work a little harder. If you do a little more, you’ll be in a better place.
Quart: I noted this when I was reading your book too, because “the con of the side hustle” is what I call it, and it was interesting. We talked to mothers and [the writer on motherhood] Angela Garbes on a podcast. When you’re parenting, that is already a side hustle. So beyond side hustle, it’s often the central hustle. Parenting makes a lot of these storylines impossible and that’s why they’re masculinist, because there’s a denial of parenthood, of origins, and then the denial of the burden and the dependence of having a child. You have to do that to think that you can hustle and self-esteem your way into, as you put it, success.
My favorite part of my research was finding out all the hypocrisy of some of the wealthiest people today. Jeff Bezos’ well-to-do parents provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in startup funds. Some people were saying that Elon Musk’s father [allegedly] owned mines, but we just know that he came from a wealthy background. According to Subsidy Tracker, Tesla received nearly $2.5 billion in federal grants and tax credits. Yet, Musk continues to reject social programs for other people. So one of the solutions is calling people to account who deny the needs of others when taking and taking for themselves. It’s often people at the very top of the power structure who do that.
Schloredt: That’s one of the many solutions you recommend in the book, which is so helpful. Another thing you recommended is being honest about our own dependence, our own vulnerabilities, and giving credit to the things and people that have helped us. There needs to be a greater honesty about where we come from, who we owe, and what we need.
Quart: Bob McKinnon, who does a show called Attribution, got me thinking. He interviewed me and he was like, “OK, tell me the people who inspired you or supported you when you were young.” I just quickly had this thought. I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is a public magnet school in Manhattan, in the late ’80s. I thought of the novelist Frank McCourt because he had been an English teacher there, and he himself is a great example of somebody who didn’t get all the gold stars until he was 60. He was a high school teacher reciting the story of the tales of his youth in Ireland. But he told me I was a born writer and I was like 13 years old. I think of him often. It was good to be able to say that out loud. I’m working on these kinds of gratitude mantras, but I don’t know if I can ever comfortably say I’m grateful in a general sense. But I feel like saying thanks for different people and being really specific is a lot easier. My book is a form of self-help. Rainesford, I don’t know if you consider your book that too, but speaking your dependence is a form of self-help, because you realize that you have a community with you and you’re less alone. That itself is nurturing.
Stauffer: Absolutely. That’s one of the most insidious things about this idea that we earn everything we get, that we earned it by ourselves, and thus owing something or someone giving us something must automatically be a negative thing. That misses so much. It’s the greatest honor of my life to owe people, to have people in the boat with me, to have a community that keeps me in check, that helps me, that makes me think about things differently. They’re there when I have completely fallen apart, which is something I talked about fairly extensively in the book. When I was going through a very hard time, the thing I had reached for in the past—ambition—really did not save me. What did save me were other people and this idea of interdependence. I just love how the idea that interdependence is the thing that can carry us came through every line of your book.
Quart: Yeah it is. It’s interesting, when the girlboss thing was running rampant, I was screaming in the wilderness. Now everybody knows. My particular hatred is for Lean In, but it widens out to another set of these girlbosses. I saw it as a betrayal of parts of the feminist movement. Instead of thinking about having the collective consciousness, we’re thinking about how to succeed, how to get individuals, who were probably going to lose their jobs for doing this, to aggressively ask for raises when the labor market wasn’t hot. I just think that’s depressing, that kind of self-help is depressing. Whereas this kind of interdependent, radical self-help is, to me at least, a lot less depressing. I think of my dear colleague, Barbara Ehrenreich, who just passed away. Her book [Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream] was really incredible and way before its time. Almost 20 years ago, she was offering a takedown of this kind of self-help. The fact that it still lingers means people have not been as critical of it as they should. But I think they’re starting to learn. The pandemic showed that you can’t self-esteem your way out of this stuff. It’s not enough.
