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How-To Guide for the American Spirit: 10 Lessons to Learn in Tough Economic Times

by Aric Mitchell

The American Spirit is older than the country itself. It came from every part of the world to form a nation of dreamers and endless possibilities. While it's only been called "the American Spirit" for close to 250 years, it started in the 17th Century with the indentured servants of the Colonial Period, spread to slaves during the Civil War Era, and then settled on the Irish and Polish farming population of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

It's true. At one point, we were all immigrants. At least our ancestors were. The established government of 1776 enabled each and every person to pursue his own form of happiness. But recent economic times have left little to be happy about. Still, the American Spirit has some lessons to teach us, proving that no matter how bad things get, there is always hope for a better tomorrow. To get there, you may want to take a page from the books of these people:

Chris Gardner: Pursue Education

Chris Gardner: Pursue Education
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

While other children were growing up in nuclear families with mothers and fathers, who stayed together, Chris Gardner was born into a war zone. His mother and stepfather were constantly at odds with one another. His stepfather was physically abusive to his mother and her children. Gardner, along with his siblings, lived in terror of crossing Freddie Triplett, and the ongoing war between mother and stepfather landed the kids in foster care on more than one occasion. Gardner wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, and enlisted in the Navy, following in his Uncle Henry's footsteps. There, he met Dr. Robert Ellis, and seemed to be well on his way to a career in the medical profession.

But changes in healthcare led Gardner to believe that his 10 years would be better spent pursuing other educational pathways. When he met a man in a red Ferrari and fancy clothes, he was sure to ask what the man did for a living. The man told him "stock broker," and the decision was made. In the meantime, Gardner married Sherry Dyson, but the marriage fell apart after only three years due to his own infidelity with Jackie Medina, a dental student. The couple had a child together, whom Gardner would end up accepting sole custody of when the mother left him on Gardner's doorstep. For one year, the pair dealt with homelessness as Gardner worked toward becoming a stock broker. They would sleep in subways and bathrooms and homeless shelters as Gardner worked toward passing his licensing exam, which he did in 1982. Today, Gardner is a motivational speaker, author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.

His story was detailed in the film The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith. By throwing himself into his education and showing dogged determination as he learned a new trade, Gardner would eventually become founder and CEO of Gardner Rich & Co. and a millionaire to boot.

Liz Murray: Brighten Your Outlook

Liz Murray: Brighten Your Outlook
Photo by Raj Taneja

Born in 1980, Liz Murray never knew a normal life. Both mom and dad contracted HIV while she was still young. Her mother died of AIDS when Liz was just 15 years old. Her father moved into a homeless shelter leaving Liz to look after him as she attended Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan. She would eventually be accepted into Harvard University and later Columbia to be closer to her father until his death in 2006. Liz would return to Harvard, where she graduated in 2009. As of 2010, Liz was enrolled in graduate studies at Harvard. In the meantime, she runs Manifest Living, a company she founded that teaches adults how to create better lives for themselves. Liz Murray had every reason to give up on life and not see the possibilities it held, but she refused to accept defeat in the face of her circumstances and now helps others see the positive possibilities in their lives.

Jim Carrey: Keep Daydreaming

Jim Carrey: Keep Daydreaming
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Jim Carrey was a high school student in Ontario by day and a full-time factory worker at Titan Wheels by night. Hard to believe that there would be any time left for the pursuit of his dreams, but Carrey never lost his focus even though he had little time to actually pursue them. Carrey's dream was to become a successful comedian. By 1981, he'd done just that, but his bigger successes still awaited him. With 1994's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a well-received comedy that grossed more than $72 million domestically, Carrey would become a household name and begin one of the most successful acting careers of recent history. If not for the daydreams, Carrey admits that he would be working at a nearby steel mill in Canada. "Those were where the great jobs were," Carrey said in a 2007 interview with The Hamilton Spectator. The lesson here is to never think you're wasting your time by dreaming big. However, you must be willing to eventually do something about it.

Andrew Carnegie: Evolve Your Skills

Andrew Carnegie: Evolve Your Skills
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Carnegie came from a poor Scottish family that was made even poorer by his father's job as a linen weaver becoming obsolete by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. With absolutely nothing to his name, Carnegie came to the strange land of America and started to embrace some of the new technologies that were in development. He eventually ran his own steel company, which would eventually become U.S. Steel after he sold it to J.P. Morgan for the sum of $480 million. Learning from what had happened to his father Carnegie evolved his skills and became a leader in a new industry, which had once threatened to starve his family. By reversing his fortunes and becoming more equipped for a changing world, Carnegie created a fortune that remains one of the most considerable of all time. If you feel like your talents are stagnating, don't hesitate to advance your education and hone your skills to become more marketable within your own profession. You may even find new opportunities in doing so.

Ted Williams: Rely on What You Can Do

Ted Williams: Rely on What You Can Do
Photo by smemon87

Overcome with addiction, Ted Williams, the "golden-voiced" homeless guy, lived on the street and did the only thing that he knew how to do-sing-for money. Since his video went viral on YouTube, he has received a number of job offers from high profile organizations including the Cleveland Cavaliers. While much of Ted Williams' story is yet to be written, he has taught us that even in 2010 it is possible to rise from nothing just by relying on your talents. Times may grow difficult, but never losing sight of your talents could pay off now more than ever.

