sunday life: a chat with Mitch Albom about faith

This week I find my “right reason”…and get a little faith.


On Tuesday I sat with Mitch Albom. Which is lovely and fitting, really, because Mitch wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, a book about how he spent Tuesdays sitting with a bloke called Morrie. Not read it? Well, Morrie is Mitch’s former teacher and is dying. Mitch is a sports journo from Detroit. Each week Mitch visits Morrie who, as he faces death, shares his compassionate insights with Mitch. The end. Or thereabouts.

Much like when I look at a Splade or a pair of Crocs, I’ve often wondered what possesses someone to spend years of their life creatively and myopically dedicated to something that, on paper, isn’t exactly a commercial shoo-in. I mean a book of wisdoms by a dying teacher and a sports hack…who was he kidding? Indeed, countless publishers knocked the book back.

But perhaps you know what comes next. Tuesdays with Morrie was finally published in 2000 for a modest fee. It became the biggest selling memoir in history. And Mitch has sold a whopping 28 million books since.

So the question I put to Mitch: what kept him writing? What keeps anyone creative on their path as the bills pile up and the doubters circle in? Faith, says Mitch. Which is also lovely and fitting, because his latest book is called Have a Little Faith.

On Tuesday, Mitch’s thinking enlivened me. He told me he wrote Tuesdays to “do the right thing”. This I didn’t know. Morrie had clocked up huge medical bills and didn’t want to pass them on to his family. What could Mitch do to help? Write a book to cover the expenses. His motivation was merely some peace for Morrie, not fame nor fortune. While ever he kept writing he achieved this. “I didn’t try too hard, my aims were modest,” he told me. So it just unfolded. As we conclude together, when you do something for the right reason, the mission is authentic, goals are reached and the world responds to this with recognition and affection. They buy it.

I feel this is a really good theme to explore right now. So many of my peers are desperately trying to make their stupendously lucrative creative mark. A decade ago success was all about corner offices and working our way to the top. But we’re a generation who’ve seen farmers become overnight stars and blogs by call centre operators turned into books-turned-into-movies-starring-Meryl-Streep. The pressure is on to find our very own no-brainer creative contribution – an online business, an e-magazine, a short film – that’ll make instant money or headlines.

But life doesn’t work like that, Mitch says. JK Rowling – who took years to write her first Harry Potter book, on a typewriter, while on welfare, which was rejected by 12 publishers and finally picked up for 1500 pounds – will tell you the same. Fame and fortune are tenuous carrots. They’re external signposts that can be shifted by others. The “right reason”, however, is yours to authentically define and will always deliver. It might be a desire to enlighten humanity, to make music that matters or to see if admin tasks can be improved with an adhesive yellow notepaper.

At the moment, I’m contemplating a big writing project that will suck me dry on all counts. I’ve been doubting whether I can do it, mostly because I’ve focused on whether it’ll be “bought”. So I sat still and asked, am I doing this for the right reason? What is my right reason? Once I dropped external signposts from the picture, my “right reason” – to share an important message with other people – kicked in. And I started writing.

But back to faith quickly. On Tuesday I also asked Mitch how he accesses faith. He’s still trying to, he says. Faith, he say, is a belief in something bigger than us and a feeling that we’re not here to take. He’s worked out, from his journey with his latest book, the best way to access the peace and sense of belonging that faith brings is to invest in other people.

To finish, I’d love to share this little insight from Have a Little Faith: “When a baby comes into the world, its hands are clenched…because a baby, not knowing any better, wants grab everything, to say, ‘The whole world is mine’. But when an old person dies (it’s) with his hands open. Why? Because he has learned the lesson”.

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