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Interview with Tom Morris, May 30, 2008
May 30, 2008
In this interview, local philosopher and writer of numerous books, Tom Morris, reflects on his beginnings as a writer, his writing process, his years as a professor at Notre Dame, and how he became a successful business and motivational speaker. He also discusses his life as a "public philosopher," and the importance of defining one's own path and roles throughout life.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Morris, Tom Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Douglas Date of Interview:  5/30/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes


Diesenhaus: Hello, I'm Douglas Diesenhaus. On today, May 30, 2008, I'll be interviewing Tom Morris for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writing. And usually, the best place to start, is asking people how they got started writing, and maybe for you, the question might also include: How have you come to Philosophy and your studies?

Morris: That's a good place to start. You know, I don't remember even thinking about being a writer, growing up. It's funny. I went to Chapel Hill on a Morehead Scholarship, and a few years ago, they sent me my essay that I had to write up in connection with my nomination for Morehead. And it described pretty much what I'm doing now as a poet philosopher, although I didn't know there was such a job. Those were my aspirations. I went to college as a business major. I was going to go to law school; my parents wanted me to be a corporate lawyer, you know, have some kind of stable situation. I was the first person in my family on either side to ever go to college, so we didn't really know what college involved, and sort of, everybody in the family assumed, "Well, it's gotta be like job preparation, right?" So, you know, get ready to get a good job. And yet, when I was nominated for my scholarship and they asked me what I really wanted to do, it was all about helping people with their lives; it was all about ideas, it was all about things like that, you know. So I got to Chapel Hill, and all it took was a couple business/accounting courses to make me rethink that, and I became a Philosophy major for about a week and a half, and then I became a Religious Studies major, and that kind of stuck.

In my Senior year, I was dating this girl-- that her brother lived in Switzerland with a very popular writer. He had a kind of a compound in Switzerland. The guy's name was Francis Schaeffer, and he'd written a bunch of books, and they had sold millions of copies, and he had devotees all over the world. I had friends at Carolina who just loved this guy's books and quoted him all the time, and I read them, and he was kind of a Philosophy, Theology guy, and I read his books and I thought, "Hmm, there's some good stuff here, but there are also some real weaknesses, some real limitations." It's funny; he sold millions of copies of books and nobody's written a full-length study of his books. So maybe I want to do that, maybe I'll do that. "Could I do an honors thesis on that?" And they said at Chapel Hill, they said, "Okay, all right, sure." So I did a 70-page honors thesis my Senior year and I really got into it, you know, I was discovering all these ideas and all these connections and linkages and I kept writing and kept writing.

And I can't remember if there was a length consideration or anything, but I just wrote 70 pages, and I got my honors degree, and then I thought, "Well, you know, I wonder if any publisher would be interested in this?" So I sent a letter to 37 publishers and 36 said, "No, thank you," and one said, "Okay." So when I was 22 years old, I was a published author. I got 25 cents a book, I mean I thought, "Wow, 25 cents a book, you know, what if I sell, you know, a hundred books? I mean, you know, this is going to add up." And in the first year it sold 20,000 books. I made $5,000 my first year in graduate school, and I thought, "Wow," you know, I mean there were professors who worked for a year and made $5,000. This is 1975, and I thought, "Wow, and that wasn't hard." I mean, I had added to the book, so it ended up being a hundred-and-some pages, you know, by the time it was published, but so, that I thought, "Well, that's a book; I can write a book."

So, when it was time for me to do my dissertation, I was at Yale and I was in two departments-- Philosophy and Religious Studies-- and everybody was saying, "Oh, how do you write a dissertation? Oh, dissertations are so big, I mean how do you; most I've ever written is 30 pages," and I never worried about that. I thought, "Well, I've done it once; I can do it again."

So, still I needed help. There was a guy, he'd written a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had written a book on the Korean War, and now he's written a bunch of books on Civil War history, a very popular writer. He lived in Connecticut and he would call me every afternoon. My wife was a dental hygienist, he was one of her patients; I think that's how I knew him. He'd call me every afternoon and insist that I'd written three pages that day, and I'd say, "Why three pages?" And he said, "It adds up." He said, "Three pages a day: anybody can write three pages of anything in a day, and then before you know it, you've got a book." And I said, "Well, what if it's no good?" "Fine, write garbage, write three pages of garbage every day. As the garbage piles up, you will start to have a sense of accomplishment, however illusory, that will build your confidence." And he said, "The key to writing is rewriting." Really? So, the more stuff you have as raw material, the more words you have on paper, the more you have to work with when you rewrite. And he said, "Writing's hard, rewriting is much easier, but you've got to give yourself the raw materials to do it." He would call me every day, late afternoon, and say, "Have you written your three pages?" And any time I said no, he would ridicule me, he would make jokes at my expense, he would criticize me, he would tell me about pathetic characters who had been working on their dissertations for 40 years and would dust off a box in the top of their closet once a week and write a few words. And so, I wrote my dissertation under this guy's merciless pressure, and then that was two books.

And actually, my dissertation was wrong. Let me make this point. I got a PhD from Yale with a dissertation that was wrong, so everybody, I want to inspire all students, don't have to worry it has to be right, as long as it's interesting. I thought it was right, and then I got my PhD and I said, "Ooh, this doesn't work after all," and so I split it into two projects and I wrote two books and got it right. And one book was called Understanding Identity Statements, and one book was called The Logic of God Incarnate. It was pretty esoteric, philosophical stuff. But so, then I was a writer. Man, I had three published books. I had a dissertation, three published books and now, you know, 18 books later it's something you can do. I mean, it's amazing.

Diesenhaus: Were there other people besides the professor you mentioned, who were influential or were kind of particularly supportive in your academic life?

