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In These Desperate Times, Let’s Get Motivated!

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: Apr 03, 2009

Editor’s Note: The fact that young people who scoff at almost everything would want to attend Steve Forbes’ recent motivational seminar in Silicon Valley is a testament to the magnetism the American dream still holds, even for the generation that once mocked it, writes Raj Jayadev. Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

Silicon Valley, the purported gateway to the future, got a dose of old-time religion last week, and we loved it. More than 10,000 people flocked to the event called “Get Motivated!” which boasted lectures by American icons Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, Colin Powell, and Michael Phelps. We all bought tickets early, waited in line for hours, and sat on the edge of our seats to hear something – anything – that sounded like security at a time when nothing felt certain. We came to hear the sermon of the American dream, confirmation that its logic and promise still exist, despite the collapsing country around us.

With its pyrotechnics, famous people, and massive energy, this was a celebration of the American identity of stability and winning, in the face of a new America that has put those certainties up for debate. Everything was loud, intense, and draped in red, white and blue. The whole day was like that moment in “Rocky IV” when Apollo Creed came out to fight Ivan Drago -- all guts and glory.

In the morning, when the host invited us to say, “Good morning” to the people sitting next to us, to get to know “the movers and shakers of San Jose,” I introduced myself to the young man sitting next to me. “Hi, I’m Raj,” I said. He replied, “Hi, I’m Raj too!”

My namesake was a 19-year-old Punjabi immigrant who works at a hotel full-time and goes to school at night. I asked him what got him up at 7 a.m. on his day off, and without missing a beat, he said, “To get motivated.” He had been on a sort of motivational speaking tour, and was still pumped from a recent Donald Trump talk he attended.

Immigrants like Raj came to this arena looking for remnants of the nation they were promised. The one in which they could change their fate through the force of their own will and effort, the same ingredients – hard work and courage -- that allowed Michael Phelps to win gold, and Rudy Giuliani to lead his city out of tragedy.

Raj, being brown and young, was not out of place at the event. The crowd was a cross-section of Silicon Valley -- young and old, techies, college students, renters and owners, temporary and permanent workers. Whether CEOs or janitors, they all had one thing in common: Their future was less sure than it used to be.

From the penthouse suite that my friends and I snuck into, we could see them all. I expected to see a bunch of guys who looked like Michael Scott from the TV show “The Office” – white guys with titles trying to edge out the competition. But the audience was filled with Rajs, and Juans, and Voungs, as well.

The fact that my friends, a motley crew who scoff at most everything, would want to “Get Motivated!” is testament enough to the magnetism the American dream still holds, even for the generation that once mocked it.

One of my friends, Tom, who is in his late 20s, had driven down from the Central Valley, leaving his house at 4:30 a.m., ready to network. He showed up in a three-piece suit and a metallic briefcase that only contained an apple and body spray. Tom works in advertising, but his company is teetering, and with it, his plans of home ownership, family stability and a middle-class life.

Another friend, Sam, recently had to drop out of community college because she couldn’t afford the books. She has a minor criminal record, and if finding a job is difficult for most, it is near impossible for her.

Adam has been homeless since we met him at the age of 14. He’s 22 now, and despite his intelligence, strength, and perseverance, still can’t hit his stride and pull himself out of his condition.

Collectively, we always knew that the hype around Silicon Valley being a place where everyone prospers was a facade, but I think somewhere we still thought the American dream was real.

People like us arrived in groups. In the elevators they compared notes, quoted lines to each other. It was a full day in the middle of the work week, and I wondered how many had taken the day off, and how many simple had no job.

Throughout the day, Steve Forbes gave the hungry audience affirmations that, despite what all the “losers” say, “There is nothing wrong with the fundamentals of this economy.” Giuliani explained how he drew on a football coach’s training to handle 9/11. And Colin Powell recalled a tale of staring down Gorbachev.

We did all that while dancing to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” in between speeches.

It was Powell, though, who negotiated the balance between the stable America and our present one, almost like a guide. He described how, despite being the architect of the security apparatus that protects America, he still worries of the “cost of that security.” He told us that all of the talent from the far regions of the world that once came to America in waves of immigration now can find futures in their own homeland, that the assumption that all prosperity is commanded through the United States is a myth.

But the motivational speeches were more than just tributes to America’s past principles; some of the messages pierced right through to people’s personal lives, and were as relevant as ever.

When Michael Phelps was asked what made a great champion, he said: “Great athletes are the ones who continue on even when uncomfortable and injured.” The crowd was silent for a moment. Although no one in the audience could relate to reaching Olympic heights, this economy has injured some of us and has made all of us uncomfortable. It was a bit of the old American ethic that we could cling to, as we navigated through the new one.

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