Transcript, Episode 57, Krista Tippett, OnBeing

The following is a transcript of my conversation with Krista Tippett. You can find the audio of the interview and the show notes here.

Krista Tippett: My name is Krista Tippett. I produce the public radio show and podcast On Being. I’m Executive Producer and host, and I also am president of a independent nonprofit media company called Krista Tippett Public Productions.


Tony Loyd: Okay, very good. Krista, what is the Krista Tippett Public Productions? What is that?


Krista Tippett: Well, On Being became a national weekly public radio show in 2003, and in 2013 … For those first 10 years we were part of American Public Media, Minnesota Public Radio. We were embedded in a large public radio organization. In 2013, we spun off into independent production. This is the production home. We talk about the transition we’ve made as moving from being a radio show embedded in a large media organization to being a social enterprise with a radio show at its heart. We’re exploring what that means.


I don’t know, three years from now will we still be calling it that? I think the mission and the vision won’t change, that we’re really interested in investigating media as a force for social good. Radio itself is rapidly evolving. To be a radio show is also to be a podcast now.


Because of my really incredible colleague, Trent Gilliss, who created our first website 13 years ago and always has had this interactive vision of what happens in the digital world, the community that’s possible there, the ethos and the substance that are possible in the digital world, and how that can be much more than just a supplement to the radio show … When we talk about this social enterprise with a radio show at its heart, a radio show is something much more expansive than a radio show was 13 years ago.


We’re also doing a lot of … We built out a beautiful space, we’re doing live events, and we’re exploring all the different ways our media project can contribute to public life.


Tony Loyd: Right. Excellent answer. It sounds like you’ve thought about that a little bit.


Krista Tippett: Yeah. Extensively, yes.


Tony Loyd: Extensively, yes. Can you take me on the path, then, how you got here? You can start where you’d like. I love your story that it starts in Shawnee, Oklahoma. By the way, I’m from Russellville, Arkansas.


Krista Tippett: Oh, you are? I hear slightly around the edges I hear Arkansas. Now I realize that I hear something, very faint.


Tony Loyd: Yes, right. I’m just right at Interstate 40, just east of you. I was born about two years before you were. We sort of grew up in that same kind of atmosphere there. If you’d like, we can start there, or if you want to fast forward and go somewhere else, it’s …


Krista Tippett: No. I was just back in Shawnee, Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago. I won the Hall of Fame Award from the Shawnee Educational Foundation.


Tony Loyd: Excellent.


Krista Tippett: It was just very interesting to connect with people I literally have not seen for 45 years. I think it’s very important that that’s where I started, in the Bible Belt and in a small town and in the middle of the middle of America. I grew up in a very religiously immersive environment, and then I very flukishly went to Brown. I went far away to college. I got an understanding at that young age that the world is a very complicated place. I interview a lot of physicists these days and they all speak in the vocabulary of parallel universes and a multiverse as a real thing, and I think I just had my taste of that in going from Shawnee to Providence, Rhode Island.


That was a great thing, because, it’s not that I knew what I was doing, but I had given myself this perspective, this understanding that at any given moment we’re all part of some world that makes sense, but there are many worlds within the world. I had a lot of culture shock, too, but also I think it made me pretty fearless. I think that was the biggest leap I ever made. I ended up then from Brown going to Germany and spending time in divided Germany. I was very political.


I pretty much got disinterested in religion when I went away. It just didn’t feel as relevant as all the other things I was being exposed to. For the better part of 10 years I was in divided Berlin in my 20s. I became a journalist, and then I walked through this side door to diplomacy. I had this incredible experience of seeing real power very close at a young age.


I was very idealistic about what I felt policy at that level should be doing. The ambassador I worked for was a nuclear arms expert, and that matter of moving those nuclear missiles around on a map felt to me like that was about the life and death of humanity in that age, felt like it anyway. I realized I was very mission-driven, although I wouldn’t have described myself that way. I thought I was pragmatic. I had this kind of awakening in those years of, again, having this experience of seeing high power up close, and then also living in a place, in a city where there were two worlds within one world, the same people divided into two completely opposite worldviews and political and economic systems.