Morris: Yeah, it was, you know, at Chapel Hill, I had a couple of really good professors who got me excited about the life of the mind, and I was like a lot of people who get into a good school who just learned how to make A's. You know, I knew how to take tests and make A's. I didn't have, I wasn't, I had something like color blindness to the importance of ideas, you know, I just didn't get it. I knew how to memorize stuff and how to do well on tests, and then I had a couple of lecturers in college who, they were so engaging, I almost forgot to take notes. And I said, "Okay, this is fun, I've gotta do this," and that's how I became Philosophy/Religious Studies, and I took seven courses with each of these guys, you know, so 14 courses, two professors, 14 courses. And I found a professor like that in graduate school. And the ideas were so exciting that-- I've never had discipline as a writer, I mean, some people would say, "Four hours a day, six hours a day," you know, "From 9:00 until 11:00," and I admire them, but that's not me. People have asked me about how much I get accomplished, and I like to describe my life as long stretches of indolence, punctuated by intense bursts of activity. When I get excited about a new idea or group of ideas, it's like I can't control it; I have to just find out everything I can possibly find out and then I have to write as much as I can possibly write, and then there's a book, you know, I'm done with a book. And it used to be what I would do is this. Still, writing a book can be a daunting thing, so I would write a short essay. I mean I did this at Notre Dame; I taught 15 years at Notre Dame, I would be in the middle of a class and an idea would occur to me, and I would tell the students, and then maybe the next day I'd expand on it a little bit and if it still made sense to me, the next time I had to write a book review for a Philosophy journal of some other guy's book where it was relevant, I would try out that idea in the book review. And if it worked, then I would write my own article, professional article, 10 pages, 20 pages, on that idea, and it got published. And then maybe that would then feed in to become a chapter of a book.

So, I used to call it the multiple use principle. If you have an idea, use it three times, you know, don't just use it once, and use it on different scales to see, "Okay, does this work? I'm gonna try this out." I've always tried to use ideas in my own life and try them out in various ways before they went into a book, and that's always served me well. But in college and graduate school, I was just around a lot of people excited about ideas, and a lot of professors who had written books, and so I didn't realize how unusual it was to write a book, because so many people around me had done it, were doing it; it seemed to be a natural thing. My kids grew up with their baby-sitter, her dad was director of Baywatch, the TV show, and so one sister was casting director, one sister was set designer. My kids grew up hearing about this, all the time thinking, "Well, that was just a normal job," you know, working for a TV show, making movies; that's just something people do. And so, both my kids have gone into film, not realizing what a miniscule percentage of the population does such a thing. And I was the same way with books. My parents didn't go to college, but I grew up in a house surrounded by books, books by Plato, and Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, and I kept wondering, "Who are these characters? Who are these people?" It was all around me. I was at a college campus in Florida not too long ago. I think it's the only campus in the world that was built by a famous architect, the whole campus, and when he was a baby his mother surrounded his crib with pictures of buildings, and the baby was Frank Lloyd Wright. So you kind of become what you're surrounded with, you know, so if you want to become a writer, surround yourself with other writers, you know, surround yourself with essays and poetry and books, and pretty soon it becomes so normal and natural to you, you don't realize how weird it is to do such a thing, and you just do it.

Diesenhaus: Based on what you're saying, I wonder sort of about the academic life that you were in for so long. Did you enjoy it? Was it a good fit for you?

Morris: Yeah. Because I'm such an undisciplined person, I am not going to do anything that's not fun, and so it had to be fun. At Notre Dame when I started teaching, I started with small classes, I asked for small classes. It's what I call the damage minimization principle, you know, until I learned what I was doing, I wanted to damage as few students [laughs] as I possibly could. And so, then the classes got bigger and bigger, and bigger and bigger, and pretty soon I was teaching an eighth of the student body every year, huge classes. And we'd have the marching band come into the class and play the victory march before the first exam, and you know, stuff. It was like an extravaganza every day, and it was great fun. I loved it. I was writing tons of books. I never felt pressure to publish, because I just kind of did it naturally. When I was up for tenure, I had 10 books and 50 articles, and I think the most anybody had had was two books and 10 articles or something, but to me, it wasn't a competition, it wasn't a pressure, it was just like breathing, almost, you know, I wanted to write. Because writing, for me, is a form of thinking. I mean, at its best, writing is never just communicating. At its best, writing is a form of thinking, and so is talking. I mean, I think by the time you're 20 or 30 years old, everybody in the world has had a conversation with another person where you've come away having learned something, not from what you heard the other person say, but from what you heard yourself saying in that conversation. So, talking can be a form of thinking. So can writing. And writing really clarifies your thinking. I believe there was a time in American history, recent history, where people wrote journals, diaries, letters all the time. More extended than instant messages, you know, or the short e-mail, you know, people really kind of interpreted their lives. And to see people getting back to writing on the internet, on the computer, e-mailing each other, great, you know, it clarifies your thinking. So for me, writing was always something I needed to do to figure out what I thought about something.

Diesenhaus: And maybe this is related to what you just said, but how did you shift from that academic world to what you're doing now, and did it have something to do with kind of the number of books that you were producing, and the effect?

