Following Unconventional Wisdom Toward the American Dream

09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Work hard and play by the rules: that's how you're supposed to achieve the American Dream. But with unemployment climbing toward the double digits, and income levels sinking for many of those who do have jobs, the "hard work" part of the formula seems to be questionable. And with the financial services industry -- the nation's main generator of spectacular wealth -- now being widely accused of having churned out paper profits on toxic products, people might be forgiven for thinking that "playing by the rules" is a less effective ingredient of the American Dream than "gaming the system."

These people should read Peter G. Peterson's new memoir, The Education of an American Dreamer. It's a fascinating book because it tells the story of someone who made it big in the conventional way -- working hard and playing by the rules, even during his years as a leader in the financial services industry -- but did not always follow the conventional wisdom.

To conventional thinkers, Mr. Peterson was not wise when at age 31, with a wife and two children to support, he quit a good and promising job in advertising for reasons of principle. Among the grounds for his decision: the CEO had used company money to buy an airplane for his own use, while cutting costs by handing out pink slips. At his next job, at Bell & Howell, Mr. Peterson again bucked convention- -t he one that says companies need to avoid public controversy. He steered the corporation toward sponsoring television programs about topics such as abortion (explored through a debate between clergymen) and racism (examined through a dramatization titled "Walk in My Shoes"). Even as Commerce Secretary during the Nixon administration, Mr. Peterson refused the wisdom of going along to get along. He insisted on addressing the problem of children's clothing being made from flammable fabrics -- even though the White House political operatives "reminded me daily of the need to keep the textile dollars rolling in to the Nixon campaign coffers."

Of course, being openly unconventional can exact a price -- and Mr. Peterson did not always think it was worth the cost. He regrets the way the "liberal" appearance of his second wife, Sally, cost him some professional opportunities and called into question his reputation for loyalty in Nixon's White House: "Her rebellious phase was in full flower. She had a different dress code than the other cabinet wives, preferring tight Pucci pants and platform shoes to matronly, knee-hiding dresses. And she plucked another page out of the antiwar stylebook by wearing her hair like the actress Jane Fonda."

But then, Mr. Peterson also discovered that there is an up side and a down side to the conventional path of working hard. He learned the up side from his parents: poor immigrants to the United States, who opened an all-night restaurant in Kearney, Nebraska, and eventually earned enough money to "give back" to the Greek town of his father's birth. He learned the down side by putting in endless hours on the job and sacrificing his family life for success in the workplace -- a choice that cost him two marriages.

For people today who wonder whether the American Dream is still viable -- or if it is, how to achieve it -- The Education of an American Dreamer offers a fascinating and complex answer. Yes, Mr. Peterson says -- and he offers some practical, conventional lessons in how to proceed. But the lesson that he says always yielded real benefits is a piece of wisdom that must be unconventional, since so few of us manage to follow it consistently: to "be true to one's principles, to one's self, and to one's moral compass."