In my previous experiences with autobiographies, they either dragged on for more pages than necessary, or were too pompous to be interesting. That was definitely not the case with The Education of an American Dreamer. In fact, this was the first autobiography I found myself genuinely interested in, to the point where I was reading excerpts from the book to anyone who would listen.
The Education of an American Dreamer is not just an autobiography, but a keen look at American business and politics from an individual who’s succeeded on both fronts.
Born to Greek immigrants and raised in Kearney, Nebraska in the 1930’s, Peter Petersen learned the meaning of thrift and hard work from his father, who ran a 24-hour diner. From a young age, Peterson practiced his sales skills by selling meal cards to the diner’s patrons; he did exceptionally well in his studies and set his sights on something bigger than the small town of Kearney. After a short stint at MIT and figuring out that he was not cut out for engineering, Peterson enrolled at Northwestern University.
His first post-college job was arguably the only dud of a job in Peterson’s career, and he quickly realized that his “comparative advantage” did not lie in retail. What followed was a string of positions that led to Petersen being labeled as the “wunderkind” and the “economic Kissinger”, among others. He was the youngest Vice President of an advertising company McCann-Erickson at age 27, the genius CEO at Black Bell & Howell, the commerce secretary under Nixon, CEO of Lehman Brothers, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, served on numerous boards and foundations and advised presidents on a variety of topics.
What sets Peterson apart is his lack of “preachiness”. He does not pretend to know everything about building a career and he is the first to admit that he had no plan for his own. Throughout the book, he often refers to his promotions and achievements as just “dumb luck”. What Peterson does do is bring attention to many worthwhile issues – some of the discussions sprinkled throughout the book focus on economic foreign policy, Cold War, U.S.’ relationships with hostile countries, the Nixon administration and most importantly, U.S.’ burgeoning budget deficits. Peterson is a strong believer that unless we make significant changes, our fiscal irresponsibility and the country’s growing debt will significantly jeopardize future generations. His commitment to this issue has led to his latest project, the creation of the Peter G. Peterson foundation, to which he donated $1 billion of his own money.
If you’re never picked up an autobiography before and even if you’re not really interested in business and politics – try this book anyway. I doubt you will regret it. Peterson’s candid writing interspersed with stories about his parents, his wives (he had three) and children (five) is very personal and enjoyable. His life is very compelling and there are many lessons to be learned in The Education of an American Dreamer. If nothing else, you will appreciate the story of a true American dream, of pulling oneself up from meager beginnings to a position of influence and privilege.