Morris: Yeah, there was a certain point where I had this article when I was hired at Notre Dame, somebody said, "Well, one of your lifetime goals should be to get an article in the Philosophical Review," a journal published at Cornell University, "because that will make your career. By the time you're 50 or 60 years old, you have an article in Phil Review, that's it, that's a career." And so I got an article in Phil Review, I think, my third year as an assistant professor. There is was, my article in Phil Review. I kind of got that taken care of and I was so proud of myself, and I went to the American Philosophical Association meeting in Boston or some place, and this well-known philosopher came up to me, and he said, "Hey, congratulations on your article in Phil Review. I tried to read it and it gave me a headache." And I thought, "I'm writing stuff that's so complicated and even guys who've been in this field for two decades, it gives them a headache?" I mean, "Is that what my contribution to the world is? I'm writing stuff that 17 people on Earth can understand, and that's gonna be my legacy to the world? There's got to be more to life and writing than that. There's got to be more to Philosophy than that." I mean, Plato didn't write for 17 people, you know, look at all the people he's influenced over the years. And I said, "I've got to figure out, maybe it's as simple as this; I'm going to start writing the way I talk rather than the way Philosophy professors talk."

You know, writing was a defensive exercise. Every sentence has got to be so constructed that nobody could possibly object to what you're saying. You've anticipated every possible objection and criticism, and you're building an edifice, a fortress of ideas that's almost impenetrable by the time you finish laying all these qualifications and clauses and all this stuff. You know, as a philosopher, I could write some of the longest sentences ever written in the English language. It was astonishing. They used to tell me about German philosophers who wrote three volume books, and the way the German language is, you know, verbs come at the end of the sentence, and they would say that, you know, "some philosopher wrote a three volume treatise and all the verbs were in volume three," I mean, that's how long [laughs] the sentence was, you know, and I said, "This is no good, people can't read this."

So, my first book-- I taught seminars for the National Endowment for the Humanities for eight years at Notre Dame. They bring 15 of the best teachers in America to live with me for a month and I'd be the only professor, they'd be my only students. It'd be like Hawaii Teacher of the Year, Michigan Teacher of the Year, great teachers, and I was leading them through Pascal's Pensees, the notes written by a great 17th century scientist, mathematician, philosopher. He was going to write a book before he died, and he died before he could write the book, so all we have is his notes. I taught his notes for eight years, and then I decided, "Okay, I'm going to write a book based on these notes, not the book he would've written, but the book I want to write based on his insights," and that was the first book I wrote like I talk.

I told funny stories in the book, and it had really serious ideas, and people have told me that they really have to read some of the paragraphs, you know, three times, to make sure they get all the ideas, but turn a page and there's a funny story, and that's the first time I had ever done that, and that book was published, gee, that was probably published in 1992, 16 years ago. And I just met with a real-life-- basically he's the real-life Jack Bauer from 24. This is the guy, he was one of my students years ago. He is on the FBI counterterrorism SWAT team. He is keeping us all safe these days, and he said that that book had a huge impact on his life, he's read it two or three times. It's called Making Sense of it All, available at your local bookstore.

But because of the impact that book seemed to have on people, I said, "I've got to keep doing this, I've got to keep writing the way I talk," and then boom, all of a sudden, there you go. People are asking me to give talks off-campus, on what did the great philosophers say about ethics, what did they say about success, what did they say about this, that and the other, and so I started giving talks, and then all of a sudden, the talks started having such an impact, I thought, "Well, I should write this up," and so that launched the book True Success, the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and then book, after book, after book.

Diesenhaus: And the shift to the kind of natural language, or the way that you talk?

Morris: Conversational, sort of, yeah.

Diesenhaus: When you did that, was it easy, or did you sometimes have some resistance because of your academic training?

Morris: Yeah, that's a good question. It was, in a sense, it was easy, because we all talk, you know, we all talk to friends and family members, and you know, when I was home, I was not discoursing in the living room, you know, I was not holding class all the time. But there was this habit when I was putting pen to paper, and I wrote my first 10 books in either ballpoint or fountain pen, but I was putting pen to paper, there was this tendency, I had to catch myself, you know, making the sentence too convoluted, writing, saying, more than I needed to say. I had to edit myself, and it took a while to really get over, that would creep in. A lot of academics, well, I once, I give speeches all over the world, and I was going to cultivate another professor to be a sort of a big-time public speaker, and my agent at the Washington Speaker's Bureau said, "It's hard for professors to be public speakers." I said, "Why, you'd think it's the most natural thing in the world. They've been in front of people talking their whole careers, so they get out of the classroom and go to a coliseum or an auditorium; what's the difference?" He said, "Professors tend to think that their job is to convey the most information possible in the hour available. It's the job of a public speaker to have the greatest impact possible in the hour available. It's impact, not information. Information has to be subordinate to impact." And I thought, "Wow, that's really insightful," and that's what you have to remember in writing for a broad public audience, your number-one job is impact, and information has to be subordinate to that, so you don't overwhelm people with too much, you know.

Diesenhaus: I guess I'm just curious about the question of access. It sounds like much of what you're saying is that you had a way to sort of give access to people where maybe otherwise Philosophy seems like an ivory tower thing.

Morris: Yeah, yeah.

Diesenhaus: I wonder about how you feel about that, or even when you maybe start to lecture, do people kind of say, "Oh, Philosophy's not for me," but then as you're talking about it, do they change?

Morris: Oh yeah, to me this was the biggest kick about being a professor at a place like Notre Dame. Every student had to take two Philosophy courses whether they wanted to or not, two Philosophy courses, and mostly it was not, they didn't want to. [laughs] "What am I doing here? You know, I'm going to be an accountant, I'm going to be a doctor. Why Philosophy? Why are they making me take this? Oh, what a waste of time." I loved it when they came into the first day of class hating to be there, because then when I could win them over, I felt like, and then they would say, "This is my favorite class I've ever had," I felt like boy. I'm accomplishing something, you know. So, as a teacher, I just had this almost evangelistic urge to give people access to the greatest wisdom of the ages. Because I thought, you know, Socrates used to hang around on the street and talk to people. I mean, it wasn't a, "You better go and study for 20 years, and then maybe you can understand what I'm going to say," you know, he's grabbing people, he's asking questions, and so I wanted to--

