Greg Marcus, Ph.D. is a practitioner, facilitator, and innovator of American Mussar, a 21st century spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life. He has a Ph.D. from MIT, has worked for ten years as a marketer in the biotech industry, and is the author of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance Through the Soul Traits of Mussar.
Tell us a little about yourself. I am a regular guy whose life was changed by a spiritual experience 9 years ago. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but it put me on a path to where I’ve evolved from a marketing professional with a Ph.D. to a full-time writer, speaker, and spiritual seeker. What do I seek? A path to be the best person I can be. When I’m not doing those things, I am a stay-at-home dad. I have two teen daughters and two 7-year-old cats who are brothers.
What is the genre of your latest book, and who published it? It is a book of Jewish spirituality, and the publisher is Llewellyn. Kabbalah, the more widely known branch of Jewish spirituality, is spiritual mystical. Mussar is spiritual practical.
Tell us a little about your book. Mussar is a 1,000-year-old Jewish spiritual practice that teaches us how to find those things inside that cause us to get stuck, and it offers a practical step-by-step path towards balance and healing.
We all have what it takes to be a mensch, a person of outstanding character. What we lack is a guidebook, a set of instructions on how to conduct ourselves in everyday life. Mussar teaches us how to balance our soul traits, things like Patience, Humility, Trust, and Truth. Too much of a soul trait is just as bad as not enough. Too little Patience leads to anger and frustration; too much leads to staying in a bad job or relationship.
What inspired you to write it? The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions grew out of a class that I created and taught for 3 years. Mussar is an amazing practice. It has changed who I am for the better, and I watched as dozens of others became better people.
In the book, I share a story of how one person went from being a curse-at-everyone driver to being “the most polite driver in California.” How? When practicing patience, she decided to deliberately let every car marge in front of her. That decision transformed her entire experience of driving. The frustration and impatience were gone. I want to help others have a similar experience.
Would you tell us a little about Mussar? Mussar is a practice that gives concrete instructions and guidelines to help you live a meaningful and ethical life.
The fact of the matter is that we all have issues, whatever our religion or level of spirituality. Mussar teaches how to find those things inside that cause us to get in the same situation over and over again. And it provides guidance for how we can begin to make small changes in our lives to help bring healing to the Soul through greater balance. Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970) defined Mussar as “making the heart feel what the mind understands.” I love this definition, because so often we know what we should be doing, but we just can’t seem to make ourselves do it.
When did you first start writing? I’ve done some work-related writing over the years; I’ve created business plans, marketing plans, strategy documents, and an occasional case study. I started writing my first book in my early 40’s.
What authors have most influenced you? How and why? Alan Morinis, one of my Mussar teachers, wrote the book Everyday Holiness that served as the foundation of my Mussar practice. Alan personally is an inspiration to me. He, like me, is an ordinary guy who entered on a spiritual journey after a rough time in the business world. Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about complex and counter-intuitive truths with a sense of wonder, has also been a great influence on me. I try to emulate his ability to present information in an accessible way. Also, I love the way Brene Brown shares her personal story in an authentic way that people can relate to.
What was the first book that touched you deeply? Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which I read the summer before my senior year in high school, influenced my evolving sense of identity and sensibilities. I related to the protagonist’s struggle to be seen; the way the storytelling unfolded just blew me away.
What genres do you like to read? I almost exclusively read science fiction for fun. I also read a lot of books about Mussar, spirituality, and Jewish wisdom.
How do these books affect your writing? To me, science fiction is a liberating genre. Science and spirituality both concern a search for answers. When I’m reading Sci-Fi, I never ask, “Is that possible?” We make assumptions about the universe that the author has created. When I wrote the Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, I offered readers four assumptions that summarize the backstory of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom. You may or may not agree with it, but if you assume it is true, the practice holds together. The books on wisdom and Jewish spirituality inform my own Mussar practice, which I in turn offer to my readers in a modern context.
Where do you like to write? Why? My book exists in part thanks to every barista within 10 miles of San Carlos, CA. I do most of my writing at Philz Coffee. I love the energy, being around people, and the coffee is great!
What time of day do you like to write? Why? I write in the morning. I drop off my daughter at high school, drive over to Philz, and write for 30-40 minutes. Sometimes I write later in the day, but a good focused half hour is much better than 2 hours of stop-and-go writing.
In what genres do you write? I am a practitioner, facilitator, and innovator of American Mussar. I write non-fiction to help people on a journey of personal transformation. My first book was on work-life balance, and my second is on spiritual balance. Writing fiction is on my bucket list. Someday.
E-books or paper ~ do you have a preference? I prefer to read paper books, but I read many e-books too, especially when I travel. I own hundreds of books and love seeing them around my house. My wife owns even more.
How and where have you marketed your work? As someone who spent ten years as a professional marketer, I find book marketing much harder. I do a lot of Facebook marketing. I write blog posts and then boost them to my readers, and sometimes I target certain audiences who I think will like what I have to say.
I have a free quiz on my website that people love – you can get your own personal Soul Trait Profile and see your current balance across 13 soul traits. Most importantly, you get a cool graphic when it is over. Pictures communicate something on an emotional level that we don’t get from words.
Do you have other publishing credits? Yes. In 2013, I self-published Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked. I’ve done a number of guest posts and articles for website publications. One of my more recent works is “Join the Mensch Movement” on Tikkun.org. I wrote about the Democratic sit-in at the House of Representatives, which was led by John Lewis. Lewis is a mensch because his work is about other people, not himself. And he practices so that when the difficult choice arises, he is spiritually ready to do the right thing.
What is your current writing project? I don’t have a current project. I am starting to teach a class on Mussar parenting, and I suspect that class will evolve into a book as well. The class is Mussar with a focus on particular soul traits relevant to parenting. There are many books and approaches on how to parent children. The challenge for us is, “How to we parent ourselves? How do we hold it together, to be less stressed and more patient?” I’m teaching this class because there are skills that I need to develop. As I facilitate, I learn. We all learn from each other.
If you have a blog, what subjects do write about? In my blog, I write about my spiritual journey and the lessons I learn about the real world. Mussar involves everyday life, and when I observe that I am challenged in Humility, Truth, or whatever soul trait I am working on, I write about it. Sometimes it is very unexpected, like when I realized that my book was published on the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek. I am a lifelong Trek fan, and I even wrote about Star Trek in the book.
There is one episode in which Kirk is split into a good Kirk and an evil Kirk. The good Kirk is nice, but he can’t make decisions. The evil Kirk is confident and decisive but frequently harmful, because he is driven exclusively by his base and selfish desires. This reflects the conflict that goes on inside each of us. But we can’t get rid of our “evil” side because it is a source of strength. We need to guide it and channel it.
Where can your books be purchased? You can find my books on Amazon and in bookstores like Barnes and Noble. You can learn much more about The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions on my website, AmericanMussar.com, but the site will send you to Amazon to buy it.
What advice would you give a new writer? Find a community of other writers. Non-writers may not get why you do what you do, but other writers will. And they can be a great source of feedback and encouragement.
What do you wish to say to your readers? We all have the capacity to be a Mensch, a person of outstanding character. We just need to learn to get out of our own way and journey towards personal transformation. Real, lasting change happens by a series of small steps. I heartily invite you to visit my website or to delve into my book to learn about Mussar.