I made this observation, which really is pretty fundamental, but to realize it consciously at that age, that human beings could be placed in many circumstances and that those circumstances don’t define you, it’s the life you create out of whatever those raw materials are. I knew people in West Berlin who had “everything” and were pretty impoverished inside and I had people I loved in East Berlin who had nothing and created these lives of great dignity.


I’m in my 20s, I do continue to be pretty idealistic and mission-driven, and I’m asking, like, “What do I want my life to be and where do I want to put my energy?” I had this jarring realization that that political level wasn’t what I wanted it to be. A long story’s in there, but I eventually went to divinity school to get a theological education. I realized at some point that the questions I was asking in fact were spiritual questions. I really wanted to investigate that, and I wanted to make sure that had intellectual integrity as well as spiritual integrity.


I went to divinity school. Came out of divinity school I would say with the eyes of a journalist but with this new sense of the richness and diversity and relevance of our spiritual and religious traditions, and could not see that either reflected or discussed in our public life. My grappling with that puzzle eventually led me to walk into Minnesota Public Radio one day in 1999 and propose a show. Then it was years of struggle to turn that idea into a radio show.


Tony Loyd: You had spent some time in Collegeville, right?


Krista Tippett: Yes.


Tony Loyd: Gathering or collective an oral history?


Krista Tippett: Yes.


Tony Loyd: Was that the seed where you were going, “Gosh, I could see this being in the public forum”?


Krista Tippett: Yeah, that’s where the dots started getting connected for me. Between my training as a journalist and my passion for theology, my spiritual inquiry, and also my love of radio, which was at that point personal and not professional … You and I were talking before we started to speak here. You talked about conversations you started having after retirement on this subject of social entrepreneurship, and you started to say to yourself, “You know, other people would like to hear these conversations.” That’s exactly the experience I had in Collegeville.


I did an oral history project for the board of directors of an ecumenical institute at this amazing Benedictine community in the middle of Minnesota. These monks were real global visionaries, and very radical in ways that never made headlines, but if you were in certain worlds of liturgical reform or the world of pre-Vatican II/post-Vatican II Catholicism, and also ecumenical encounter, which … It’s a mark of how complete the transformation has been in the relationships let’s say between different Christians that it’s really impossible for us to imagine now in 2015 that 50 years ago the idea of Protestants and Catholics in conversation, in relationship, and much less adding Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, that this was revolutionary. These monks in Collegeville were hugely important in that.


I started to understand that history and speak to these people who had literally changed the world. I interviewed 55 people across the spectrum. They were all Christian, but they could not have been more diverse. It was Nazarene Holiness, Armenian Orthodox, monastics, lay people. I started to say … This is the era of when this very strident, politicized religiosity had entered American media and public life. There was such a contrast between those kinds of voices which were making the news and which just represented such a narrow and, again, very strident slice of religious life in general and Christianity in particular, and then these conversations that I was having with deeply faithful people which were substantive and intelligent and questioning and also funny and warm and hospitable.


I just started to have that … I’m walking around with my tape recorder, literally back then a cassette recorder, and saying, “These kinds of conversations belong in our public life, too.” That was the seed of what then several years later became this idea for a radio show.


Tony Loyd: You’ve mentioned and I’ve seen it written that Speaking of Faith, your original title for the program, started in 2003, but I think you did some monthly broadcasts starting in 2001. Is that correct?


Krista Tippett: That’s right. Well, actually, in 2000. Well, we did pilots for a couple of years. Inside public radio there was huge skepticism at this idea, partly because I was arguing for something that was hypothetical rather than real. I was saying that you could draw out deeply religious voices and it could be intelligent and it could be hospitable and it would not turn people off, it would not inflame people, it would not proselytize. People just had to take it on faith, right?


Tony Loyd: Sure.


Krista Tippett: It was hard for journalists to take that on faith given what was in the air then. What I was allowed to do … Just one or two people had got it, and so they let me. They said, “Okay, create a pilot.” We did one show, and quite a few people called in and said, “Hey, we really like this,” even though, I have to say, I know if I heard that today I would just be mortified.


Tony Loyd: I know this feeling well. I’m still in the mortified stage right now.