And I thought to myself, you know, what, there's this whole stream of Philosophy they don't teach anymore in most universities: Practical Philosophy. We teach the theoretical side, but there's always been a practical side, too. How do we live? You know, what's good? What's not so good? What is excellence? How do you deal with difficulty, with anger, with ambition? I want to go back and rediscover all that stuff that a hundred years ago, you would read Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, or Cicero in a university course, but it's much harder to find that stuff these days. Go into the bookstore and even try, you know, I had to order Seneca in from Harvard Press and facing pages of, you know, Latin and English, and who's going to go take that to the beach, you know? [laughs] So I thought, "I'm gonna work to make the stuff accessible to people," and it doesn't mean watering it down. It doesn't mean sort of, you know, popularizing it in some kind of inappropriate way. All it means, is stripping off all the unnecessary verbiage and technical complexity that doesn't have to be part of the enterprise at all. It might be necessary for getting tenure and getting in Philosophical Review, but as long as you don't care about that anymore, do it straight, you know, give it to people straight, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

Diesenhaus: There does seem to be kind of a trend of using allegory or fables with either Philosophy books or Business books, and I wonder, do you see the way that you do it fitting with that, or is it different from that?

Morris: Yeah, I've never, yeah, it's funny, there are a lot of best-selling Business books. There are a little story about two mice and a piece of cheese or, you know, guys going fishing or, you know, I met a stranger on a park bench, and he had just come back from Tibet and he shared with me the wisdom of the ancient, you know, sages of the Himalayas, and you know, they draw you in with a story. I've always used stories on a small scale, anecdotally, to illustrate points. I've never written extended narrative, and hey, fables, allegories, things like that have been very popular, because every human being lives a story, we live our own narrative, and so we have almost this innate capacity to hook onto other's people's narratives and then we have a kind of an innate desire to be exposed to other people's narratives. That's why there have been storytellers since there were human beings, you know, and I've done it always on a smaller scale. I don't know if I'm going to ever do it on a larger scale or not. I don't know if I'm ever going to write fiction or not. I might just to see if I can. It could be a more effective way of communicating with people than I'm doing now. You know, when I was writing academic books, you're lucky to have 3,000 readers, 5,000 readers, and you know, now I have readers into the six figures, you know, over 100,000 readers of a book, but still, I could have a lot more readers. So, you know, who knows? I might say at some point, write my next, I'm working on three books now, so it'd have to be the fourth book down the road, but you know, it may be a surfer dude discovers Philosophy or [laughs] something kind of story.

Diesenhaus: I wonder, given that that's not your strategy, the kind of story arc, and especially the way that you describe the writing-- sort of from the scale growing-- how do you shift from that kind of shorter academic article that you might've been doing in your earlier life, to a full book, where you have to have, you know, have to essentially keep the reader throughout what you're trying to say, how does that work for you?

Morris: It works for me just really naturally. One of my students at my course evaluations at the end of the semester at Notre Dame, one of my students wrote, "This was not like a class at all. This was like having a conversation with a very talkative person." [laughs] And just the fact that I am such a talkative person, that's kind of the book, you know, you can't stop, you've got something to say and, you know, sometimes I wish I had 20-page ideas, you know. I would feel like I was getting a lot more done, but you know, "Here's a 20-pager, here's another 20-pager." Even if I could write shorter books, I mean a lot of best-selling business books are a hundred pages long, and those pages are a lot of white space, you know, big font, a lot of white space, especially the parable and fable kind of books. You know, "You got a free couple of hours, write yourself a best-selling business book with a fable that, you know, you could've, it's like an expanded Hallmark card, you know. It could've been a short essay, but nobody, you can't really get paid for short essays, so let's put the font really big and have big margins and we got a book and we can make some money on this." You know, I don't mean to be cynical about it, because some people have, you know, 30-page ideas, I just gotta, and you know, maybe I go too far on things, but I just want to trace it out, I want to find out where these ideas are going. I mean, how do you apply them, and what does it relate to? And all of a sudden, you've got 300 pages.

Diesenhaus: And going back to the advice you received from that professor, is that still how you do it, that you kind of just go forward with all the energy, and then in rewriting, maybe clarify the long thread, is that what you do?

Morris: Yeah. I've only had one book that I didn't have to rewrite a lot, and that was Philosophy for Dummies, and it was the quickest I've ever written a book, it was the longest book I've written, very strange combination of qualities. I was giving a talk to 2,500 drugstore executives in Palm Beach, Florida, and two days later a lady calls me and says, "My boyfriend is executive vice president for one of the big drugstore chains, and he invited me to come to your talk a couple days ago in Palm Beach, and I'm the acquisitions editor for all the Dummies books, and you've got to write Philosophy for Dummies." And I said, "Really?" And she said, "Yeah, we used to do just books like Gardening for Dummies and Auto Repair for Dummies. We're going to launch lifetime learning stuff, and Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum is going to do Art for Dummies, and that was going to be our first book in kind of the humanities, but if you could do Philosophy for Dummies, if you could do it pretty quickly so we could do your book and his book kind of at the same time, that would be great." And I said, "Well, I've never turned my intro course at Notre Dame into a book." "Could you do it?" "I think I can." So I would sit at my desk, and I was writing on a computer at this point, and it was like channeling myself. I was sitting there: Okay, I walk in the class the first day, what did I say? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Three months, I had a book written, three months. Now by contrast, The Art of Achievement took me 10 years and 14 versions. Philosophy for Dummies, three months. And then I had to cut 30 percent, because I didn't read the contract about the length that they wanted. [laughs] I wrote too much and I had to cut out a bunch of stuff. But it really varies. I wrote a book last spring that I thought I was done in three months, four months, five months, and now it's 12 months later, and I'm just finishing the fourth or fifth version of it. I think maybe I'll be done now. So it's really amazing, my experience, writing books can be really different.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder also, for the speeches you give, are you writing them, preparing notes, outlines?

