Edward Watts is a professor and the Department of History Chair at UC San Diego. He is an author who has written six books, including his recently published work Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny, a narrative history of the last three centuries of the Roman Republic. Watts is also an engaging and active public speaker who delivers regular lectures on Roman history, Byzantine History, modern politics, religious change in the Roman world, and the historical analogues of wealth inequality.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Kingston, New Jersey—a town very close to Princeton University. I was lucky to be able to take advantage of many of the cultural resources in Princeton as well as those in New York and Philadelphia.
One of the most formative experiences in my childhood came when I started participating in track and field. I took up the sport quite late—I was nearly 17—but I did very well immediately. Within a little more than a year, I had won my state high jump championship. While I was a strong performer in the sport, most of the time I did not love it or even really enjoy it. It was not until I got to university that I learned to love the sport. This happened because I was no longer the top performer in my event on my team. I was able to understand that the joy of the activity can exist apart from great success in it. I chose to continue to compete not because I was winning but because I enjoyed jumping. When I starting winning college meets in my junior and senior years, I retained the joy I discovered. I have since resolved never to continue activities that I don’t enjoy doing, regardless of how well I do them.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
It is essential to maximize the amount of time each day during which you do things that make you happy and to prioritize spending time with people you love.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Some of the worst advice I ever received about writing came from a friend who said that writing should never be shared unless it is finished. A writer will never feel that his or her work is finished—but, at some point, it needs to go out into the world so that others can read and appreciate it. No book is ever perfect and the writer who waits for perfection will never be read.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
A number of years ago, a close family member unexpectedly became seriously ill and faced a long, difficult recovery over nearly six months. The illness and the possibility of a terrible outcome terrified me. Caretaking made it very difficult for me to focus on anything but my fear that this person would not recover. They saw this and told me that the time I was giving them was precious and essential in helping them recover—but there were other hours in the day and I needed to spend time doing something else that I enjoyed. I started writing to distract myself. It was hard to focus at first, but, in those moments my family member asked me to use it for myself, I learned to turn my mind toward what I was writing and away from my fears. Even though many years have passed since their recovery, I continue to try to protect some time each day for writing.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I love what I do. Roman history continues to fascinate me and I remain as curious and excited about it as I have always been. This excites me to explore new areas of research and energizes me to share what I have learned and why it matters with students, readers, and audiences.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up every morning at 6:45 AM, get ready for the day, eat breakfast, and make a list of tasks that need to be done that day. By 7:30 or 7:45 I will have made a second espresso and will drink it while answering email for an hour (at most). I set a time limit on email so that it does not consume my entire day. I also try not to schedule meetings before 10 AM so that I can spend at least an hour writing in the morning.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
A good friend suggested that work should end at 7:30 PM, regardless of whether the task is completed. I try to observe this whenever possible so that I can set aside the evening for activities with my family.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
My overall strategy consists of determining the length of my workday in advance and then dividing the time up so that there is a balance between urgent issues requiring an immediate attention, short term projects that can be completed that day, and medium or long term projects that require me to work steadily on them each day for months or years. I try to set a reasonable number of tasks to do each day so that the list can be completed during working hours. I also set aside 1-2 hours each day to focus on long-term writing projects. Restricting the time I spend on email, texts, and social media posts is essential—these can easily eat up an entire day.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov is maybe a surprising answer, but this set has influenced my thinking about how to imagine the connections between our views of the past, our understanding of the present, and our imaginations about the future. Asimov is brilliant in taking the story of the decline of the Roman west and turning it into a series of stories investigating how we understand progress and what sorts of assumptions we make about the decline in societies. These were the books that encouraged me to think creatively about the stories we can tell about the past and the implications those stories can have in the present.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Whatever you think about often, such things determine the nature of your mind. For the soul is dyed by those thoughts. Dye it then with a sequence of such thoughts as this: Wherever it is possible to live, it is also possible to live well.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.16)
This quote particularly appeals to me during the pandemic because Marcus wrote this while the empire he ruled was also afflicted with a pandemic—while he himself led an army on the campaign while suffering from constant physical pain. These were not the words of someone who wrote in comfort but someone reminding himself that comfort is not essential to living well.