Krista Tippett: Yeah. Even for me it’s hard to hear myself on the radio. Over about those three years we did one pilot and then two pilots. I had various producers who were assigned. No real resources were put towards this. I actually had to … I was turning up at the radio station in the middle of the night and the engineers on duty would let me in and I was learning to engineer it while I was producing it. Then, at some point they said, “Okay, well, we’ll actually find you some real producers and you can do four shows.” We’ll call these four real pilots. Those went really well.


Then, you’re right, we did monthly shows for about … I actually raised the money. I had to raise the money to do those monthly shows. Then, while we were doing the monthly shows, I was out trying to raise enough money to have a weekly production. When that happened, then we started the weekly show.


Tony Loyd: Do you think that September 11, 2001 impacted the attention that was paid to public discourse about religion?


Krista Tippett: Yes. In terms of the mission I was on, it helped, on one hand. It made it more challenging in other ways. Before 9/11, there were really quite a few people in public radio who said to me, “You know … ” I would say, “There are many different ways to be spiritual in our culture, but it is very clear that over 90% of Americans will say they sometimes pray, and over 70% affiliate with a religious tradition, a religious practice, and so this is a part of life for most people.” Some people would say to me, “Well, we’re not sure that’s true of public radio listeners,” like they’re too smart for that.


Tony Loyd: Oh, yeah.


Krista Tippett: Then they would say, “Or, if it is, they want to keep it private.” Part of my argument then was, “Well, if this is the source for so many people, or at least an important source, of moral imagination, we need to be able to talk about this in our public life as fluently as we can talk about our economic imagination or our political imagination. This influences those things.” That was a hard conversation to have. Basically, there were people who kind of said, “Well, maybe religion is important, but we don’t know if it deserves an hour a week on public radio.”


Then 9/11 happened. 9/11 also coincided with the Bush presidency, so we had an Evangelical president in the White House. Between that and the post-9/11 era and this tragically, spectacularly terrible introduction to Islam, which was what 9/11 was for a lot of Americans, religion was suddenly everywhere in the headlines. It was impossible for people to say to me after 9/11, “Religion is not that important.”


What then they would say is … Religion suddenly seemed terrifying, and people said, “Religion is the cause of the worst problems in the world today, and you want to do a show about it?” I would say, “You could say the same thing about politics at any given moment, but precisely because it’s so important and so implicated in, I would say, both problems and solutions, that’s why we have to find a way to talk about this.”


I really do believe that I would’ve made this happen and that the show would’ve happened without 9/11, but 9/11, I think it made fundraising a little easier, and I absolutely think it changed the show, in terms of the content.


Tony Loyd: Right. It informed the show then.


Krista Tippett: It informed what topics we were covering, what kinds of voices we were drawing out. We were supposed to launch that monthly series in September 2011, and we’d been producing a couple of shows in the summer. There was just like me and one producer.


Tony Loyd: Was it 2001 or 2011?


Krista Tippett: I’m sorry, 2001. Then 9/11 happened. I was actually in Washington that day to raise money. I had a meeting that didn’t happen with the Pew Charitable Trust, but they ended up being our first sponsor and allowed us to go weekly. I drove back from Washington in a rental car, and we put three shows on the air in the three weeks after … or, I don’t know, in the four or five weeks after 9/11.


The first show was … This was not my idea, but they said, “We want to know: where was God?” Which, all those years that I’ve been saying, “We need to talk about religion,” I never would’ve said, “Let’s put a show on public radio called ‘Where Was God?'” That just shows what kind of an extraordinary moment that was. The second show was The Spirit of Islam. Never in all those years, at this point it’s been two or three years that I’d been working for this and more than that that I’d been thinking about it, and I never knew that this would be something that we would have to urgently address.


Tony Loyd: In 2003, you went to a weekly show. It was called Speaking of Faith. Then at some point you changed it. You’ve written about this, but could you just describe that moment when you decided Speaking of Faith is a great concept, but now it has become On Being? What happened there?


Krista Tippett: I do believe that if I had all of this to do over again I would still call it Speaking of Faith in 2003. It felt really important to me at that moment that the word “faith” be opened up and fleshed out and that more of its connotations be out in public, that people would turn on the public radio dial and there would be no question: yes, this is public radio; yes, we’re speaking of faith. What I experienced was that that is a very loaded word for people. It’s a loaded word for a lot of people of faith, religious people. It’s a very Christian word. It’s not actually a Jewish word.