Morris: Notes, I'll do notes in advance, and then I'll put together a Powerpoint slide. When somebody asks me to speak on a certain topic, first of all, I'll do a lot of research on a topic. MBNA Bank was being bought by Bank of America. I got a call one day, I had spoken for MBNA Bank in Wilmington, Delaware many times, and the big issue of credit cards, you know, Visa, MasterCard, that kind of thing. "Hey, Tom, we're getting bought by Bank of America, and everybody's really worried. Everybody's scared to death. Bank of America has 9,000 credit card people already. We have a total of 6,000 in our company. What are they going to do, have 15,000 credit card people? We don't think so. We think a lot of people are going to be shown the door, and everybody's really nervous, and have you ever talked on change, how to handle change? Have you ever given a talk on that?" "Nope." "Could you?" "Yeah." "Do the great philosophers say anything about change?" "Yeah, a lot of stuff." "Well, could you kind of research it into...?" "Okay." So, three months later, man, I had discovered so much incredible stuff on change, and I'm taking notes all the time, and I'm thinking, "Okay, what are the patterns in the ideas I'm finding? Oh, okay, there's an art of change. Oh, it's composed of three component arts. Oh, man, the first two of those arts, there are three things you have to do." I'm making this outline, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and then all of a sudden I do an outline for my talk, okay, got to have a funny story here, got to have a joke there, got to have a compelling story here. I'm sort of, I'm not writing the talk, but I'm sort of making notes about what I need here, what I need, how do I start, how do I end, and then I do a Powerpoint presentation, I do about 20 PowerPoints or something, and that's really my cheat sheet when I give a talk for the first time ever, in front of 700 people.

And so I don't rehearse it, I don't give it ahead of time in front of a mirror like some public speakers say to do. I'd feel like a total idiot if I was doing that. [laughs] Sometimes I walk, take exercise walks, and I'll be going through it in my head, you know, what I want to say first, second, third, but then I get in front of those people, and they think I'm doing it without notes, and I really am in some ways, but then click to PowerPoint; there's the next thing I'm supposed to talk about, you know, it's up in front of all of us. And I gave that talk for MBNA and they said, "It changed everything for us. It changed everybody's attitudes," and then somebody asked me to give it to their company and then to another company, then the Washington Speaker's Bureau said, "You've got to come and give our staff, because people are going nuts over these ideas, every group you've spoken to." I said, "Okay," and then somebody said to me, "Maybe you should write this up, maybe this should be your next book," and that's my next book.

Diesenhaus: And can you talk a bit about your research strategy? You've talked about researching for a lecture, for a book as well. Do you have strategies or certain processes that you do, to kind of bring the information you need and then be able to transform it into-- ?

Morris: Yeah, I have levels of strategy, basically. My broadest, most general strategy, is read any crazy thing that gets your attention. I read such a diversity of books for my own personal entertainment that it's unbelievable; you know, I'm all over the map. It's the most bizarre, nonsensical combination of things that you could possibly make, because you never know where you're going to find a great idea. My son had an idea that we should do a book together on superheroes and Philosophy, and all the Philosophical ideas in the great superhero stories, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and so I spent a year reading comic books. I spent $15,000 buying comic books over a period of a year. [laughs] I didn't know how expensive they were now. They used to be a quarter, you know, and I had to catch up on everything. And so I'm doing research for a book; I'm reading comic books all day long, I'm reading every Spider-Man issue, every Batman issue. My wife wants me to take out the trash, but I'm working, you know, I'm reading Spider-Man. I mean it's the greatest scam in the world, [laughs] and we wrote this book, and launched it at the big comicbook convention in San Diego for a hundred thousand people, and so you never know what's going to count as research. But then, when I get interested in a specific set of ideas, I'll really start digging and I'll really start letting one book lead me to another. What's the bibliography in this book, what looks interesting? I'll go to the library, I'll go to the bookstore, and I never know where it's going to take me, but I'm always looking for wisdom, whatever it is, I'm looking for wisdom. And it doesn't have to be from a person called a philosopher, you know; it can be from a biologist, it can be from a comicbook writer.

Diesenhaus: And either in regards to research or the writing process, has each successive book taught you something new, or you made mistakes that you sort of learn, "I'm not going to make those mistakes anymore"?

Morris: Yeah, let's see, have I learned anything? I guess, I guess I'm learning, every book I write. When I'm finally done with it, I say to my wife, "This is the best book I've ever written. I mean, this is so good I can't believe I wrote it. I mean, this is really amazing." I almost feel like, at a certain point, I almost feel like an observer to the process, you know, it's like boy. And I look back, here's a weird thing, if you're inclined to believe in weird things, here's a weird thing. Books I wrote early in my career, I was always stretching into territory where I was not an expert, but I wrote stuff on ancillary topics that came up in the progression of writing about my main stuff. I was always reaching out, reaching out, reaching out into areas where I wasn't an expert, and yet 10 years later, when I had read all the experts, I'd go back and read what I wrote in my book. I was using the exact language that unknown to me, the experts in those fields were using. I had somehow had this intuitive way of kind of getting it right in things that I just was kind of making some educated guesses about, really. And I've always had that kind of capacity to have intuitions about stuff, and learning; you have to learn to trust that over time, you know, because how does that work? We don't know how that works, but you have to learn to trust that. And then you have to learn that the process, like, here's a good concrete example. It used to be, I would write the first paragraph of any new book 50 times. I was writing in fountain pen, tear it up, throw it away, ball it up, throw away, trash can gets overflowing. I'm so frustrated I'm about to explode. I'd go home the first day after working on a book, eight hours, and what's my net result from eight hours? Nothing, [laughs] you know; I might leave the last version of the paragraph on my desk and I didn't crumple it up and throw it away only because the trash can was full, overflowing, and I wanted to have something to look at when I showed up the next day, but nothing, I got nothing accomplished, nothing. And I would second day, nothing, third day, nothing, and I thought to myself, "This is like the most painful process. This is such a waste of time. Maybe I can't write this book." I'm talking about getting beyond the first paragraph, I couldn't do the first paragraph right. And this happened, book, after book, after book.

