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She was a thriving young professional whom I’ll call *Shelley. One year, when she was working in the marketing law department of her downtown firm, Shelley was assigned to advise a bright-eyed Ivy League law student during his stint as a summer associate at her company.

“I figured he was one of these smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people. So we had lunch, and he had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I thought: ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth talking guy. I’ve been down this road before.’”

Shelley, a woman who was not one to fall all over a man at an instant, had already formed an impression of her mentee.

“His car had so much rust that there was a rusted hole in the passenger door. You could see the ground when you were driving…It would shake ferociously when it would start up. I thought, ‘This brother is not interested in ever making a dime,’” she said. She also mentioned that “he had no money; he was really broke. He wasn’t ever going to impress me with things. His wardrobe was kind of cruddy.”

When her mentee continually offered to take her on a proper date, Shelley often rebuffed his advances on the basis of professionalism.  Not that Shelley was materialistic; she was simply making moves. With student loans to repay upon graduation and an exposure to the working-class life of her parents, she accepted a hefty starting salary at a large firm. She worked hard, but as her brother often noted, the high standards Shelley maintained in her professional life bled into her dating life as well.

When it comes to the dating game, I’ve heard this type of narrative a time or two, sometimes from the mouths of my girlfriends and other times through my own teeth. We were never without a flurry of reasons why Mr. Interested and Mr. Persistent weren’t up to par. “I don’t think my standards are too high,” the conversation goes. “I’m just looking for someone who’s a little more established” or, my personal favorite, “I just want someone who is on my level.”

The problem with this discussion? My girlfriends and I often based our “levels” on things that are fleeting: jobs that could be lost in an instant, titles that could be stripped away, and clothes that were likely purchased on maxed-out credit cards. At one time, those things signified a sense of ambition to us, and because we had earned our way to bright and shiny lives, the men who stepped to us would have to have done the same. How could it have been shallow and unreasonable? After all, we weren’t asking for more than we were able to give.

“People tend to look for status in a mate when they should be looking for potential,” writes Hill Harper in his 2010 book “The Conversation: How Black Men and Women can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships.” Harper notes that without “the window dressing” of flashy cars and cufflinks, men and women are deflated. A disheartening consideration, since without an intrinsic sense of passion and purpose, we allow the sheen of our on-paper lives to make or break us.

Men are not absolved from the search for status either. Just as fleeting as the coins and corner offices are the standards of beauty and hot bodies that men seek when they’re looking for the right woman.  The concept of status for men, Harper notes, also involves the notion that some men don’t like to share status with women. A woman “with her own money and some authority can be intimidating to some men,” Harper writes. “If she’s the boss at work, that might very well mean that she’ll expect to be the boss in their relationship.”

Shelley’s mentee seemed to subscribe to Harper’s counterpoint on the subject of status: that a man should be inspired by a woman who can stand on her own two feet. Soon after the summer associate was hired, he and Shelley began trading personal stories in her office after business hours, with him sitting on the edge of her desk as she relaxed into the nook of her office chair. Interestingly enough, she learned that they shared a similar background and that he had a heart for serving the community. While his pursuits were not the most lucrative, he was insistent on seeking his passion and purpose at a grassroots level.

Shelley eventually obliged him in his request to take her to the art museum and to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the local movie theater. The two became an item. When Shelley took him to meet her family, her brother liked her new suitor, thought he was a nice guy, but likely to be among the men whom his sister would see a couple of times and never again. Eventually, Shelley and her former mentee were married, had two children, and settled into a white picket fence life that would be anything but.

Today, Shelley –whose real name is Michelle Obama— stands by her former mentee, Barack Obama, as he seeks re-election as the President of the United States. What was it that drew her to him in those early years? “He was always special, you know? And not special, like, ‘He’s gonna be important, he’s gonna be president.’ He was special in terms of his honesty, his sincerity, his compassion for other people,” the First Lady told Katie Couric in 2009.  She went on to extol a few words of advice for single women:

“Don’t look at the bankbook or the title. Look at the heart. Look at the soul. Look at how the guy treats his  mother and what he says about women. How he acts with children he doesn’t know. And, more important, how does he treat you? When you’re dating a man, you should always feel good. You should  never feel less than. You should never doubt yourself.”

With this understanding and the benefit of our own hard-fought experiences, my girlfriends and I have learned to shift our focus to the things that count in a man. While success is the result of hard work and there’s no problem with enjoying its spoils, we should place more value on a potential mate’s sense of purpose than on his current position. Is he driven solely by material gain, or does he have a heart for something deeper? His passion could be coupled with an understanding that success doesn’t come in an instant and that he may have to work in the mailroom for a while, earning his way to the top floor by learning his field from the bottom up. It could mean working as a community organizer to get a sense for the individuals who would eventually comprise his constituency. (Even at that first family dinner nearly twenty years before his inauguration, President Obama told Michelle’s brother Craig that he’d set his sights on the White House.) More than “What does he do?” and “Where does he live?”  the questions my girlfriends and I ask each other are about how our men make us feel, where their passions lie, and what makes our men special.

How do you gauge passion and purpose in a potential mate?

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