What was so interesting, and again very unexpected, was as soon as we started putting the show on the air, our space, I’m talking about our media space, was full of people who self-identified as atheist or agnostic, who had ethical lives, who have moral lives, and who wanted actually to be part of all the important things we talk about when we talk about faith, which we tend to talk about under that rubric of faith.


So many of them said to us, and so many people who stumbled across the show said to us, “You know, I turned on the radio,” and we heard this every week, “I turned on the radio, 30 times I turned off the radio when your show came on because I heard the title and I knew it wasn’t for me, and then one day I was captive in the car or someplace where I couldn’t help but listen and I realized it was not at all what I expected.”


Of course, faith is a very meaningful, good word for many people, but it’s very fraught for others for all kinds of reasons, all kinds of reasons that have a lot of integrity. One reason we changed the name is when we were talking about the show … People also told us they had trouble talking about it. People who loved the show, they had trouble talking about it with people they cared about, because we always were having to say what it wasn’t.


There was that. The other thing is, because of this urgency of the topics that we just talked about in 2001, 2002, 2003, this show launched as a national show from day one and grew up in public. In public radio, most of the shows … All of the shows that public radio listeners would list off as the flagship shows started out as local projects for five to ten years. It’s not true … Like All Things Considered, those things, they were 50 years old, for one thing, and they started very rough if you heard them. Very, very rough.


The weekly shows … Car Talk was a local show in Boston 10 years. Fresh Air, a local show in Philadelphia for 10 years. This American Life, local show in Chicago for 5 years. Our show, we started it and we learned how to do it as we were on the air. About 5 years in, it was clear to me that Speaking of Faith wasn’t a good description of what we were doing. For one thing, we’re not speaking about faith. I had people speaking out of faith, had people speaking to theological questions and insights that were part of the work of scientists who might themselves not be religious but the discoveries they were making had spiritual implications that the rest of us would like to chew on.


Also, I think more fundamentally, I got clarity that my passion is really for questions and for the animating questions behind the religious and spiritual part of life and the human enterprise. Speaking of Faith was really an inadequate title, and, because the word faith is difficult for many people, it was not a hospitable title. All of these things float into the decision to change the name and to create a title that would be more spacious and more hospitable.


Tony Loyd: What year did you separate away from American Public Media?


Krista Tippett: That was 2013, so 10 years in from the original national weekly launch.


Tony Loyd: We’ve come to today. Tell me what On Being and the Krista Tippett Public Productions … Tell me about that business. There are a lot of people who, they hear the little sung thing at the end …


Krista Tippett: Right, yeah.


Tony Loyd: By the way, who sings that?


Krista Tippett: Well, his name is [inaudible 00:23:41]. He’s actually part of a hip-hop group. I don’t know his music, some of my producers knew his music. I actually love that. There are people who hate that jingle at the end, but I love it and many people love it.


Tony Loyd: It’s memorable.


Krista Tippett: Yeah.


Tony Loyd: At the end he’s saying that it’s distributed by American Public Media but it’s a …


Krista Tippett: Krista Tippett …


Tony Loyd: Krista Tippett Public Production.


Krista Tippett: Yeah


Tony Loyd: Tell me what that’s about. Just give me some ideas about the business.


Krista Tippett: One of the things that was always striking about this show to those of us who are producing it but also to people who were involved, many of them, some of those have been skeptics in the beginning, people who’d been in radio for a long time … We always had this remarkable response and this remarkable engagement by our audiences. People really cared about this show, they really cared about the content, they took it into their lives.


In 2010/2011 we had a special grant from Lilly Endowment to conduct some really deep audience research. It was a wonderful experience to have come back at us with data attached and with some rigor attached this sense of the impact of this content in the world, how people really did take it into their lives and into their communities and were able to have conversations they couldn’t have before, were reading books they wouldn’t have read before, were able to speak to differences in their families and in their communities that they didn’t know how to broach before.


One thing people said is they had more energy for their work they do, whatever that was. Also this paradoxical thing, that I understand, they would say, “I feel more deeply planted in my identity, but also more curious and admiring of religious others.” That’s an energizing, that’s a freeing thing for people, to be able to move both courageously in your own convictions and creatively with different others in this world we inhabit.