And I finally had to realize, it took me awhile to learn, this is part of my creative process, and that day four or day five or something, the dam would break and the ideas would flow so fast I could hardly write it as fast as it was coming through my head, flowing. And then the rewriting was fairly minimal compared to those first couple painful days, you know. I had to embrace the process, though. I had to say, "This is not wasted time, this is my unconscious working out this stuff." And so I've had to learn things like that through all these years of-- learn to trust who you distinctively are, what your process distinctively is. It might not be like somebody else's, and it might look worse than somebody else's. It might look less disciplined; it might look less professional, but who cares? That's your process, and you've got to go with it, and then you'll find a way to polish it and to get it into final form.

Diesenhaus: Has that kind of gotten you into any kind of rituals or habits that you've become accustomed to, so that you get to the good place where you're kind of moving beyond the getting stuck?

Morris: Yeah, yeah. I used to, there was one time when I had to wear a suit, I had to put on a suit, and I had to get really dressed up to mark off that time. It was almost like when I was a long distance runner and lacing on the running shoes and everything that was kind of a transitional thing. And I don't even remember now which book it was, but there was a book where everything else had failed. I was not getting any work done at all. I was tired of beating my head against the wall, and I finally said, "I don't even know why I did this." My mother had sent me a bunch of suits; I didn't wear suits. I was, you know, a Philosophy professor, you know, we try to outdo each other in how sloppy we can look, [laughs] and you know, I'm just sort of a wrinkled mess all the time, with tennis shirts and khakis, and finally, I put on a suit, put on a tie, put on a suit, go show up, boom, work gets done. What's this about? Second day, there's the suit again, more work gets done. "All right, if this is what it takes." Now I haven't done, only one book was like that and I have no idea why, but I've gotten to the point where my room that I write in, my study, my desk, my computer, it's kind of like a special place. So that when I was in Florida last week giving a bunch of speeches and I was away for six nights, and then I came home and I walked into my study and there was my desk, and I got really excited. I was like, "Wow, I can't wait to be able to sit down at this desk again, and this chair," and I thought, "Why not do it now?" even though I didn't have time to write or anything-- it was kind of late in the evening-- I sat in my chair and I just had this thing kind of flow through me like, "Okay, we can work, we can get some writing done. As soon as I have some time tomorrow, I'm going to sit here and boom, things are going to happen." So you can get, if you build up a positive set of experiences with a place, with anything like that. There was a guy at the Los Alamos Project for developing the first atomic bomb, and his office, people had had so many good ideas in his office-- they called it The Cave of the Hot Winds or something-- they had this name for his office. If people would go there, they'd get the inspiration, you know, and you can make your own writing place like that, I think.

Diesenhaus: And especially given your schedule, are you bringing ideas that you might have kind of had their germination when you're on the road?

Morris: Yeah, oh yeah.

Diesenhaus: And then when you sit down, and you have that opportunity to flesh them out?

Morris: Yeah. In fact, I used to do this when I was traveling, I was always taking with me in my carry-on luggage, two books-- one old one, one new one, one book recently published, one book at least hundreds of years old, if not thousands-- and, the old book I would take notes, and then I would write up my thoughts about that book, and I called these little essays "Notes From the Road," and I would send them out to executives of the companies I was speaking to, and they would say, they would write me back and say, "There's this medieval Islamic theologian who knew everything that our company needs to know in the year 2000? This is too weird," you know, and I said, "Yeah, it's pretty amazing, isn't it?" So I would have ideas as I traveled like that, and I would process them a little bit. I'd write them down, and all the books I read I take notes in the margins, I make all kinds of markings; I write all over the books I read, and then when I get home, I can go back and find the places that really impress me. I'll type something into the computer. I don't know when I'm going to use this story or this idea, but I'll have it there in a file folder and I'll be able to use it for something.

Diesenhaus: I wonder too about time. How do you fit it in, how do you balance, I guess, balance the writing against the rest of your life and also your family life?

Morris: Yeah, yeah. Writing is a pretty intense activity and so you have to have long stretches of isolation to do it, you really do. And so your family has to appreciate that sitting still can be a form of working, you know, and that's really hard for a lot of people. That's really hard for a lot of people who aren't writers. You know, if you're sitting quietly in a chair, the rest of the world tends to view you as available, you know, [laughs] for conversation, for, "Could you run and do this? Could you help me do that?" you know, because there you are. What are you doing? You're sitting there, you know, and especially if you're sitting there staring at the wall or something, which is a big part of writing, is sitting and staring, you know, and most people think that what you need is for them to help you do something productive, and they will make suggestions, you know. So it's really important for the people around you to understand, no, no, no, without those sitting and staring times, no ink goes onto any paper in any valuable way whatsoever. So you have to block out time. And when I'm traveling a lot, then the days I'm home after I've done stuff with my wife and my kids and my granddaughter and all this, I have to have time to just sit and do it. Also though, you need to be able to give yourself a break whenever you feel like you need one. That's why I love working at home, because any moment, if I'm frustrated, if I need a break, I can put on the walking shoes or the exercise shoes if I don't already have them on, go outside, take an hour walk, get back in, go back to writing. And sometimes just the breakthrough you need will happen as you're walking the beach, or as you're walking up and down the street near your house or whatever. You've got to have other activities like that that allows your unconscious to process things, and because then, breakthroughs happen left and right that if you were still sitting in that chair, it wasn't going to happen.

