Morrie Schwartz used to say that he wanted to be remembered as “a teacher to the last.” Well, he got his wish. Four years after he succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease, Morrie is teaching more students than ever — millions all over the world. And his class is still growing.
For nearly 30 years, he taught sociology to students at Brandeis University. But in the last year of his life, he taught anyone and everyone — family, friends, colleagues, journalists — something even more profound: how to live a meaningful life, and how to die with no regrets. Now he’s best known as the old sage in “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson” (Doubleday, 1997), a loving tribute written by one of his former students, Detroit-based sportswriter Mitch Albom. With 2.8 million copies in print, the book has remained on the “New York Times” best-seller list for two years running. It has been translated into 22 languages. And earlier this year, “Morrie: In His Own Words” (Walker and Co., 1999), a collection of his aphorisms, was republished.
Why the enormous interest in what a retired college professor had to say? The answer is simple: Morrie offered candid, heartfelt insight into many of the philosophical questions that so many of us ask ourselves (or should be asking ourselves) about life, work, community, relationships, aging, and death. And he offered all of this insight from a unique perspective. After being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the summer of 1994, he decided to make the act of dying another educational opportunity: The living would learn from his experience with death. “When you learn how to die,” Morrie said, “you learn how to live.”
So he taught Albom, who had lost touch with him after graduating from college. And he taught Ted Koppel, during three touching “Nightline” specials. In the process, Morrie became a mentor to millions of readers and viewers, regardless of their age, wealth, or occupation. But his lessons hold special power for businesspeople, who are consumed by the opportunities of the new world of work — yet often unaware of the costs associated with their achievements.
Slow down long enough to take stock, Morrie advised Albom during the first of his weekly visits: “Have you found someone to share your heart with? Are you giving to your community? Are you at peace with yourself?” The biggest mistake that most people make, Morrie said, is being shortsighted. “One hundred and ten years from now no one who is here now will be alive,” he wrote. “When you look at it that way, you can see how absurd it is that we individualize ourselves with our fences and hoarded possessions.”
It’s easy to understand why people lose perspective. The pressure to perform is overwhelming, Morrie said. It pushes people to strive for status, power, and money — regardless of the sacrifice. It pushes them to go it alone. “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy … able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people,” he wrote. Morrie believed that the opposite is true: that a community is far more powerful than an individual and that making an impact on that community is far more fulfilling than focusing only on individual goals.
If we’re all so smart, then why aren’t more of us happy? That was a question that Morrie was happy to wrestle with. Happiness, he said, comes from figuring out what gives your life purpose and then devoting yourself with passion to that purpose. For Morrie, that defining passion was teaching. Happiness comes from opening up to people, emotions, and experiences. For Morrie, the key experience was dancing, always dancing. But happiness also comes from knowing and accepting your limitations and imperfections. For Morrie, the key limitation was his body, which grew weaker as ALS limited his ability to walk, to feed himself, to breathe freely.
Laugh at yourself, Morrie urged. Forgive yourself for not doing the things that you should have done. He didn’t pine for lost youth: “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.”
Much of his advice may seem like common sense. Yet people often fail to act on such common sense, Morrie said, because they’re either sleepwalking or sprinting their way through life. Dying provides the kind of clarity that people need earlier in life but usually lack, Morrie said. Why not practice that greater awareness in your daily life now? “We’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going,” he wrote. “So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing? … Dying is only one thing to be sad over…. Living unhappily is something else.”
Is his message sappy? Sure. That was Morrie. Is it simplistic? Well, Morrie didn’t think that the best answers were necessarily the most complicated answers. Sometimes, the simplest advice is also the truest advice, and, in that spirit, Morrie liked to quote this line from W.H. Auden: “Love each other or perish.”
“Everything that gets born dies,” Morrie wrote. “The best way to deal with that is to live in a fully conscious, compassionate, loving way…. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to recognize that this is the only way to live.”
The only way to live. Take it from Morrie, a teacher to the last.
Chuck Salter (email@example.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in Baltimore.