That feeling we had that this project had real impact, that was so meaningful to us. Essentially, we felt like we couldn’t really be great stewards of that just as a weekly radio show. We could’ve just kept doing that, but I do have this colleague who I really consider to be the co-founder of Krista Tippett Public Productions, Trent Gilliss, who had created our digital presence, and he had an imagination about being on many platforms and creating not just websites but digital community.


Obviously, this was something that was quite a long time in the discernment, but we eventually felt like we really had to get into a nimble, entrepreneurial structure, not a big established organization where, just because of the nature of big established organization, it was very hard to move quickly. It was hard to experiment and fail in order to learn.


Eventually we were able to make this move, and APM, American Public Media, worked with us to create that agreement to create this new nonprofit production company. That’s Krista Tippett Public Productions.


Tony Loyd: Right. Just out of curiosity, for 10 years you were in American Public Media, who owns that content?


Krista Tippett: We have essentially purchased it back. We own it, and as of July 1, 2016, so we had a 3-year period. This is coming full circle. That is a great milestone that is upon us.


Tony Loyd: Yes, very good. Congratulations, by the way.


Krista Tippett: Thank you.


Tony Loyd: How are you funded then?


Krista Tippett: We have a wonderful portfolio of philanthropic support. I do often say to people who talk to me about this great thing I created that no matter how beautiful the content is or how timely the idea was, if I hadn’t been good at raising money, this would not exist. Thankfully, this was something I was, I suppose, good at, but also just committed to. I understood that in the very beginning, that in order to protect the project, because it was so young and so unusual, that it needed to have its own financial base. It’s all about relationships. Actually, I didn’t know that. I know it know. I see that I was always doing it that way. That’s why it’s been so durable and so sustainable.


We’ve been fortunate. We have an array of funders. The first generation of funders was quite different. We had the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which APM helped us get that relationship. A lot of public radio shows start with seed money from CPB. Then we had the Pew Charitable Trust, which had a religion division at that time. They actually went through a big organizational change and they were no longer a grant-maker like that. We had some Lilly Endowment funding. We don’t have Lilly Endowment funding now.


Over the years I established a relationship with the Ford Foundation, with the Henry Luce Foundation, the Fetzer Institute in Michigan, a really wonderful foundation in Northern California called [inaudible 00:29:55]. Who am I forgetting? Henry Luce, Ford, Fetzer … We have some friends here in this community. Bill and Penny George, they have a family foundation. There’s a foundation in Baltimore, a family foundation called the Osprey Foundation. These are some listeners in Baltimore. They sent us a check for Christmastime in 2008, and then we became friends and they’ve become a supporter. That’s how that’s worked.


I think we have the advantage that the work we do is something that our funders themselves can partake in weekly as human beings. This is a real advantage. I know you can be doing nonprofit work where you have to demonstrate value, and we have to do that too, but the people are already familiar with it and maybe they’re also nurtured by the content. I think that also helps. That has been a factor in those relationships.


Tony Loyd: That’s a good point. As I talk to people about social enterprises, social entrepreneurship, we always talk about impact and then how we go about measuring our impact.


Krista Tippett: Yeah, it’s a terrible quandary.


Tony Loyd: It is. How do you think about your impact? What impact are you trying to have, and what are some at least proxy measures that you use to see how you’re doing?


Krista Tippett: Actually, as you and I speak right now we got a capacity-building grant to do another big deep dive of audience research, because that wonderful research we had, that was so cathartic for us really, that was in 2010/2011, ages ago. Our industry, and I think this is true of most industries as they’ve traditionally been set up, it doesn’t actually measure the things we care about. It measures around them or you have to infer things, or you use anecdotes and you hope that the people you’re making the argument to will believe in anecdotes. We’ve been fortunate to have funders who do believe that there’s value in the stories, but that’s not true of every foundation, and of course they’re giving away their treasure and they have a right to ask about impact.


I would say one of the things we are are committed to as an organization in this coming period coming out of this audience engagement research is to try to create some tools to demonstrate the value of what is qualitative, to qualify the quantitative and quantify the qualitative. We are actually hoping to do that and to create a vision for metrics and some practical tools that we might be able to share with other projects. I think with media projects in particular … I think that this challenge that we have, as you say, is a challenge that is shared by social entrepreneurs of every kind.