Schloredt: Barbara Ehrenreich also wrote a book about the positive thinking industry around cancer. I hope we understand now that we can’t cure COVID through positive thinking. Both your books argue for a change in the way that we think in the United States about our system and about each other. Rainesford, your book addresses your generation’s situation. You’ve also done that in your other writing, which is very relevant. I’m a parent of a daughter who’s about your age, and while reading both books, I thought a lot about the relative privilege of white middle-class people 30 years ago and how that compares with where we are now. It seems harder now to crack the American system.
Stauffer: There’s a very unique amount of pressure on young people today. I’m a millennial. I’m 29. My younger sister’s generation has a whole other set of expectations that, to me, seem completely unfathomable and unrealistic. What began as pressure to have your life figured out at college graduation is now you need to have it all figured out by 16. We have future planned America’s youth out of a childhood and a young adulthood. Part of the reason that happens is because we still feed the [bootstrapping] myth in school. If you work as hard as you can, there’s going to be a good result at the end.
I think that does immeasurable amounts of harm, especially when we zoom back and look at where we are as a country right now. Even just if we isolate the past couple of years alone, what young people have been expected to come of age in, and largely do that without any acknowledgement that they are first and foremost human beings who are impacted by all this trauma, who are impacted by lost jobs—their own or their parents’—being paid below a minimum wage, not being able to pay rent, all of these things impact how someone makes the way their way through the world. For us to act like that’s somehow separate from how they feel about themselves as they’re being expected to do all of these things just really misses the mark. I think all the time about a young person I spoke to who was talking about very well-meaning people giving her advice when she was in college, “If you fail, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s an F, it’s OK.” She told me very clearly and very candidly that the worst thing that could happen if she fails is that she drops out and she can no longer afford to retake the class that she needs to graduate, because she doesn’t make enough at her job to put herself through that class again. As long as we ignore the systemic and structural stakes young people are up against, we’re really letting them down.
Schloredt: Alissa, you’re a parent.
Quart: Yeah, I’m listening to this. I’m not gonna lie, student loan debt is $1.7 trillion. I know President Joe Biden just passed student loan forgiveness, but that’s tied up in the courts. Fewer than half of American adults say they have enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, according to a recent survey. This is not even the America I grew up in 30–40 years ago. Part of this is making these structural shifts, but also acknowledging that to ourselves and each other. Having a kid made this really important. To talk about where you’re at financially with your kid or with other parents if you need to, to explain why you can’t do pick up because you don’t have a babysitter—and this comes up—and maybe you could pull carpool. You have to work, maybe some other parents don’t, but to be really explicit. This is not an easy America right now. My last book was called Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, and it was about a lot of middle-class families and the secrecy that’s circled around their feelings of precarity. There’s the same advice here. In some ways, it’s just explaining and being honest. My daughter would be like, “Why is there that homeless person?” And also, “Why can’t we live in that giant house?” I’d have to explain, “Well, that’s somebody who’s experiencing homelessness, and maybe they didn’t have family support at some point or other. And that giant house, they definitely did have family support.” This is how inherited wealth works.
Again, this is part of the radical self-help. Living in truth is really important, especially around financial matters. People are more secretive about that than they are about sex. If you were born in 1940, your chance of reproducing your parents’ successes was 92%. The chance of somebody born in the ’80s reproducing it was less than 50%. I hope showing the lived reality on the ground and some of those numbers make people feel common cause like, “OK, I have those feelings.”
[That’s] part of why in Bootstrapped I interviewed people who depend on GoFundMe for their medical bills, but I also interviewed a former girlboss—up and down the gradient a little to show that this ideology hurts people at different ends of the monetary spectrum. It even hurts the wealthy because it keeps them in an empty and disassociated place as citizens, which is part of why there’s movements now toward a different kind of philanthropy, a different kind of transparency about your wealth. I talked to people who posted their tax returns online, who were very wealthy, and that was an effort to show how much they benefited from the tax system. And I thought, well, that’s really brilliant.
Schloredt: Everything in these books connects the personal, the political, and the structural very well. That takes me back to our discussion about acknowledging the help you get, the privileges you might have. Having read both books, I was thinking about the structural things that were an advantage to me. The G.I. Bill made a huge difference in my family. There was an entirely different trajectory for us because of that one thing; it changed our class status. When I was born, my parents were suddenly middle class after having been born into the Depression. I would love to see that sort of awareness spreading in the United States, where we understand when we have advantages and privileges and where they came from.
