Eli Goldratt’s passing is a terribly sad thing for me and for the thousands of people he impacted directly, and the millions who will ultimately benefit from his life’s work. Over the last 25 years I have had the great good fortune to have worked closely with Eli, to have been his friend, and to have him as a mentor. He has impacted my life in so many ways and to a degree that is still not fully visible to me. I have so many memories and so many things I have learned from him, but there is one in particular that has been echoing in my mind almost continually since his untimely death.
I have been recalling the several times that we discussed his choosing of “Jonah” as the name of the guru-like character in his bestselling book The Goal, and for his subsequent master course by the same name where he taught people the powerful thinking skills the character employed to help Alex Rogo and his team derive solutions to save their plant.
The name obviously derives from the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, in which the prophet Jonah is called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, the wicked enemies of the people of Israel. But instead of heeding God’s call Jonah attempts to run away by taking a boat to Spain. God sends a storm to threaten the boat and when the crew discovers that the storm was sent by God who was angered by Jonah, they throw him overboard to save the vessel. God then sends a mighty whale to save Jonah, who spends several days in the belly of the whale repenting for not heeding God’s calling for him. The whale spits out the repentant Jonah on a beach and he proceeds to enter a hostile Nineveh and cause them to repent for the evil ways.
While it is easy for anyone who knew Goldratt, or heard him speak to see the obvious parallels between himself and the Jonah character Jonah of the book, this is not how Eli viewed it. Eli described Jonah as “the reluctant prophet,” reluctant to heed his calling because he feared it was too difficult, too much for him to accomplish. He felt that we were all reluctant prophets, apprehensive that we can measure up to our highest calling. It was no accident that he chose the name Jonah again for the course that taught people the thinking skills used so effectively by the character in the book. Eli felt that great things were within the reach of ALL of us, that each of us has both a higher calling, and the ability to measure up to that calling. He directly encouraged me and the others close to him to set “a lofty goal” for our lives, one where there was significant doubt that we would be able to achieve it.
He spent his life both being a model of this belief, reaching beyond the sky and achieving remarkable success, and instilling in thousands the skills and belief to enable them to do the same. One of Eli’s favorite books was “Illusions” by Richard Bach, which captured so much of what he was about and what he believed about the hidden potential in each us. This can be summed up in one of the book’s passages: “We are never given a wish without the ability to achieve it.” For Eli this was much more than a charming concept, it was at the core of how he lived his life, and what he wished for all people to understand as richly as he did.
When I think of Jonah, I don’t think of Eli, I think of each of us, that we are indeed the reluctant prophets, capable of being so much more than we typically imagine. Eli fully expected that people will far surpass his achievements, that what he has done, while extraordinary, is within the reach of all of us. Jonah, after all, was successful in accomplishing the great feat of causing Nineveh to repent.
While I don’t think Eli thought of himself in this way, for me Eli was not Jonah, but rather God’s great whale, sent to save each of us from wasting the gifts God gave us. He lived in this way, tirelessly seeking to demonstrate to people their own hidden capabilities, their own enormous potential to make the world a better place. I see myself clearly in Jonah’s place and Eli has been my whale, saving me from running away from myself and from my potential, gently guiding me to see a higher path and validating my ability to achieve that calling.
I remember characterizing the Theory of Constraints, the great body of knowledge and skills he developed, like this at one of his conferences almost 20 years ago. I said: “Theory of Constraints teaches us the power of ourselves.” This was his gift to me and to all who will listen. We are good. We are capable of everything we can wish for. Each of us has the potential to live a fulfilling and satisfying life. What greater gift can any of us receive?
When I think of Eli, I can find no better metaphor than God’s great whale from the story of Jonah. He literally rescued my life and that of so many others from frustration and wanting, and pointed me in a higher, nobler, more rewarding direction. I am immensely grateful to him for his countless gifts to me, but for this one most all. Now it is up to me to hold those gifts dear and fulfill the legacy he has given me. I will always miss him, but I know that he will always be with me.