I do think that all of us in this field, we are actually called to invent those metrics. We have to figure out how to do this. I don’t think we know yet what the answers or the tools are. I think it’s very important that we talk to each other. The shadow side of social entrepreneurship can be that it can be an expression of this American drive of a self-made man, to have a vision and say that somehow you have to save the world with your project. It has perfectly good motivations, but I think what we were learning in the 21st century is that in fact the world doesn’t work that way and it’s never going to work that way again, even we could pretend it did.


I think with this matter of metrics we really have to be sharing, and sharing our questions as well as anything we discover and cross-pollinating and connecting the dots and realizing that we have a shared challenge to say, “How do we demonstrate impact that is not quantifiable in the old-fashioned ways, which aren’t actually telling us the story that we care about and that we know is important to the health of the world?”


Tony Loyd: Right, excellent. One thing that I’ve noticed about On Being is you have these collections. That’s been really interesting to me. I speculate that there’s sort of an editorial calendar in a way, that you’re saying, “Okay, we’ve had several physicists and now we think we need to have a couple of Buddhists in here [inaudible 00:35:04],” right?


Krista Tippett: Right.


Tony Loyd: You divide your content into some of these collections. Do you have some kind of thought about looking ahead to saying, “Gosh, on our calendar we have these people who are fitting in these collections, so let’s make sure we don’t ignore this collection over here”? How do you think about your collections? Let me just ask you that generally.


Krista Tippett: I would say the idea of the collections is a relatively new term we’ve started using, and it’s a relatively new way that we started to organize our content. In part the collections have come about because we now have a 13-year archive. We didn’t necessarily set out to have a Buddhist collection or a Christian collection or a parenting collection or an integrative medicine collection, but we do. One of the things we know we actually need to get better at is we have so much content, it’s a treasure trove, but it’s actually unwieldy and it’s hard for people to know how to get in, especially if they just stumble across it. The collections are a way that we’re finding and experimenting with.


It’s not all that closely related, although it is in terms of how it gets stored, to the question of how we are planning our editorial balance. I think you’re right that intuitively … We don’t actually ever sit down and look at the last year or the year ahead and say, “We have to have so much of this and so much of that,” but on a week-to-week, month-to-month, we sit down about every three months and we think about the three to six months ahead. Then what happens correlates with that conversation we had, but somebody will get added or something won’t work out so it becomes kind of a rough approximation.


Yes, we are always saying … It’ll go like this: “Gosh, we’ve had a lot of men lately,” or, “We’ve had a lot of women lately,” or, “We’ve had a lot Buddhist voices lately,” or done a lot of theology, or, “Gosh, we haven’t had a physicist for a long time, and we love physicists and everybody loves physicists.” It’s more intuitive, it’s less scientific, but I think it does balance out in the way you’re saying.


Tony Loyd: One of your projects that for me personally is very important is your Civil Conversations.


Krista Tippett: Right.


Tony Loyd: Where did that come from, just shortly, briefly?


Krista Tippett: That is actually something that we set out to create. It was a collection, a project from the very beginning. It grows organically out of what we do every week. I would think 99% of what we’ve done is a civil conversation. We realized that this matter of talking about hard things, of taking up these great open questions of our time, of doing that with different others, has civic and public implications as much as it has private implications. The Civil Conversations Project are the shows we create that more intentionally ask that “so what?” question in terms of public life. Sometimes we produce a show and afterwards we say, “Hey, this was a Civil Conversation show,” and then we add it to that collection.


We also have recently started a new project that’s another intentional project called Public Theology Reimagined. That also, I think it’s related, because it also has this public life focus.


Tony Loyd: One of the more important conversations in that Civil Conversation for me recently was Anthony Appiah and where he talked about sidling up beside people. I think that because of the shrill nature of our public conversations lately, that was a really important one for me to help find a way in, because as you can imagine, where I’m from and who I would know, there are people who have very different political views than me. That was a great way to think about that, to say, “We don’t have to agree on everything, we can talk about our favorite book or our favorite movie or our favorite whatever and find these ways that we build these simple connections.”


Krista Tippett: A human connection, yeah.


