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A Tuesday With Mitch: Sportswriter, Bestselling Author Reflects on Education and Success

Mitch Albom, Business and Journalism '82

Before he was a nationally syndicated sportswriter, a radio talk show personality, a television sports commentator and best-selling author of "Tuesdays with Morrie," Mitch Albom '82 was a student in the dual master's degree program offered by the Business School and the Graduate School of Journalism.

Coming off of a stint as an aspiring musician in New York City, he attended class in shorts and a t-shirt, as he describes, seeking the education he believed he needed to become a serious journalist.

A writer for the Detroit Free Press, Albom has since been voted the No. 1 sports columnist in the nation for 13 years by the Associated Press sports editors. In his sportswriting as well as his weekly non-sports column in the Free Press's Sunday "Choices" section, his style has been lauded for its unconventional, nontraditional approach to its subjects. In addition to his writing, Albom is the host of two nationally syndicated radio talk shows for ABC, in addition to serving as an Olympics commentator for two television networks. When asked about the distinction made in "Tuesdays with Morrie" between career skills and personal-development skills, Albom discussed his own approach to achieving professional success in various arenas.

Almost 20 years and seven books later, Albom reflected recently on his years at Columbia, his varied career paths -- from the sports page to the New York Times best-seller list -- and the advice he would offer to those just starting out.

-- Sandra Riley

 

An Atypical MBA

I had no intention of going into the business world as it's normally defined. I really wanted to be a journalist, and at that period of time in the early '80s, most of the news was dominated by economics. The inflation rate was way out of control. Carter had just been ousted. Reagan was in, and we were coming off of the oil crisis, with interest rates at 17 to 18 percent. Everything seemed to be about the economy. I thought, "Well, if I'm going to be a journalist of any kind, maybe I'd better understand what an interest rate is." And so they offered that thing [dual MBA and master's in journalism], and I got in, amazingly. I'm still trying to figure that one out!

I never quite fit exactly into the culture of interviewing and the corporate mentality, but I did learn a lot. I always thought that was supposed to be the point of the education.

It's amazing just understanding how interest rates work; how international economies go up and down; why a low inflation rate can be good in some ways and bad in another; why a strong dollar isn't always a good thing.

I think what I learned in business school was all the grays of it, and it's enormously helpful.

Striking a Balance

Ever since that Morrie thing and the whole experience, I've taken a different attitude toward work. If you were to add up the total amount of hours that I spend not sitting around in a beach chair, it might be close to what it used to be, but a lot of that is now spent talking about "Tuesdays with Morrie" or in a volunteer program here. A lot of it is spent making speeches and meeting with people. So it's not so much how you fill up your time, it's the attitude that you take toward your time and how you try to make sure that each day contains a balance and your work contains you. I'm fortunate because when I am working, I am being myself. I try to make my work something that blends into who I am.

Ode to a Glove

In my case, when it came to sportswriting, I didn't invent the wheel of unconventional sportswriting. There were a number of guys well before me whom I enjoyed, whom I read, who I think influenced my thinking that you don't have to do it the way everybody else did it.

There was a guy named Ray Fitzgerald who wrote for the Boston Globe when I was growing up. I remember that he would do unusual things in his column, such as "Conversations with a Baseball Bat." He once did a whole column on the death of his glove, how his childhood glove finally disintegrated in the closet, and he had to throw it out. He talked about all the years that he'd had with his glove and how he'd moved from house to house and it was tossed around. Everybody who read it was just so in love with it, and it didn't have anything to do with the game or a quote from a player or anything like that.

I never forgot the feeling that I got when I read that. I said, "that's what I want to make people feel when I write my columns." And that's the kind of the approach I've taken in anything I've written.

Taking a Chance on the Unconventional

In any profession, if you can find a way to still do it well but do it differently, you're going to stand out, because most people tend to take the safe route in business. Most people, even if it's a mistake, feel comfortable repeating their own mistakes rather than making original choices.

