by Rebekah Rombom '08
Dr. John Eliot ’93 says his life in Houston, Texas is a bit chaotic, and he likes it that way.
Eliot doesn’t have just one job title, but simultaneously holds a teaching post at Rice University, helps direct the National Center for Human Performance at the Texas Medical Center, acts as executive director of The Milestone Group, a performance consulting firm that he co-founded, and works with individual high-profile clients like athletes and corporate leaders to improve their performance.
The common thread that ties the branches of Eliot’s career together is an interest in performance psychology, something he honed studying psychology at Dartmouth and perhaps even earlier when he won a National Ski Championship in Nordic Combined at the early age of ten.
Eliot began the college application process thinking he would attend Harvard or Yale like the majority of his family, which includes more than one Harvard president. But when he stepped onto Dartmouth’s campus – initially as a formality during a recruiting trip – he knew where he wanted to end up.
“I went to all these other schools and nothing really impressed me,” Eliot says, “and then I stopped at Dartmouth, I got out of the car and thought wow, this is it.”
At the College, Eliot, who played baseball and rugby during his Dartmouth career, found himself veering away from the medical school path he had originally planned to take and towards a more cognitive approach in his studies.
“I was intrigued by how much we didn’t know about the brain,” he says. After taking biology and neuroscience classes, Eliot realized that much of what was still unknown about brain function had to do with cognition, and became more interested in that sector of psychology.
By his senior year, Eliot knew he wanted to focus on applied psychology, so he chose to do his senior fellowship under professor John Corson. Corson was affiliated with Dartmouth Medical School but also maintained a private practice in the area. After completing his senior year, Eliot went on to earn a doctorate in Sport Science from the University of Virginia.
After a few years as Adjunct Professor of Performance Psychology at UVA, Eliot joined the staff at Rice University in Houston in 2000. There, he was reunited with friend and former Columbia University baseball player, Anthony Apollaro, who had previously relocated to Texas.
Eliot and Apollaro had developed a rivalry as opponents playing college ball, but later became close friends. They had long been toying with the idea of starting a business together, since they thought their different skills – Apollaro’s business knowledge and Eliot’s psychology expertise – would complement each other well. Coincidentally, the pair found themselves moving to Texas at the same time, and considering the business venture more seriously.
“It became more of an involved conversation,” Eliot says. Then, after rethinking his career in the aftermath of 9/11, Apollaro made the decision to commit to the project full-time. “He said, ‘Enough. Quality of life counts,’” Eliot says of his friend and partner, who wanted to spend more time with his family. “So basically he quit his job the next day and then we started the Milestone Group, and we’ve been having a blast ever since.”
Through the consulting firm, Eliot travels around the country to advise corporations that want to improve performance. He gives lectures and organizes workshops that address the specific needs of a given organization.
“It’s always been my philosophy that the real success stories in psychology come from figuring out what models fit with that individual,” Eliot says. “A lot of teams will call and say, ‘What methods do you use, what’s your philosophy?’ And I’ll say, ‘I have no idea…what I do is based on what needs to be done, and I won’t know that until we start working together.’”
With private clients, Eliot focuses on optimizing the already-extraordinary, working with professional athletes and accomplished musicians. This philosophy carries over to his work at the National Center for Human Performance in the Texas Medical Center.
The NCHP, a virtual center whose participating organizations include NASA and the United States Olympic Committee, aims to “help healthy people succeed in what they want to do,” according to Eliot
“My career has been dedicated to working with folks who are in two or three or more standard deviations above the mean in terms of health and performance and success,” he says, adding that one of the guiding principles of the NCHP is to focus energies on providing healthcare and technological resources to those people who are already healthy, as opposed to only providing those resources to the sick.
Eliot has also written a book on peak performance called “Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance,” inspired by the questions and feedback he has received at his lectures and workshops.
“When you give a lecture to 1,000 people, it’s very difficult to have a sustainable impact,” he says, “and you can’t address all of those individual questions.”
One of the reasons he’s been so successful on the lecture circuit to begin with, Eliot says, is because of his commitment to maintaining clients’ privacy and his dedication to solving their performance-based problems.
“I very much want to separate myself from the folks in the coaching space or the folks in the motivational speaking space,” he says. “I’m not the world’s greatest expert, I’m just a guy that thinks about these things a lot.”
Eliot also says that he doesn’t advertise, but relies on word-of-mouth referrals, which boost his credibility. He has also taken an untraditional approach to setting fees in some instances, even going so far as to ask clients how valuable his work is to them.
“It’s about getting a job done, it’s not about an hourly rate,” Eliot says. “I’ll never work for an hourly rate, and clients appreciate that. Doing little things like that give a confidence to folks that I’m invested and I’m doing it for the right reasons.”
The latter portion of Eliot’s week is usually devoted to consulting work and traveling to run lectures and workshops, while the first half is spent on the Rice campus where he teaches three classes and holds office hours.
“The structure that I will have will be my class schedule and my office hours, but that’s as much schedule as I want,” he says. “I try and have things as unplanned as possible so I can pursue things as they come up from day to day.”
Eliot says he became accustomed to this scheduling freedom in college, and has worked to maintain it.
But Dartmouth had a deeper effect on Eliot than just setting his scheduling preferences.
“The philosophy at Dartmouth, the energy and the passion of all the professors I had, the charisma and outgoingness of all my classmates…I’ve carried those with me for my whole career,” he says. “That really shaped the way I do things.”
Eliot also advises his students to keep thinking in terms of the intellectual freedom that a university environment affords.
“Don’t assume that there’s one path or one right direction,” he says. “Steer away from goal-setting and think more in terms of being open to inspiration.”
Last Updated: 6/21/12