Tony Loyd: The human connection, right. One of the central questions you ask is: what does it mean to be human? That’s not a simple question. I understand you have a book that’s coming out. Is that related to what you’re learning about what it means to be human, and do you want to talk a little bit about that?


Krista Tippett: Yes, it is. The title of the book … The book was named after it was written. It’s called Becoming Wise. I didn’t set out to write a book about wisdom, but that’s what I realized was the thread. In a sense, the writing of the book has helped me clarify some of my own thinking and insights after all these years. We spend a lot of time these days speculating about the intelligence of our technologies and also whether they’ll turn against us, or what happens when they become conscious. All the while, we have consciousness.


I really do believe that we are in the adolescence of our species, we’re not fully grown. I think we are like adolescents. Some of the people I talk to talk about how if you look at the globe right now it resembles the teenage brain, which is in some regions and in flashes this tremendous potential, this tremendous creativity, this incredible power for good, and then at the same time turbulence and volatility. Both are true. We tend to tell ourselves, partly because of the way news is to find the story of the volatility and turbulence and the damage, and not take seriously the power and the creativity and the goodness. We have to claim that.


I have started to … What it means to be human? I think we have only begun to live into that question. I do think that our technology actually gives us tools, and not just our technology, the science. What we’re learning about our bodies and our brains is giving us knowledge that is a form of power, to become not just smarter but wiser. I think that the more we choose wisdom and cultivate wisdom … Because it does have to be cultivated. We have to cultivate it individually in ourselves, and we have to help each other. We have to accompany each other and hold each other accountable and support each other in this. This is work of days and weeks and months and years and a lifetime.


I think that whether we choose that and walk that path will be the difference about whether we also grow this technology up to its best potential or whether it does become something that becomes a destructive power that outstrips us. It’s an incredibly exciting moment, and the stakes are high, but I’m very committed and passionate and hopeful about us becoming more aware of the incredible potential for good right now.


Tony Loyd: Excellent. Thanks for sharing that. Let’s shift gears here a little bit. Let’s think about advice for aspiring or early-stage social entrepreneurs.


Krista Tippett: You know, I’m three years in to being independent. Maybe you could say I’ve been a social entrepreneur, but I think when you’re in a big organization you try to flex that muscle. I’ve been really flexing it for three years. I guess I think one thing is, and this is why I’m stumbling over my words, you make so many mistakes in the beginning.


Tony Loyd: Of course.


Krista Tippett: I feel like three years in, there’s so many things that I am just understanding and being comfortable with my leadership. I guess I would say, very importantly, to get yourself some mentors, an ecosystem of mentors. I think those will be business people, entrepreneurs you respect who’ve lived a long time and made mistakes, and not only can help you find ways out but it’s very comforting to have wise people around you as you’re going through that messy early period who will say, “Yeah, that went wrong. That goes wrong for most people.” It’s not that it’s not a problem you don’t have to fix, but that’s really great to know that.


You learn when you have your own organization what a complex and perilous thing hiring is. You have all this mission and passion. Human beings are complicated. I tend to be somebody who believes … I listen and ask people to tell me who they are and what they can do, and I take everybody at their word. It’s not that people lie, but you have to have a critical edge, and you have to have it. It’s not about not being compassionate towards those people, but if you hire the wrong person, you’re going to be unhappy and they’re going to be unhappy.


You have to get some pragmatism and some wisdom that maybe has, I don’t want to say a harder edge, a sharper edge, but has some fierceness to it and some real practicality, and that … I don’t know, I think this is a spiritual virtue, to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and it’s complicated, so to honor that.


Those are the things that come to mind, but the mentors … In those first few years, I had three or four people in different places with different kinds of backgrounds who I could call up and would call up regularly and just say, “I just want to tell you what’s going on here and I’m trying to think my way through it and this is how I handled it.” They would help me get perspective. I think that’s one of the most important things. That’s what comes to mind.


Tony Loyd: That’s plenty.


Krista Tippett: Okay, yeah. Those are big.


Tony Loyd: Right. If people were looking for On Being online or on social media, where would they look?


