Publishers Note: This series was originally written in 2015 and is being reposted in 2020 for its pertinence to current issues.
“The constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness, you have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin
According to Webster’s Dictionary, opportunity is defined thusly: “Fit or convenient time or situation; a time or place permitting or favorable for the execution of a purpose; a suitable combination of conditions; suitable occasion; chance.”(1) It is that last word I want to latch upon: Chance. America is not a guarantor of success, a promise or assurance of accomplishment, an inevitable certainty. America is a chance. America is a favorable set of circumstances, a fertile field in a hospitable climate. America is opportunity.
Built on the foundation of freedom, opportunity is the offshoot that makes that freedom worthwhile. Where freedom is removed, chance is denied, opportunity is restricted, the environment is hostile. It is the opportunity, the chance to succeed, to achieve purpose, to accomplish greatness, that gives freedom its value. A man who has had his prison sentence commuted is indeed free from the agony and suffering of prison, from the restriction of liberty. But it is the opportunity—the unlimited possibility—that exists outside of prison that makes those barbed-wire-topped walls and iron bars restrictive and that makes freedom such a prize.
The concluding lines of the Declaration of Independence state that “as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” These words are cloaked with concepts of freedom and opportunity. They are inexorably linked. Opportunity cannot exist without freedom, and freedom that produces no opportunity is freedom in name only.
To understand American opportunity, we need only look at our history. At the colonists, who sailed to America not only to gain religious and political freedom, but also with opportunity to form a great nation, to build, settle, trade—to thrive. At the American frontier, a wild, untamed, treacherous territory that would see barren flatlands transformed to fertile farms and ranches; rugged mountain wildernesses home to scenic byways, ski resorts, and national parks; and an inhospitable, desolate desert developed into “America’s playground.” At immigrants over the centuries who sought and found religious freedom, political asylum, economic relief, and social equality in America. Even at the dark clouds of racial divide and segregation, where opportunity existed for a civil rights movement that has brought about multiple reforms and improvements—a civil rights movement that would never have been given a chance to take root in many other countries and periods of history.
But you don’t need to study history to see opportunity in America. It is everywhere. In America, you have the opportunity to go to school, receive a quality education, study the arts, play sports, go to college, get multiple degrees, and learn a trade. You can get a job, quit a job, go back to school, advance at your place of work, start your own business, and found a company or corporation that makes millions (look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few). You can have a family, or not have a family. You can have no children or a dozen. You can raise them how you want, send them to school or school them at home, and they can participate in untold activities and explore unrivaled options and potential. You can read, shop, travel, invent, discover, play. Your opportunity is only as limited as your imagination.
Opportunity allows you to do great things. Take Michael Jordan, a high school basketball player who wasn’t good enough to make his varsity team. But he kept working, kept practicing, kept striving. A few years later, he made the game-winning shot for North Carolina in the National Championship Game. Within the next two decades, Jordan went on to win 6 NBA Championships and two Olympic gold medals, besides all of his business accomplishments. (If you’re not aware, he’s sold a few pair of sneakers.) Michael Jordan is just one example of American opportunity. He wasn’t born into prosperity, didn’t have a gold path to success. He worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and became an overwhelming professional triumph story. Professional sports is just one “community” that is chock-full of examples just like Jordan’s. Authors, actors, musicians, artists, and inventors have thrived in America, not because the American people are more creative than those in other countries, but because America has more opportunities, from resources to inspiration to demand to exposure mediums to willing consumers.
Opportunity is why people flock to America. Legal immigrants have long seen America as a place to start over, as a place to make something of their lives. It’s not just about escaping tyranny and oppression in their home country, but about residing in a place where they can prosper. How many times have you heard the story about the man or woman whose parents or grandparents—or who they themselves—came to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs and with pennies to their name, who then worked hard, made the most of opportunity, and became a successful business owner, author, CEO, sports star, artist, or celebrity? Arnold Schwarzenegger is best known for being a bodybuilder turned Hollywood tough guy turned governor of California. He’s often lampooned for his accent and movie catchphrases, his near-comical physique, or the fact that an action hero could become such a powerful politician. Regardless of your opinion of his movies or politics, you cannot deny Arnold’s success. Said Schwarzenegger, “As you know, I’m an immigrant. I came over here as an immigrant, and what gave me the opportunities, what made me to be here today, is the open arms of Americans. I have been received. I have been adopted by America.”(2)
I realize that to some, this talk of opportunity rings hollow. Circumstances seem set against them. The field they seek to plow and plant is hard and full of rocks. Indeed, the structure and systems that provide opportunity to so many seem inclined against many others. I can’t argue with some of their experiences or deny their grievances. The cold hard fact is, some people are dealt a rather lousy deck of cards. But in America, at least they get to play out the hand. They have a seat at the table. Opportunity is a chance. It may not be a great chance. It may be hindered by bad breaks and rotten luck. Or it may be enriched by favorable turns of events and illuminated by warm sunlight. But the chance is there. We’ve seen the success stories, many of whom had only an improbable dream, whose path needed forging and clearing. But they made it. They took advantage of their opportunity. They were given a chance, and they made the most of it. That is what America offers. A chance. An opportunity. If embraced, if utilized, if combined with daring vision and indefatigable effort, the potential accomplishments are almost unlimited.
“In this country, there is an opportunity for the development of man’s intellectual, cultural, and spiritual potentialities that has never existed before in the history of our species. I mean not simply an opportunity for greatness for a few, but an opportunity for greatness for the many.” – Edwin H. Land(3)
1. “opportunity.” Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. 2015. http://webstersdictionary1828.com/ (1 June 2015).
2. At a news interview after an August 2003 appearance on The Tonight Show where he announced his gubernatorial campaign.
3. Land, Edwin. “GENERATION OF GREATNESS: The Idea of a University in an Age of Science.” Ninth Annual Arthur Dehon Little Memorial Lecture. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. May 22, 1957. Lecture.
Nathan Birr is the author of more than a dozen full-length novels and several short stories. When not writing, he enjoys painting, watching football (or any sport), traveling, and spending time with his family. He lives in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with his wife, Sierra.