Eboo Patel isn’t trying to be a hero: recokening with fame, middle age, and the complexity of being a symbol of a movement

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When U.S. News and World Report chooses Eboo Patel as one of America’s Best Leaders, it gives me hope that our cultural values are shifting.

And I promise we really had a fascinating discussion about Eboo’s visionary work at the helm of Interfaith Youth Core, the work that earned him a Rhodes Scholarship, an Ashoka Fellowship and a seat in President Obama’s Faith Council.

His work has also made him a sought-after university keynote speaker and given him fodder to author three remarkable books.

His newest, “Interfaith Leadership: A Primer,” set such a compelling vision for how relationships between different faith traditions can deepen our common good, I went out and joined an interfaith service project weeks after reading it.

But a funny thing happens when that living organism–conversation–is giving room to breathe and play. Sometimes it takes us unexpected places. And since we believe our most vital job is to show you the insides of some of our most fascinating storytellers, we thought we’d start with this intimate part of our talk with Eboo.

When I first got on Skype, I saw a poster of Wilco hanging in Eboo’s Chicago Headquarters, and I knew we were going unexpected places. Like a rock-star guardian angel, Jeff Tweedy presides.

With disarming vulnerability, Eboo confessed how deeply he once desired becoming a hero, the symbol of the movement. But he’s no longer “24 years old, trying to be [a hero], or 28 pretending to be one.”

How liberating!

What happens when you surrender that all too human craving to be seen, to be known, to make a name for yourself? In Eboo’s case, you blossom.

The journey towards self-awareness is the true marker of leadership. Wizened, now enjoying the fruits of his inner reckoning, Eboo realized he no longer had the energy for the pretense required of trying to be a hero, a savior, for pretending to be anything other than the regular dude that he is. In what he calls a major insight of early middle age, he’s found who he is, and maybe more importantly, who he isn’t.

I, for one, am glad that he did this inner work for outer change, because his mission is simply too important to be burdened by a cult of personality. For this generation, if the gold standard for leadership is someone who can say “I love my job, but it’s not the only thing that defines me,” I have great hope for our future.

Learn more about Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Movement at www.ifyc.org.And read his previous books:

“Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America”
“Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation”

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