Krista Tippett: Well, we have a beautiful website. I can’t take credit for the beauty, so I can not be humble about it. It’s called We also have an app, we have an On Being app in the app store. There’s multiple Android and Tablet apps. We have a podcast on iTunes, and we’re on public radio stations, but that’s less and less the ways people are accessing anything. We’re really working at creating digital community. We started our young organization with 5 people. We now have 12, and a lot of them are quite young. We now have as many people working on digital as people who are working on the weekly radio show.


One of the young women who was one of our first digital producers, she had this very varied background of what she’d done in college and right after college. I said to her, “You know, I’m looking at your résumé, and is digital … Do you really want to work online? I’m not sure I see this in here.” She said, “I love people, and online is where people are.” Of course, we hired her.


Tony Loyd: Of course.


Krista Tippett: I think she and her contemporaries are helping me see that. Online I think is scary to those of us for whom it came along when we were in our 40s. That is what we’re exploring. If this is where people are now, and it is, let’s make it as nourishing and vibrant and substantive a place as we can and bring all of ourselves to it. I’m really excited about the initiatives we have underway. Again, a lot of that you can find at We have Facebook, Twitter, all those things.


Tony Loyd: I’m going to ask you to give us a call to action here in a moment. People have been listening to Social Entrepreneur for a little while, and so one thing that they could do to apply what we’ve been talking about. Before we do, I just want to take a moment and acknowledge you, Krista. One thing I want to acknowledge you for is nuance and the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. I think that’s really missing from a lot of our conversation, public conversation, that we have these easy soundbites and we just beat each other over the head with them.


What I’ve appreciated about you over the years is your ability to have a more nuanced conversation, to pull things apart at a little more fine level, and to be okay with not knowing, to hold opposing ideas and say, “These both are true.” You said it just a few minutes ago, “These both can be true.” Before we go to that call to action, I just wanted to take a second and to acknowledge you for that and to just say “thank you” for what you do.


Krista Tippett: Thank you.


Tony Loyd: You’re welcome. All right, so a call to action then for listeners of Social Entrepreneur.


Krista Tippett: I like what you just said. I think as a journalist I watched precisely that phenomenon you’re describing of how we simplify and turn every important question into two sides and a fight. We convince ourselves that that’s the only way to grapple and is such a mess and therefore is a really natural reaction is to just get paralyzed or disgusted and feel alienated and despairing.


That is actually not the way life works. That is not the way we know reality works in our own lives as we face open questions or hard decisions or real encounters with difference, including the different people in our families who drive us crazy but with whom we stay in relationship. Can we figure that out in our public life, too? I had a conversation yesterday, it was about the book with somebody from Publishers Weekly. I don’t know how I brought this up, but it was talking about this matter of uncertainty. Uncertainty is in fact the way reality works.


My call to action is in fact to be reality-based and to understand and to honor how mysterious and strange and what an advantage and what a challenge reality is, and take that seriously. I do think there’s no way you could argue that the early 21st century is more violent or more harrowing than the early 20th century, with world wars with 20 million people at a time from Russia or Germany dying, people in trenches, Holocaust, a global depression. It’s not worse.


I think that the challenge for us is actually this challenge of uncertainty. Human beings, and we’re learning this about ourselves, we’re actually hardwired to handle total catastrophe. We know how to fight and how to flee. What actually makes us a little bit crazy and where we don’t know what to do is with uncertainty and ambiguity. In fact, that is the ultimate reality. Even in our moments of great accomplishment, where everything feels settled in our lives and we know this, the only sure thing is that we will be surprised by what happens next. That can be good news and it can be bad news, because sometimes the circumstances of our lives at any moment are not amazing, and we know we will be surprised by what happens next.


I think that we have these tools, both spiritual and technological now, to decide to grow up, face reality, and acknowledge the virtue of complexity and of uncertainty and the promise in uncertainty, and the fact that our character is formed by how we dwell with that. I think that is my call. I also know that’s a very hard thing for us to do, and so we have to be there for each other, take on that challenge, and also be there for others and let others be there for you.


Tony Loyd: Excellent. Krista, thank you so much for being with us on Social Entrepreneur.


Krista Tippett: It’s been an honor, thank you.


Tony Loyd: Thank you.


Leadership Development Expert
About the Author
Tony Loyd is a leadership development expert. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and coach. He helps purpose-driven business leaders to thrive so that they can connect and contribute at a deeper level. Find out more at

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