Finding meaning in work, life: 5 lessons to learn from Mitch Albom

Niña Terol
Best-selling author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The First Phone Call from Heaven talks to Rappler about life, success, fame, failure, and many things in between

REMARKABLE. Mitch Albom would not 'cheapen' Morrie by writing a sequel. Instead, he explored his own skill set and listened to his instincts – just like Morrie taught him. Photo by Toni Alvarez

MANILA, Philippines – He writes quite a bit about death, yet he talks about life and hope. He is a worldwide best-selling author, yet he talks about rejection and failure. He is an award-winning sports journalist, yet he spends much of his time giving back in areas hit by death and destruction. 

While in the Philippines to promote his latest novel, The First Phone Call from Heaven, and his library-building efforts for Yolanda survivors, Mitch Albom took some time to share with Rappler these nuggets of inspiration and wisdom.

On rejection and failure

Unknown to many, before his name started showing up on the New York Times best-seller list, Albom was a piano player on an often-lonely stage.

“I was a failure as a musician. I got out of it because I didn’t have a lot of people clapping for me; I didn’t have a lot of people buying my music or coming to see me,” he admitted.

In the early 1980s, Albom made the transition from music to journalism, which did him well and earned him for him record-breaking awards in sports journalism. But when he announced plans to work on Tuesdays with Morrie, the naysayers came back and almost killed the project.

“Tuesdays with Morrie was a book that most people didn’t want. I only wrote that book to pay Morrie’s medical bills,” Albom confessed.

“Everywhere I went… they told me, ‘No.’ ‘It’s a stupid idea.’ ‘It’s boring.’ ‘It’s depressing.’ ‘You can’t write it; you’re a sports writer.’ Almost everywhere I went, they told me, ‘Not interested.’ And I only pushed because I was trying to pay Morrie’s medical bills, and I couldn’t take no for an answer.”

Albom’s love and respect for his teacher, coupled with his dogged persistence, paid off. Tuesdays with Morrie not only paid for Morrie Schwartz’s medical bills, it also went on to sell 14 million copies in 41 languages worldwide, and was later on produced into a television movie by no less than Oprah Winfrey, winning 4 Emmy Awards. The book has also spun an Off-Broadway play and has been able to fund a number of charity efforts as well. 

Lesson #1: When something is THAT important to you, don’t take no for an answer.

On staying true to yourself

The trouble with success, Albom would later on discover, is that people expect it to happen over and over again—using the same “tried-and-tested” formula.

“In the years that followed, a lot of the publishers who didn’t want Tuesdays with Morrie at all suddenly only wanted me to write ‘Wednesdays with Morrie’, ‘Chicken Soup with Morrie,’ and more Morrie.”

He continued, “Fortunately, I had a great teacher. Morrie inspired me and told me that, ‘If you don’t like the culture, don’t buy into it. You don’t have to.’”

‘So when everybody was saying, ‘You have to write more Morrie—it’s such a big success. You have to do a follow-up.’ I remember Morrie’s voice saying, ‘No you don’t. Be true to yourself.’ So I refused to do it, despite all kinds of offers, all kinds of money and success. ”

The fact was: not only did Albom want to ditch the ‘Morrie’ sequel altogether, but what he really wanted to do was write fiction.

“’That’s a terrible idea. Non-fiction writers can’t write fiction. That’s the biggest mistake of your life; you’re going to fall on your face,’” Albom quoted the naysayers anew.

“I said, ‘Well, if I fall on my face, it’s my face—you don’t have to worry about it,’” Albom chuckled with the memory. “I wrote Five People You Meet in Heaven, and much to my surprise—and their surprise—it was a big success, too. I think that was Morrie rewarding me for not cheapening him.”

Lesson #2: Don’t sell out. Don’t do something simply for the sake of money or “success.”

We asked Albom about his worldwide fame and about the celebrity that came with success.

He answered, “I don’t take applause or success—the fuss over it—too seriously… As a journalist, I got to be around lots of famous people… I’ve watched the fuss and the success, and I’ve seen how empty it is and how it doesn’t make them happy.”

“True success, to me, is doing something that you really love and being able to affect people positively as a result of that. That could be a teacher, that could be a fireman, that could be a rock and roll singer.”

“The noise was no guarantee that you were going to be happy,” he said as he recounted the behind-the-scenes drama that he witnessed following some NBA greats.

“When the noise started for me—and it’s now continued, and it’s quite loud—I’ve been blessed to have this built-in buffer against taking it too seriously.”

Lesson #3: Fame fades away. Measure success according to the lives you touch and what matters most to you.

On creativity

“For me, part of being creative is being varied,” Albom shared. “I finish a book, I go write a play. I finish a play, a go work on a movie. I finish a movie, I go back to a book. I go from fiction to non-fiction. It’s part of what keeps me fresh.”

However, he cautioned people from multi-tasking and doing too many things at once.

“I don’t look too far beyond the one that I’m on at the moment… I try not to get too passionate about more than one thing at a time. That way I can keep my energy and focus on making it as good as I can make it.”

Lesson #4: Explore your interests, but focus on one thing at a time and excel in it.

On making every minute count 

For an author who writes about death and dying, what is the key to living a full life and making every minute count?

“It may sound a little corny, but the first thing I do in the morning… is pray,” Albom shared. “In my prayers, I always thank God for everything that’s happened up to that minute when I’m praying from the time I woke up.

“How many things up to this point of the day—ten minutes into the day—do I have that other people don’t have? How many people say, ‘If only I could get out of bed,’ for people who are crippled. ‘Oh, if I could only see,’ for people who are blind. ‘If only I had a place to live,’ for people who are homeless.  You think of how many people don’t have what you have just up to the first cup of coffee of your day. Not only do I say, ‘Thank you,’ but I ask for guidance to remember that all day long.” 

“[The money side of] things are going to take care of itself; meanwhile… we’re going to make some memories here.”

Lesson #5: Be grateful. Be aware. Make memories with those you love. Enough said. –

Video by Toni Alvarez


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