Interview with Van Jones: Rebuilding the Dream in Detroit, Part 2

Posted by Tom White on May 08, 2014
Interview with Van Jones: Rebuilding the Dream in Detroit, Part 2

[This is the second in a three-part inteview with Van Jones, who delivered the keynote address in Detroit, Mich., on April 30, 2014, to attendees of the ACI National Home Performance Conference.  The full interview is posted in three consecutive blogs. Click here to read Part 1.  We plan to publish the entire interview in an article in Home Energy magazine.]

Home Energy Editor, Jim Gunshinan: How do you keep your hope alive, in the midst of a lot of opposition?

VJ: Part of it is just perspective. I’m blessed and cursed to be African-American in a country where, when my dad was born, he literally couldn’t go into much of the country. It was a fight for him to vote. He was an adult when we had “Colored Only” and “White Only” signs. He just gave me a certain perspective, which was pretty outspoken. Sometimes I would encounter fire and he would say, “Well, did they set dogs on you? Did they put fire hoses on you? You had a bad e-mail—that’s all?” [Laughs]. Having that historical perspective changes yours.

On some of the bigger issues, the jury’s still out, but on some other issues we’re making dramatic progress. I mean, nobody thinks it’s a big deal that we have a black president. It wasn’t ten years ago, any black comic, any African American stand-up comedian, if they got in trouble with an audience going to sleep and nobody was laughing, their line would be “What would happen if we had a black president?” They’d start making fun of how ridiculous that would be and how people would react, and it would go over every time. ’Cause it was so inconceivable, just ten years ago, that any African-American would ever be elected president, and now we all take it for granted.

I’m a future-obsessed person—I consider myself to be a futurist. I try to read everything about trends and where things are going, with one goal in mind: there are always multiple scenarios in the future. Some are better than others. If you can get a clear vision in your mind of the one you want, you can start working for that. If you just deal with the present and all the frustration and mean tweets, you just sink. But I feel like, okay, well, with a rocket you can end up with a crash and a burn over here like the guy [Conservation Services Group CEO, Steve Cowell referring to climate change scenarios] said, or you can end up over here with a new set of problems for humanity to worry about, but not this one.

I get sad sometimes, but I usually get sad about myself, my own problems. But I’ve learned a couple things this past run. At the White House, that was great—a rough exit—and I had to find a way forward afterward, which made me much like most Americans: high expectations, then a tough period, and then how do you fight your way forward?

You gotta learn three things: facts and truth, ego and soul, fate and destiny. You ask me what did I learn out of all that crap I went through: Facts are almost always discouraging. If you want to look at newspapers and statistics, the facts are almost always discouraging. But the truth is, we’ve got infinite resources to do beautiful stuff in this world and in our lives, and people with way less stuff and with way bigger problems, like Nelson Mandela or whoever you want to name, were able to accomplish incredible stuff. What’s the key? If you just look at the facts, you get discouraged. If you just stand on the truth, you start to sound weird and new age-y. It’s people who deal with the facts but they are standing in the truth: If you deal with the facts, and tell us what the truth is, we can get something done. So I learned the importance of honoring both the facts and the truth, but knowing that the truth is more important.

Two: ego and soul. A lot of times people are going to work, and they say, “Shall I play big, shall I pump myself up? Then I do that and start feeling egotistical and people start reacting badly.” Then people say, “I want to play small, be a very humble person,” but then you feel you aren’t making a full contribution. The key is, your ego should play small. You need your ego to be small and strong; you don’t want to get pushed around; you need enough ego to push through, to be like a small utility tool. A small, strong, compact, useful ego—that should play small. It’s your soul that is big. What you’re here for, what you believe in, your ability to connect with people and a purpose—that should play big. Keep your ego small, compact, and useful, but let your soul play really big—you wind up with a good balance.

Lastly: fate and destiny. Everybody has got a fate, everybody has got a destiny, but they’re not the same thing. Fate is what you can’t control. I will never be a 16-year-old blonde ballerina, no matter how hard I work. That is NOT going to happen, I can’t do it—the body I was born into, the time I was born into, no surgery is going to make me a 16-year-old blonde ballerina, not in this lifetime. Maybe another lifetime.

So everybody has a fate. And at the end of the day, I’m born a human, not a frog. Every human so far is going to die. My fate is probably pretty discouraging: I can’t change it and I’m gonna die; that’s fate. But you also have a destiny, and everything has a destiny. A little acorn has a destiny to be an oak tree. It’s the call to greatness inside even a little old acorn that’s magnificent. Now will every acorn become an oak tree? No, some will get crushed on the sidewalk or eaten by a squirrel. Every acorn has that call to greatness, and so does every person. And that’s where you have a little control. You get a chance to coauthor that destiny with the universe, based on your choices. And so fate is important: Don’t come up with some crazy goal to be a blonde ballerina and think you’re going to live forever, because it’ll be a big waste of your time. But there’s some call to greatness inside of everybody—for some people it’s a big public call to greatness, and sometimes it’s just to be a great dad or a great neighbor, but everybody has that call to greatness inside themselves.

I think if we act from a standpoint of the truth, if we have enough resources, enough genius, and enough determination, we can do anything we believe to be worthy. Have a compact ego but come from a place of your soul and an engagement with purpose. And if you focus more on your destiny than your fate, you end up having more good days than bad. Maybe you make a difference, maybe you don’t, but you wind up having more good days than bad days. The rest of it’s just in God’s hands, as far as I’m concerned.  

Photo credit: Eddy Haber <>

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