Quart: One of the reasons I wrote this book was I get this hate mail sometimes from running the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which is this journalism nonprofit, either directed at our organization or directed in the comments section to our writers. They’re always like, “Why did she have two kids? Why did she have three kids?” either about the subjects of articles or about the writers themselves. “Why did they go to college? Why didn’t they go to college? Why did they own their house? Why didn’t they?” It’s constant whataboutism about other people’s lives. I feel like sometimes the way we stigmatize people who are ill, it’s like they must have done something. And that’s a way of protecting ourselves and throwing our fellow citizens under the bus, saying, like, there’s no such thing as student debt and there’s no such thing as toxic masculinity that might lead to having multiple partners. It’s always somebody’s will that to suffer is due to their success or their failure. Those notes and those comments really riled me up and got me started on this project because I’ve got to connect the dots around this and show that a lot of the attacks were being done unfairly.
Schloredt: That really resonated with me too. A huge national issue, but a big local issue in Seattle, is housing and homelessness. I monitor my mother’s Nextdoor. The magical thinking there is that somehow by shaming and blaming people, you can make economic conditions go away. I don’t know how that works, but it’s a very widespread activity and belief.
Quart: Yeah, but it’s also that people have done something right, so they feel superior. I would often get these notes that were like, “We scrimped and saved,” like these totally pleasureless anhedonic lives of these people. “We never went out to dinner. We had a falling-down truck. Why is this writer insisting on going to college?”
Schloredt: Rainesford, you have quite a lot of discussion in your book about having fun, connecting with people, and designing your life so that you have ordinary human pleasures. It’s actually one of the solutions to this insidious kind of psychological bind that ambition gets us in.
Stauffer: I think it says so much about the bind that ambition gets us in that we have to name something as simple as that you deserve to have fun. Not you deserve to have fun if your grades are perfect, once you’ve logged this many hours at work, once you’ve done XYZ, check off whatever achievement you want from that list, then you’ve earned rest or pleasure or joy or human connection. I think that takes so many things to the darkest possible place. Because it renders all of those things completely transactional, that joy, and play, that connection, all of these things that we know are foundational to how we make our way through the world as people, it kind of makes them prizes to be won at the end of this hustle. That’s really demoralizing for people. That’s a sad way to think about enjoying yourself or connecting with another human being. It also makes it incredibly isolating that we have these things as tokens of achievement rather than things that we all deserve. Your ability to experience pleasure and comfort and connection should not be tied to your ambition, your economic standing, your job title. These are things we are all deserving of.
That’s one of the things I think about all the time when I hear comments about “No one canceled my student debt, I had to work really hard to pay it off.” The thing I think of when I hear those comments is, “Have you ever thought that you shouldn’t have had to work that hard, either, that the system was broken all along?” And now we have an opportunity to do something about it, we have an opportunity to do something about so many things. But just because something was broken in the past and impacted us negatively, that’s not a reason to criticize attempts to solve it or to make it better. That’s getting out of that individual mindset of everything good in my life I have, I’ve earned all by myself. No, we didn’t. And thank goodness we didn’t. Because what a lonely, miserable existence that would be! I think the interdependence that Alissa’s book explores so beautifully is at the heart of all of it. It’s a better way to live with one another.
Quart: Eviction moratoriums are a similar thing, right? Why should these people get their rent paid? It’s like this constant societal tit for tat that we need to get out of. Rainesford, what is the best way that you detox yourself from ambition? What did you do?
