What a Decade of Interviews Taught Award-Winning Radio Host Krista Tippett About the Nature Of Wisdom

“I consider a conversation to be an adventure… anything can happen.”

Krista Tippett is the Peabody-award winning host of “On Being,” a podcast that explores questions of what it means to be a human in the 21st century. Originally conceived as “Speaking Of Faith,” an effort to intellectualize religion and spirituality for a diverse audience, the show has been on the air since 2003. David Shenk sat down with Tippet to discuss her new book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Art and Living, an exploration of what it means to be human, and what her career as an interviewer has taught her.

David Shenk: I want to talk to you about words. Your writing is unfairly beautiful. I wish you would restrict your eloquence to just one medium. It’s a little rude to jump over and do this to other writers.

Krista Tippett: I considered myself a writer before I considered myself a radio person. Words are where everything starts for me. I value the power of words so much.

David: I wonder how similarly you think of them—the written word and the spoken word—or if it feels like a different experience.

Krista: Oh they are very different. That’s why it took me almost seven years to get my book done. I had to actually re-learn how to belabor a point—which in radio you don’t do. The way I use words now is more succinct. Modeling a new form for writing or radio or television, or some kinds of digital spaces, we are always going to have to carefully work with the dynamics of that space.

David: The spoken word, of course, is in the moment. Do you find it’s more freeing just to be able to say something and get an immediate reaction?

Krista: I think that I take care with words whatever format I’m in. I have trained myself to do that. It’s a skill, a muscle you can flex like any other muscle. In the book, I talk about the way we use words as a virtue. Again I’m taking care with that moment to moment. It’s something to be intentional about, but then the more you’re intentional about the same thing and do it over and over, the more natural it becomes.

David: You once said you come to an interview more with your life experience than with just questions. That idea really resonated with me as a person who loves the art of conversation. Have you had that wise perspective on it for a long time or have you come to realize that lately?

“People say to me, oh you must have grown up in a family where everybody was a great listener. I’m the other story. I grew up in a family where people were terrible listeners.”

Krista: I’ve been having conversations for 15 years, building up to what I do now. I had some pointers that I learned and then I’ve been practicing and refining as I go. Writing was a chance to sit back and say, “Okay, what is actually going on that I’m doing without even spelling it out?” One thing I figured out is that a conversation, the tone of a conversation, and in some ways the trajectory of a conversation starts before any words pass between you.

Sometimes people say to me, oh you must have grown up in a family where everybody was a great listener. I’m the other story. I grew up in a family where people were terrible listeners. I had this passion that grew out of a longing for something in its absence. I grew up thinking listening is about being quiet while the other person says what they have to say so that you can get around to saying what you have to say.

That, in fact, is not listening, that’s just being quiet. As I’m listening I’m thinking about, “What is it about? What is it that’s going on? What am I bringing in addition to my questions?” I’m bringing my presence. I’m letting the fullness of who I am be in the room. I’m listening with my life as well as to the words.

David: It sounds like you’re saying that this is a work in progress for you and you don’t feel like you had the same skills 15 years ago?

Krista: Until even just a couple of years ago, I would be very prepared but I would go in and be kind of nervous about what would happen. Now when I go into an interview, I’m 99 percent sure that something really good is going to happen. It’s going to have a beginning and a middle and an end.

I consider a conversation to be an adventure. Part of the reason I prepare is so that anything can happen so that it can actually be surprising, and the person I’m talking to might put words around something in a way they haven’t before. Then I’m there for that moment and everyone is listening by way of radio or podcast for that moment. The point of being prepared is to be able to lose control and still be creating a complete experience.

David: I’m middle aged and I have been doing some stuff for a long time and it is a pretty cool to start feeling like you’re in a space that’s so familiar even though there is still that thrilling danger of not knowing what’s going to happen or if it’s going to work out. You’re able to trust your own instincts more and trust the process more.

“Every time in my life that I’ve done something that ended up being important, there has been a moment where I thought, ‘This is a disaster.’”

Krista: This is one of the great things about age, and I don’t think we talk enough about the great things about age. I have teenage children. In that moment of life, everything feels ultimate. Everything feels existential, everything feels urgent. As a parent, you try to step outside and be the one in the room who actually knows that life is bigger and more spacious than that. You try to embody the fact that there is the other side and actually getting through it makes you bigger.