Diesenhaus: And can you talk a bit about when and how you came back to Wilmington, and what effect that might've had, and you were mentioning walking on the beach, is it, like, a fruitful community for you to be doing what you're doing?

Morris: Yeah, it is, Wilmington's great. Wilmington was a weird thing, because I grew up in Durham, and I don't think I'd ever been to Wilmington. I went to the beach in Myrtle Beach; my family just always went to Myrtle Beach, and my wife got Southern Living magazine the six years we were at Yale and the 15 years we were at Notre Dame, and some other magazines that I'd read some articles about Wilmington. Wilmington sounded like a really interesting place, and I thought, "Well, maybe we should visit some day maybe." And then on CNN one day, we were cooking dinner and there was Bill Clinton throwing a football to a kid on the beach, and they said, "It's Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head Island," and I thought, "Huh, Renaissance Weekend, Hilton Head. What is that?" And then they were talking about on CNN all these important people would come to Hilton Head, and they'd have this beach weekend and they'd talk about really important things. And I said to my wife, "Well, they're doing it without the Morris family, good luck to them," you know, and a year later, we're cooking dinner, there's CNN, I think it's the same picture, the video of Clinton throwing a football to a kid again on the beach, it's Renaissance Weekend again at Hilton Head. "They're doing it again without the Morris family," I said. A few months later, we get this engraved invitation this big, to Renaissance Weekend. Where did this come from, you know? And so we were all going to be on panel discussions and it was going to be programmed 7:00 a.m. to midnight, every hour a program three days in a row, and my son and I had just had a really bad food poisoning, and my wife said, "You guys aren't well enough to do that kind of schedule yet." I said, "We've got plane tickets to go south; let's go to Wilmington, instead, and just look around." "Okay." So we came to Wilmington for four days and looked around, and on the fourth day, I said-- there was a house being built in town that we just happened to see, and it was going to be for sale in a couple months. I said, "Let's buy this house," and my wife said, "Okay," and we had just built our dream house in South Bend.

So we sold the house that we had built for two years in South Bend, and we moved down here. I kinda felt like I was supposed to be here for some reason, and I didn't really know why, and so I quit my job at Notre Dame after 15 years. I guess I was the only full professor who had ever just quit just to go live near the beach, you know, everybody thought I was having the ultimate midlife crisis or something, and since I've been here, it's been unbelievable. It's like the whole atmosphere of Wilmington is such a creative atmosphere; it's such a restorative, relaxing place as well as being a stimulating place. It's got this combination of things. I think that when I come home from a speaking trip, I'm always on vacation, and it always relaxes me to be home. So that's what really kind of makes it possible for me to write, because travel wears me out, and the writing, and it restores me to be here.

Diesenhaus: And given the kind of very different lives you've had, I wonder, do you socialize with an academic community, or the business community, or the writing community? Does that have any effect on what you do, or is it stimulating in the way that you've talked about?

Morris: Yeah. My wife would probably say I socialize with members of my immediate family and my computer, you know, [laughs] because that's part of the life of a writer, right? Yeah, I guess it's just the people, to my neighbors are people I happen to live closest to now. Most of whom are business people, you know, but, and I really don't see in an ongoing way many folks in the academic world anymore, although I keep up really good relationships with people around the country and by e-mail, by telephone, and I have four philosophers who work with me now, but they live in various parts of the country and in Canada, so I'm in touch with them all the time, and they're all good guys. And yeah, they are, you know, I'll try out ideas with them by e-mail or over the phone, and I'll send a manuscript to them and say, "What do you think?" and I'll get great comments. And occasionally, I'll send a manuscript to a CEO of a company and get comments that just-- First of all, CEOs of companies tend to be such busy people. The one study estimated they have, on average, 18 seconds to make any individual decision. And so, if I'm going to send them 300 pages to read, I typically think, "Well, this will take about 15 years," you know, and a month later I'll have, you know, 10 pages of detailed reflections and comments, and I think, "How in the world did they find the time to do this?" And I benefit tremendously from that, because of course a guy who's running a big international company, his daily experience is so different from mine, sittin12/4/2008g around the house in a t-shirt and writing when I feel like it and taking a walk when I feel like it. And he's on the 65th floor in Manhattan, and his life is so regimented and disciplined and all this, and if I can get his feedback on what I'm saying, that really helps. So it really helps, not just to interact with people who are just like you, you know, but to interact with people who are really different.

Diesenhaus: I guess, shifting a bit different direction-- I wonder, in all your work, is there kind of a key group of philosophers that you continually return to?

Morris: Yeah, yeah, the Greeks and the Romans especially, although I'm doing a book now where I draw deeply on the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius as well as some other traditions, like I mentioned, the medieval Islamic theologian earlier, this guy named Hadrad Ali, was really insightful. I do keep going back to the Greeks and the Romans, because there was a time when the theoretical was so tied up with the practical and philosophers really wanted to figure out how we should live, and that's what I'm all about. So I will find, probably in every speech I give and every book I write, I end up quoting Seneca, a guy I hadn't even heard about in graduate school. I hadn't heard the name Seneca until I was an associate professor midway through my career at Notre Dame. I was teaching a summer seminar on Pascal and a guy who was maybe 80 years old comes up to me after a lecture of mine and says to me, he comes up to me and says, "Seneca said it all," and he turned around and walked out the door. And I thought, "Seneca said it all. Seneca who? Who's Seneca?" And so I go do a little research. He's this amazing lawyer in sort of 1st century Rome that was a stoic philosopher. And the stoic philosophers-- there was a slave, Epictetus, there was the Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius-- the stoics from every stratum of life. Had such common ideas about how to deal with difficulty, how to build your inner strength for outer results in the world and all that stuff. I keep going back to them, over and over and over.