Stauffer: That’s a great question. One of the interesting things about my own relationship to ambition is that for a lot of my life, I wanted to be a “high achiever” very badly. And for most of my life, I really missed the mark on that. I tried to be very transparent about the fact that I was not a star student, I dropped out of college after my freshman year and took a couple years off and then went back online. It was a little bit more convoluted than at the time I wanted it to be. And speaking of shame, I felt so much shame around that. I was like, I can’t even—take the achievements out—get the striving right. That was a little bit disorienting. I think the later I got into my 20s, I went through a phase where I was already reading and thinking and having conversations with people that were shifting the way I thought about myself in relation to the world. One of the things that is so dark about this kind of individualistic ambition is that you find yourself holding yourself to standards that you would never popularly ascribe to the large swath of people. But I had somehow really compartmentalized myself [personally] in that way of thought.
It wasn’t until I had a total breakdown of my physical and mental health all at once that I began rethinking work and going, “What on earth is all of this for at the end of the day? What is the purpose of all of this?” I was so privileged to even be in a position to reconsider what ambition looked like for me. In the aftermath of all of those things, what came through loud and clear, what saved me, was not taking on one more project. It was not striving, it was not working a little harder. Honestly, it wasn’t even doing work that felt personally fulfilling. It was other people. It was other people who thought that I was enough as I was and was a good friend, sister, community member, regardless of any kind of output, and from there it led me into conversations with those people about how they were approaching things like ambition or dreams or what they were working toward. On the other side of that, I found a collective idea of what it means to strive for one another for our best interests, to be about each other. That re-clarified how I think about my own ambition and how I think about all the things that ambition can mean.
Alissa, I also have a question for you. At the end of your book, in one of my favorite parts, you talk about the need to rewrite our own narratives, which has been so much of what our conversation is about today—rewriting our own narratives about achievement and attainment. How have you rewritten yours over the course of your life and career?
Quart: Oh, God, it’s so funny. I’m not going to get into the whole “I’m not being communitarian properly” bit. I had a specific kind of bootstrapping. I was like, “I was a good student.” I wrote a book about this called Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child that was about prodigies and giftedness. I did feel like I had to sing for my supper on some level as a person, a human being. I won all these writing prizes when I was a kid. And so that was a lot around this disassociation from the thing I love most. It had to be always about some kind of glory. It wasn’t unto itself. I do feel like the process of writing has become more unto itself. I’m not sure the process of living has. I feel like I need to work on that more. All kinds of things like parenting can be a very confusing thing, like, how to model ambition for your kids, how to parent properly around that. I’ve just had an epic battle last night around homework that had some of those elements to it. I should probably just be like, “You do you” to my 11-year-old, but instead, I’m like, “Where’s your math homework? This problem? No, you haven’t gotten the mode right!”
So how do we rewrite the narrative of our lives? I think, for me, running my organization has been very powerful, because it is really about community. I did also have this incredible relationship with Barbara Ehrenreich that was almost like a shadow, familial kind of relationship. She was a pretty ambitious person, too, in her own way. But having that collective consciousness, she was definitely a “we” kind of person. She collaborated with other women, she collaborated with me, and then collaborated with people I work with, and then with all the different writers and filmmakers and photographers we work with. That’s really been pretty transformative. I can honestly say that I feel like I’m part of a movement, which is not something that I ever felt when I was just an author. Even when I was out reporting, I never felt like, “Oh, yes, I’m part of a kind of moment in history.” So that’s one of the ways I’ve re-narrativized, I guess.
Schloredt: You both give the reader a lot of inspiration. You provide a lot of ideas and hope and direction in how we think about the insidiousness of the [capitalist] philosophy in the United States, how we go forward with other people, and a long list of recommendations. We’ve talked about some personal things, but there’s all sorts of prompts for organizing, supporting people paying their fair share in all sorts of different ways, like their fair share of taxes. There’s mutual aid, workers’ co-ops, supporting activists. It’s a very long list. Readers have to go to the books, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more public reaction to your ideas.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Alissa Quart is the author of seven books, including Bootstrapped and Squeezed. She’s the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and has written for many publications including The Washington Post and Time. Quart has won an Emmy and a Society of Professional Journalists award, among other honors.
Rainesford Stauffer is an author and journalist. She’s the Work in Progress columnist for Teen Vogue and wrote the Gold Stars column for Catapult. She’s the author of An Ordinary Age and All the Gold Stars, and is a 2022-2023 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism.