Twenty-six years ago, Mitch Albom’s life changed forever when he published Tuesdays with Morrie (Broadway Books, 1997), a memoir detailing the time he spent with his former professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). The book, which became an international bestseller and remains popular, recounts life lessons Morrie Schwartz imparted to Albom, an award-winning sports journalist.
Albom went on to start multiple charities in Detroit that provide a wide range of services to disadvantaged people, including health care, scholarships and safe places to play. He eventually took over running an orphanage in Haiti and began building libraries in the Philippines. Along the way, he wrote numerous other books and still writes a regular column for the Detroit Free Press. He will be a Main Stage speaker at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 (SHRM23) taking place June 11-14 in Las Vegas and virtually.
Why does Tuesdays with Morrie still resonate?
People identify with one of the two characters. Either everybody has had a Morrie in their life—a parent, a grandparent, a teacher or mentor—or they’ve been my character at some point, no longer a kid but not fully finished with life and wondering why we’re working so hard and not more satisfied, and looking for answers. It’s just the universality of the story.
You were a self-described workaholic. How did your meetings with Morrie change your relationship with work?
Morrie said, “Giving makes me feel like I’m living.” It’s a very profound little sentence, and it really stayed with me. I realized that if what made him feel the most alive and most vibrant, in his dying days, was giving to other people, then why wouldn’t that be true when we’re young and healthy? I shifted away from the taking part of my life, which would be my ambition, my career, my accomplishments, my awards, my money, and began to think about how can I give something. I formed my first charity [in 1989] called The Dream Fund [which provides art scholarships to disadvantaged children] in Detroit. Morrie never wanted me to stop working. He just said that it shouldn’t be your raison d’etre.
What advice do you have for ambitious people who strive to be at the top of their profession and desire a fulfilling personal life?
If you can find work that has meaning and helps people and still be paid, that’s the most ideal situation. If you can’t find that, then it’s a question of working and being a workaholic. There’s working 40 hours and then there’s 80 hours. If I’m doing the 80, can I take some of the time and put it toward other things? Can I volunteer? It’s a question of prioritizing. That adage that says nobody ever said on their deathbed that “I should have worked more” is true.
‘There’s nothing like being present with somebody. ... I think if people did that in the workplace, half of the HR problems that you face would be gone.’
What advice would you give HR professionals?
I think they have a unique vantage point on the American workplace: They hear what the problems are. I’d say use that unique position and be the agent of change. My guess is that [one problem] is communication. People don’t talk to one another, or they don’t talk to each other in the right way, or they don’t keep each other informed, or they leave things out and things go unsaid and people’s feelings are hurt. They wrote an e-mail instead of having a conversation.
I learned from Morrie early on that there’s nothing like being present with somebody. Sometimes I’d be writing down things and he would say, “Mitch, look at me.” What he was doing was trying to get me in the moment. If an old man who’s dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease can do that, we can certainly do that for one another. I think if people did that in the workplace, half of the HR problems that you face would be gone.
Do you think employers have a role in ensuring that their employees are happy and satisfied?
To ask a company to be responsible for their employees’ happiness and satisfaction is a lot. Happiness and satisfaction come from a lot of different things in life. I get paid by somebody, and I pay people. I employ people in many different walks of life, from security guards at a Haitian orphanage to medical directors at clinics in America. My philosophy is to create a fair, open, pleasant, hassle-free environment in which to work. Make sure they know that there’s a line of communication and you can talk to somebody if something’s wrong. It’s the least that a workplace should do. In terms of making people happy, the employee has to bring some of that to the table, too. It’s a bit of a shared deal.
What do you think companies should be doing about the nation’s mental health crisis?
I think the causes of our mental health crisis are only partly due to our workplaces. I think a lot of it has to do with our home lives and how we fill our time. If you’re on the Internet all day long and your friends are Internet friends, and you’re not really connecting with human beings and you’re witnessing the whole world from your basement or your couch but you’re not participating in it, you’re watching other people have more fun than you. Other people may be more popular or have more likes or clicks than you. It makes for a very unsatisfying life—one of longing and despair and envy.
If that’s how you’re leading your life, you’re not finding satisfaction in life. And so you’re depressed. That’s hard for a workplace to fix, because so much of it takes place out of the workplace. It would be a good idea if every workplace that could afford it had somebody designated to watch out for mental health issues. We have a psychologist at the orphanage who is there to talk to the kids and observe them and just see if there is depression. If someone’s sitting off to the side or being very aggressive or things like that, we try to address it. If every company could have somebody doing that kind of thing, it might help them avoid workplace incidents before they happen.
How do you choose your charitable causes?
I just sort of let God or fate or however you want to refer to it decide. I went to Haiti because the earthquake happened in 2010 and a pastor said he thought that his orphanage had been destroyed and all the kids had been killed. He asked if I could help him get down there, so I organized a private plane and I went with him just to see what was going on. What I saw was so moving—I just fell in love with the kids. I wanted to help them, and I started going back. When the pastor said, “You can have it [the orphanage],” I said, “OK.” I didn’t really set out and say, “I want to get involved in this cause.” I just put myself out there and the causes found me.
What role should corporations play in philanthropy?
I think it’s very important and an obligation of their operations, especially if they’re successful and make a lot of money and have the means to change things. But I think it’s also an obligation in the neighborhood where they are. Over the last 10 years, [there has been a trend] of companies giving employees days off from work to work on [philanthropic] projects. A lot of companies are coming to us saying, “Do you have any community projects? We want you to take 200 of our employees out for a day and have them do [the project].”
I think it makes people feel good about the place where they work. And it’s a benefit to have your employees involved in volunteerism. Employees feel that maybe this place [their employer] isn’t so bad: “I like where I work. I like the fact that we get out and do this kind of stuff.” I think it’s both an obligation and a benefit.
Interview by Theresa Agovino, workplace editor for SHRM.
Photograph by Jesse Nesser.