For Mitch Albom, author of massive best-sellers "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet In Heaven," it was about time he looked at time. The Detroit-based author, known for his short books that pack in big life lessons, recently finished "The Time Keeper," a novel that spans 6,000 years and touches on everything from where Father Time came from to whether or not cryogenics is really a good idea.
The Huffington Post Canada sat down with Albom recently to discuss his latest book, our insanely fast-paced society, and how he ensures each moment actually means something.
The Huffington Post Canada: So with "The Time Keeper," you've written a different kind of book — which at the same time is similar to your past works.
Mitch Albom: I tend to take on these sort of big topics, and as a result, to me the best way the best way to convey these stories to people is in a simple story. So it’s somewhat similar, I think, to "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" in that it’s a fable of sorts, only a modern day one, and a little magical. This one is different in that, first of all, its scope – it goes back to the beginning of time, and then it comes all the way up to the present and even goes into the future. It also has a teenage protagonist, which is new for me. But I think thematically it’s still one of my books, for better or for worse.
THPC: What made you start thinking about time?
MA: Probably getting older. I think I wouldn’t have written this book ten years ago. I was busy and I knew that time was valuable, but I think there’s a point everybody reaches in their life where you begin to look back over your shoulder more than you’re necessarily looking forward and you start to think, ‘How have I been spending my time? What have I been doing? And has it been right?’
SEE: Mitch Albom's take on what it means to make the most of your time. Interview continues below:
THPC: You seem to think we shouldn’t be counting time in the book. How should we be going about it instead?
MA: Well, we obviously existed on the planet at some point when we didn’t [count time], because somebody invented the clock. I think there’s a difference of being aware of the seasons of life and watching every minute. Even the earliest people before there was a clock had some sense of when the sun was out and when the moon was out. That’s way different from what everybody does all the time and I think we have crossed way over the line … we’re moving at this insane pace. Our pace has moved beyond our humanity.
I think there’s this beautiful equation in life that we know our days are limited, but we don’t know when, so we have the choice to spend our time how we spend it. Tomorrow could be the last one, you could have 50 more years. But if you treat each day as sort of a precious one and say ‘I may not get any more,’ then the quality of your life will turn on the decision you make as to what you’re going to do in that given day. I think that that’s a beautiful tragic arithmetic of life and I’ve thought a lot about it, obviously, and that’s sort of the lesson that’s the backdrop to this whole story.
THPC: How do you make your days precious?
MA: I’m very passionate and organized about what goes into my day. I begin my day with prayer – some people find that funny, but I do – then I go to writing, and then I have quiet time with my wife. I don’t take phone calls, I don’t do anything having to do with anything before X time in the morning, usually about 11 in the morning. So I know that I’m giving X amount of my day to these things that are important to me before everything that’s important to everybody else starts coming in. Then, as I go through the rest of the day, I try to keep some sense of perspective on it. If it starts to build up, I say, 'I need to break away from this.'
THPC: What do you mean by build up?
MA: When there’s more phone calls to answer than there are minutes left in the day, which means it’s now dripped over to tomorrow. I have gotten off email. I don’t answer it anymore, I’ve turned it over to other people if I can. People get really frustrated with you if you do that, you know, it’s like you’ve broken some kind of code. And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but it got to the point where there were three, four, five hundred emails that had to be answered. Every time someone sends you one, they’re expecting a return, which means you have come into my time and said ‘I need your time to respond to this.’
THPC: Are there other things you do to balance your time?
MA: Probably the most physical and most obvious is this orphanage in Haiti that I’ve been involved with over the last two years. Basically I go to Haiti every month, usually for three to four days, and it’s a forced exit from this life that I have in the States. You don’t have Internet, you’re lucky if you have electricity eight hours a day, and you just have to stop and basically pay attention to what’s in front of you there. I found that what was first a volunteer thing became almost addictive. [It was] taking me out of the world that I thought was so important, and found that I could disappear from it for three or four days, and everybody waited, and everything got taken care of. Meanwhile, I not only felt better about being down there, I almost began to look forward to it, as tough as the conditions are.
THPC: How would you advise other people, with their responsibilities and schedules, to carve out their time?
MA: I hope I don’t present myself in these books as some oracle who has the answers. Having said that, I do think it begins with having to be clear about what your priorities are in your life as to who you want to be. Sometimes that might mean not working at that job that takes up all that time. I’m not making a value judgment, I’m just saying, if you dislike it so much, or if it’s eating up ten hours of your day and it’s not making you happy, is it the right job?
I don’t think it’s about proportion – if you’re working ten hours and you’re only giving an hour to yourself, it’s out of proportion – but that hour to yourself or that hour to other people can be huge. I look at working parents who, when they come home, they have those two hours, three hours with the kids before they go to bed and that’s the most important time of the day. If you put it on a scale, that’s fewer hours than they spent working, but the scale isn’t what matters. Did you devote yourself to something that’s really important to you? And the answer is yes.
THPC: You mentioned a teenage protagonist was a new direction for you.
MA: I have 17 nieces and nephews who I’ve watched go through all the teenage years. One of them was my inspiration for this Sarah character [from "The Time Keeper"]. I noticed so many young people, they’re so emotional, and they get so broken at such a young age because they feel they’re not living up to whatever is expected of them.
They just don’t see how tomorrow is this amazing word. And you want to say to them, you can’t give up on time. What you don’t know when you’re young is the amazing healing quality that time has, and by the time you realize it in life, you’ve probably suffered so many wounds and scars that you wish you hadn’t had to learn the hard way.
But if I could teach young people one thing about time it would be that you have so much of it when you’re young, for the most part, if you’re lucky. Trust it. This break-up will pass. These are simple things, but they bear repeating in today’s world, I think.
THPC: So you believe time heals all wounds?
MA: I do – I don’t think it erases them. There are some wounds that will stay with you your entire life, no matter how young they come, but I do think that time is a salve and there is no substitute for it and you can’t hurry it, but it does have a healing power, and you have to trust in it.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited from its original format for clarity and length.