Oprah Winfrey: Build on What You Have

Oprah Winfrey: Build on What You Have
Photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle

Winfrey's parents were unwed teenagers, who went their separate ways after she was born. Her grandmother raised her for a time until she went to live with her mother. When that didn't work out, she tried life in Tennessee with her father. Through all the family turmoil and poverty, she excelled in education and built new opportunities for herself on each accomplishment. From radio to TV to acting and owning her own network and magazine, she has one of the most popular rags to riches tales in America. The lesson for Americans today is to take inventory of the things you've accomplished. What is there that you can build on? Winfrey's first jobs were low-paying and seemingly dead-end. But rather than sticking to the same job for 40 years, she saw new ways to market herself and found new audiences along the way.

Walt Disney: Protect Your Property

Walt Disney: Protect Your Property
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Oswald the Rabbit was Walt Disney's first creation and his most popular for a time. Coming from bankruptcy, he aimed to make it as an artist and animator, but an unclear understanding of his contract led to him signing over all rights to Oswald. Going back to the drawing boards with hardly any money, he created Mickey Mouse and the world's first animated "talkie." Learning his lesson from the previous debacle, Disney decided to protect what he had the next time around and the rest is history. The lesson here is to believe in your creations, whatever they may be. Sometimes it can be tempting to sell out an idea or property to the lowest bidder, especially when you've sat on something for so long with no revenue to speak of. But if you really believe in something, like Disney did, you will be proactive in harvesting it to its full potential. And when you get there, don't give it up for anything less than what it's worth to you.

Harrison Ford: Use Rejection Wisely

Harrison Ford: Use Rejection Wisely
Photo by SpreePIX - Berlin

A big movie exec told Ford he wasn't good enough to make it in the film industry as an actor. Ford didn't like the roles he was getting at that point, and hearing that from someone with so much clout could have killed the dreams of lesser men. But Ford used rejection wisely. He relied on his carpentry skills for a time, and then parlayed them into acting jobs with the people he would work for. Helping George Lucas with an audition reading for the movie "Star Wars," Ford wasn't even considered for the role until Lucas started to take note of his charisma. He was eventually cast and went on to another of the most successful acting careers of all time. The lesson here is to not take someone's opinion of you as gospel. No matter what walk of life you are in, and no matter who tells you you're never going to make it, use that stinging criticism as welcome motivation to rise above your expectations. Sometimes raw unadulterated belief in oneself can be the most powerful quality of all.

Penny Martin: Check for Unclaimed Funds

Penny Martin: Check for Unclaimed Funds
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Everyone needs a little luck sometimes, and with all the millions of dollars in unclaimed funds out there, it's possible that those experiencing economic hardship could be lucky and not even know it. The government holds unclaimed insurance monies for years, and recently, Penny Martin, a homeless woman working a job as an assistant cook, found out she was the beneficiary of an old boyfriend from high school, who left her $10,000 when he died. Now she's debt free with a place of her own. Not rags to riches, but a good example of how an American can get back on her feet by being aware of the resources out there. If you think there is even a remote possibility that there may be some money out there with your name on it, check with your state's auditor.

Josh Cribbs: Pay It Forward

Josh Cribbs: Pay It Forward
Photo by Jim Harper

Cleveland Browns running back and kickoff return man Cribbs didn't have much when he attended Kent State and played football. He did have a strong family support unit in his mother, but the man he called his father figure was an assistant at Kent State, who died of cancer in 2005. Last year at the deceased coach's Senior Night football game, Cribbs showed up unbeknownst to the public and served as the father figure to his own father figure's son. The media didn't pick up the story till a few weeks later, showing that Cribbs is much less about credit and more about genuine goodness.

Also, in the midst of a contract renegotiation with the Browns when he was playing top-notch ball but barely making above league standard, Cribbs told the NFL Network the following when they asked him about getting paid what he deserves: "This is a blue-collar town. Times are hard. And the last thing these people need to hear is some pro athlete talking about how he doesn't make enough money."

Cribbs' story shows that even in an ever-changing and cynical world there is still a place for ethics, morality, and helping your fellow man. While current negotiations with the Browns may not work out according to plan, Cribbs is set to become one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market should he not find himself in a Cleveland uniform come 2011.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary Ellen January 22nd, 2011
The problem with this article is: 1) it's going to be a llllooooonnnngggg time before the economy here returns to normal and for many it won't be in their lifetime; 2) Americans have become so "dumb" by watching so much dumb TV that the majority don't have the drive/intellect/will/motivation of the mentioned people 3) the U.S. has become a nation of entitlement so few people are prepared to actually work hard to get anywhere esp. the last 3 generations who expect everything to be handed to them. So the article is inspiring, yes, but the question is how many readers will actually be motivated rather than just thinking about it or doing the usual and keep the head in the sand and the status quo remains as it now is.

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