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Soul Project Interview #1: Elliot


Hopes and dreams are funny things. Sometimes you achieve them -- then what? Maybe, to paraphrase Willie Wonka… you live happily ever after.

And maybe dreams are elusive… maybe achieving dreams is a chimera, maybe just having them is our best chance to be happy.

Elliot is a man who seems pretty at peace with himself. He turned his life around when he fell in love, shifting his goals from acquisition to service. Happiness came into view when he realized that to make his ladylove happy, he himself had to be happy. Now, he’s just looking for a little comfort, some grandchildren, and enough financial flexibility to travel and have a little fun when he eventually retires.

Who is Elliot? He is a 46 year old African American educator, a math teacher from the South who now lives in the Northeast, with his wife, “wonderful little girl,” and dog. I mention that he’s African American…he barely did in our interview, really it only came up after I asked him how it had shaped his views. He had interesting perspectives on that, which we’ll get to.

But first, our central questions:

What are your hopes and dreams at this point in life?

I see myself living a life where I am in retirement with my wife and our dog and one or two grandkids who we get to spoil as much as possible, but that my wife and I get to really live a great quality retirement where we get to travel and wake up and just do the things we want to do day to day; we don’t have to think about what’s going to happen in the next twenty or thirty years. We can think about what’s going to happen for us during that time. So I guess in my hope I’d like to get to the point where I can live and enjoy every day.

Framed in economic terms, where he and his wife have the means to put aside money worries and just enjoy the fruits of their love and happiness. But make no mistake — the money is mainly a facilitator. Love and freedom are what its all about… that becomes really clear when we start talking about his story.

When you were starting off as a young man, early in your career, would you have answered this question differently?

Very differently. I would say, directly out of college, the one thing I wanted to do was I wanted to have a job and make a lot of money, and everything was focused around being wealthy. I don’t say rich — I say wealthy. wanted to be at the point where I didn’t think about money. My entire goal was to make the amount — and I have no idea what it was going to be — where money would no longer be an issue. So for me, everything was driven by economics.

So Elliot cycled through career paths he thought would be lucrative, because he thought they’d be lucrative: surgeon, engineer, insurance, air traffic control, even the CIA! He ended up in accounting. As the Wayans Brothers would say… hated it!!! Compiling circulation and financial stats for a newspaper was boring and lacked challenge: “my eight hour day consists of about 45 minutes of work.”

Something had to give. And it did:

I met my soon to be wife at that point, and we started dating. It was something very serious; I knew she was kind of the one. I wanted her to be happy always. I realized that it wasn’t going to be money that was going to make her happy.

Huh? Money would not buy his lady love happiness? What would? But let’s back up… how did our friend find the (seemingly obvious, but all too often ignored) insight that happiness begets happiness?

I’m doing these numbers, and I would spend my day just walking about the building, no really connection to anything. It seemed like just a simple existence, nothing really exciting happening or going on. I would go home and be, you know, kind of grumpy, because I had nothing stimulating or fulfilling throughout the day. Me being grumpy made her angry and grumpy and we would fight, and I was like: this is not working for me.

One thing about insight: we might know, like a horse, what led us to water. But what made us drink? The question that is begged here is, “how did you come to understand that your grumpiness was the job’s fault, not your fault, not your wife’s fault? How did you realize you had to make a change, and then what motivated you to act on that realization?” Unfortunately, I did not ask those questions. So maybe we’ll never know.

But we do know how Elliot came to find the career that has fulfilled and stimulated him to this day. He happened to come from a family of educators, all on his mom’s side. “My mama used to say, you can always go teach…” So when a career change program in South Carolina offered on-the-job training as a teacher, Elliot jumped at it.

A lesson: what seems easy might actually be boring. And what seems impossible might be a welcome challenge. On Elliot’s first day in a classroom, he was paired with an older lady, an experienced teacher.

The first kid walked in and she proceeded to yell at the top of her lungs, and yelled at the kids for an hour and a half, and then they all left and the next group came in and it started over exactly the same way. There was never any education happening, just yelling at them because they were talking and wouldn’t sit quietly. She would never open the math book the entire time.

Needless to say, he went right from the classroom to the Principal’s office and accepted a full-time post. She offered him time to think about it: “No, I really do think these kids need me.” Awesome. And he’s never looked back.

Elliot made a leap of faith that day, which is to say he followed his heart without hesitation. Such leaps were in his repertoire: he had asked his wife for her hand one month after they’d started dating.

Epilogue

Elliot grew up in an “upper-middle-class African American neighborhood.” He was neither rich nor poor; money was simply not much of an issue for him. “We would find a basketball rim and build a backboard and put it up on a tree.” Does that make his early obsession with wealth more or less understandable? “There were a lot of intellectual, smart people in my neighborhood… [and] I guess the grass always looks greener somewhere else…” he reflects.

I asked Elliot if he had advice to share with others trying to figure out what to do with their lives. His answer:

You’ve got to learn how to sit in a room by yourself [and] be able to entertain yourself for two hours solid. You’re not getting bored, There’s no television; its just you by yourself.

In other words, like many successful people, Elliot meditates. In his case, it’s once a week or so, for a couple of hours or more -- much longer than most people can pull off. Mostly, he reflects on themes of gratitude: “…how lucky I am to have those things that make me happy, from friends, family, career, everything.”

I said I’d get to the issue of race, or at least one aspect of it. After I turned off the mic, we continued talking about race relations, here in the Northeast, and in the South. Elliot’s attitude was refreshing and instructive. To paraphrase: down South, you always know where you stand. If someone is a racist, the let you know right away. He prefers that, because you know to simply disregard that person, not to waste your time on them. Obviously, life is not that simple all the time; racism limits opportunities, and can of course turn violent. But to have the equanimity to not take it personally, at least not in its casual, every day form, is for me perhaps Elliot’s greatest achievement, and symbolic of his overall enlightened outlook.

I should mention that part of Elliot’s job as an educator is to bring diversity into the school in which he works, and to train students and staff on how to successfully deal with it. He is most definitely not innocent or unaware of the very real pain and danger prejudice causes.

I don’t imagine that everyone I interview will be as fun and inspiring as Elliot. But starting this project with the likes of him really makes me feel good about where it is going.