Diesenhaus: Based on what you just said, I read I think an interview online that some of your teaching is about redefining the ideas of success?

Morris: Yeah.

Diesenhaus: And also against what may be the kind of current cultural models, and that sounded a bit like "What?" Is that something like, I mean their context and their terms were obviously quite different, but is that some of what they are focused on?

Morris: Yeah, yeah. Those guys inspire me. Sometimes, our culture hijacks a concept, like the concept of success. It's all about money and fame and power and status and all this kind of stuff. The ancients didn't have that perspective at all, you know; it's all about discovering your talents, developing your distinctive talents and deploying them into the world for the good of other people as well as yourself. Money, fame, power, status may or may not result from your personal excellences, but who cares, basically, because, be who you are, you know. When I was really poor as an assistant professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, because even a big school like Notre Dame, they have to save money for the football program, [laughs] and they pay their business professors well, but God bless them, they don't pay Philosophy professors anything, but I was really poor. I was as happy as I've ever been, you know, more worried about what happens if you get a flat tire and, you know, how do you buy a new tire, worry about stuff, but very happy. These guys throughout the centuries have shown me that success is an inner thing that has outer manifestations, but not necessarily the ones our culture raises up as the standard. And the concept of excellence is another one. I'm trying always to bring back and to kind of bring people back to the deepest wisdom throughout the centuries on these different concepts, and, you know, hey, I'm not going to let the culture have the concept of success, I'm not going to give that up and say, "Well, we really don't have to be successful. All you've got to be is blank, you know, and well let's come up with another term." Nope, they can't have it, I'm taking it back. And I believe we should be like that. There are some great concepts that have been thought about for thousands of years, and we can deepen our own perspectives if we can plug into that tradition of wisdom.

Diesenhaus: I only have two more questions, and they're both ones that I try to ask everyone that I interview. Especially for you, I wonder, when you meet people the first time or when you're introduced, maybe at one of your lectures or your speeches, well maybe, actually more when you meet a stranger, how do you introduce yourself? Do you say, "I'm a writer," or do you say the institute that you run? How do you kind of define yourself?

Morris: Yeah. I like to use the concept that's least familiar to people, because that's going to pique their interest the most. I just tell people I'm a philosopher, and that pretty much draws a blank stare, you know, [laughs] so they're ready to hear a little bit more. Because I kind of think that if I were to say I'm a writer, well there are an awful lot of different kinds of writers, and what does that mean? They could easily draw conclusions that didn't apply to me, and yet when I say I'm a philosopher, they don't know what to, I mean it's almost as if Bertram Russell, the great philosopher, once said that when he told other people he was a philosopher, they would either look way too respectful, or they would laugh out loud. [laughs] You know, people don't know how to react to that. And so I use that as kind of a conversational thing, you know, and then they'll say, "Well, what do you mean, you're a philosopher?" and then I'll tell them about my Institute for Human Values and I'll tell him I used to be a professor, and now I just serve the broader public as a philosopher.

Diesenhaus: And then last question, again trying to ask everyone, is just, if you have any advice for someone, running the gamut from the academic world to the writing world or to the kind of world where you've brought ancient ideas to sort of a more practical or contemporary world?

Morris: One thing is that you don't have to let other people define who you are. It wasn't as if there are a lot of public philosophers out there in the world that I could copy, you know, that I could imitate, that I could look to as my mentors. "Hey, I wanna be a public philosopher. I'm going to call up all the public philosophers and find out how to do that." Sorry, no. You know, I had to invent it, basically. Last public philosopher in my, by my standards, was Emerson 150 years ago, and the world's changed a lot in 150 years. So be who you are, and don't think you've got to fit into categories the world provides. Make your own category. That's my base level advice, and then Aristotle had this perspective that you learn by doing, and sometimes we can get this really wrong. The graduate students got together once at Notre Dame my fifth year or sixth year there, or something, because my classes were real popular. They got together and said, "Look, could you come and talk to us about how to teach? Because there's no class in how to teach. You know, we're learning metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, logic, we're not learning how to teach, and that's what we're going to be paid to do, and nobody's talking about it, so could you come and give us a talk on how to teach?" And I said, "Okay, when?" "A month from now." "Okay." I ran to the library and checked out 20 books on how to teach, thinking I had to read these 20 books so I'd have something to say. It didn't occur to me that there must be a reason they were coming to me, and the reason might not be that they knew I was really good at reading books in the library on how to teach, [laughs] you know, I had been doing it for years. So you got to trust your own doing, and that doesn't mean don't read books about stuff-- you know, it helped. Hey, of the 20 books I read on how to teach, 18 were no good; they were, like, three ideas that could've covered one page stretched into a 200-page book, basically, and one book was really, really good, and it helped me understand what I'd been doing and helped me do it even better. So find books like that, absolutely.

But then you learn by doing: write, you know? Be a writer, don't think it's pretentious to say you're a writer or think of yourself as a writer, no. It's probably more weird than pretentious. Be weird, you know, be who you are, and you never know where it's going to take you. I think life is supposed to be a series of adventures, and if you want to be a writer, you can be a writer, and you never know the adventures that that's going to launch you out in, and you don't have to, you don't have to know ahead of time, just be a writer, just do what you're doing. And trust the process.

Diesenhaus: Thanks very much.

Morris: Yeah.

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