I remember I was turned down for a job when I trying to get out of my first sportswriting job in Fort Lauderdale, and I really wanted to go to this one particular paper. I ended up writing about five columns for them, as if I were working there, so that they could understand how my voice might fit into their newspaper. It wasn't enough to send clips. I actually wrote make-believe columns. And in the end instead of me they hired a guy from the Los Angeles area who had never written a column before in his life. But he was from the Los Angeles Times.

I was so incredulous, because here I was a columnist. And what the guy ultimately told me years later was, "Well, I felt that if that guy messed up at least I could say, 'Hey, he's from the LA Times. Everybody hires people from the LA Times.'"

Whereas, if he took a chance on me and I messed up, they would say, "Why did you pick this kid? No one's ever heard of him before." There's a case of a guy being more willing to make a common mistake than to take a chance on something and hit a home run. I learned from that.

If you have the guts to say, "I'm going to take a chance here that nobody else is taking. Maybe they'll all think I'm crazy, but if it works, I'll be the first one to do it," that tends to be where you get your pioneers and your mavericks and most of the successful people.

Look at the business world. What if somebody didn't decide that you could have an Amazon.com, if Ted Turner didn't decide that a 24-hour news channel was a viable option? Up till then, the thinking was, "Naw, that stuff's not gonna work." Now the thinking is, "Let's imitate it."

The Fine Art of Communication

It has so little to do with particular skills and so much to do with how you get other people to work with you. If you are working, for example, as an independent person and trying to get other people to work with you, you're going to have to find a way to get through the wall of people that are between you and the person you have to get to. If you just make a phone call and leave a message, you're just another pink slip of paper to them. And you're at home thinking, "I'm so special. Why don't they know how special I am?" Well, because to them you're a piece of pink paper.

You have to make sure that you somehow get an interpersonal connection with somebody, that you find out what they like to do or maybe go do it with them. Take an unconventional approach to getting to them or conversing with them.

If you're on the other side of it, if you're employing people, it's so easy to just fall into the do-it-because-I-said-so kind of thing. . . . Everybody who has other people working for them falls into that at some point. But one of the things I think you have to try to remember is to put yourself in the position of the person who's listening to you or having to work for you. If they were to say the exact same thing to you and you'd cringe, then they're cringing at you.

You start to realize that everybody is really the same, and Morrie kind of said that in a different way when he was talking about compassion for other human beings. He used a line that I find myself using all the time now in life, which is "We're more alike than we are different."

Listening to the Voice of Wisdom

I remember one line from the Business School -- I can't remember the professor's name, but I can see his face. He had a thick Boston accent, and I remember him saying, "Look it, if it were easy, everybody would be rich." And then he said, "This is hard, and people make mistakes. You're not entitled to it." I never forgot that. It seemed like such a simple little statement, but I knew what he was saying.

There is that attitude among a lot of young people today that somehow youth should rule the world, and I don't blame them, because in this country we worship youth. Between MTV and 22-year-old film directors and 31-year-old CEOs, there is a tendency to feel that somehow your glory years and your really productive years are your 20s. Somehow, if you haven't done it by your 20s, you'd better get it done by your 30s, because you're going to run out of gas by the time you're in your 40s. It's not that way. The truth is, you become much smarter, much more tolerant, much more worldly and wise as you get older.

I suggest that people who come out of school look to older people in the business community to try to learn what really matters. The tendency will be to go to the bar with a bunch of guys and girls your age, loosen your ties, kick back a beer and talk about how you're all going to be multimillionaires next week. If I were them -- doing it over again -- I'd find the first 60-year-old successful businessperson I could and sit down and say, "Tell me what you have seen, the ups and the downs, not just the ups. Tell me why I shouldn't be optimistic. Tell me why the bear market that we're suddenly in isn't going to last. Tell me why the boom market that we were in didn't last. Tell me the things that you thought were once true and now aren't anymore. Tell me the lies that you hear the most."

Those are your valuable resources, and I wish I had known that a little bit better when I was coming up, but I learned it pretty quickly. I've always been a person who gravitated toward older people.

"A Tuesday with Mitch" first appeared in the Columbia Business School's Fall 2001 issue of their publication, Hermes, and is reprinted here courtesy of Hermes editors.

Published: Mar 28, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002


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