I was with some college students and I said to them, “Here’s something I want you to know. Every time in my life that I’ve done something that ended up being important, there has been a moment where I thought, ‘This is a disaster.’” I still have those moments, but now when that happens I can say, “Well that’s interesting. There’s that moment again.”

David: Can you talk about the renaming of your show [from “Speaking of Faith” to “On Being”]? Why did that happen?

Krista: The renaming was actually naming it to be what it had become. The show grew up in public. It was launched as a national show. In 2003, we had an evangelical president in the White House and the post-9/11 years. There was a way in which our entire kind of imagination about religion, about faith, had been co-opted and captured by a few strident voices and by terrible imitation. My longing was to be able to talk about this part of life—spirituality, religion, where we find meaning, moral imagination—with all the fluidity and complexity and diversity that it has in real life and it did not have in the headlines. I felt like it was important at that point to use the word faith but still show that it could be an intelligent discussion that is interesting and welcoming to people who are not faithful in traditional ways.

About seven years in, it just wasn’t a good description of what was happening in the show. Our audience from the very beginning was full of all kinds of religious people. We had lots of atheists, agnostics, and people who want to talk about all the things we talk about under this rubric. It’s a much bigger, more expansive discussion of this part of life culturally. And I realized “Speaking of Faith” sounds like we’re talking about people’s answers.

What I’m interested in is animating questions behind this part of life. Those questions belong to all of us. The longer this went on, the more I was interviewing people way outside the bounds of what you would call faith.

David: Do you still describe the show as being theological or including theology, or do you not like that framing?

Krista: Yeah. I love theology and theology is one of the disciplines that had not been accessible to the rest of us. We do mysticism, too. But we also do a lot of science. And here’s the interesting thing about science in our time: neuroscientists and physicists and evolutionary biologists are actually on some of the ground that philosophers and theologians were on in previous generations. Those are the places where we pose these questions of what it means to be human and complete. Theology is there, but as a companion to much else.

David: It occurred to me that you’re kind of the David Brooks of public radio, in that David Brooks is famously the conservative that the liberals love to read. You’re the person who was talking about religion to all these atheists and agnostics, secular intellectuals, on public radio.

Krista: I’m the religion person who talks about religion that nonreligious people can listen to. I like that.

David: Now you’ve broadened that.

Krista: Last year I interviewed Father James Martin, who is a Jesuit and he writes books that a lot of people read. When we went to name that show I said, the title of the show is “Finding God in All Things,” which is the Jesuit motto. That was St. Ignatius of Loyola’s charge to his men. They were explorers and paleontologists and astronomers—and now one of them is a pope. “Finding God In All Things” is a beautiful, very 21st-century way of thinking about it.

We had a discussion and somebody on our production team said, “We can’t call it that,” because we still had this idea that this was public radio. I said, “I think if the show had still been called ‘Speaking of Faith,’ I might’ve been concerned about naming it that. But this is “On Being” and that Jesuit tradition is audacious and very rich, I mean it has a lot of lived integrity. We can let them have that motto and let that motto be something that’s quite beautiful and vigorous in the world.”

David: At the end of the day, how do you feel about religion? The whole legacy, if you had to sum it up? Are you as optimistic as your voice usually sounds when you’re talking about religion?

“There are all kinds of unseen, uncelebrated corners of civil society where human beings are rising to the best within themselves and reaching beyond themselves.”

Krista: Something that was important to me to contribute is that there’s intellectual content to this as well as spiritual content.

Yet the way the stuff generally makes its way into public discourse, it loses both its intellectual content and its spiritual content. It’s often these voices getting squeezed into political boxes and it distorts the very essence of what’s being discussed. Religions are created by human beings, willed by human beings, carried forward in time by human beings, dropped and broken by human beings. I mean they carry all of our flaws and our failings and those things get amplified with religion. Because when you’re talking about not just right and wrong but good and evil, these ideas get distorted in the world. It can be especially dangerous and dramatic and damaging. The irony of the whole picture of religion in the world is that the people who are being true to that essence are leading lives that are marked by humility. All the institutions we have that are products of religion—I mean, hospitals, right?

David: Schools.

Krista: There’s something about the aspiration, the imaginations, and intellect that gave us cathedrals. Where my hope rests now is in the quiet, redemptive lives of service and humility and giving that are everywhere and that are animated by this. They don’t make headlines and they are not throwing themselves in front of cameras or microphones.

There is a real bedrock in all kinds of unseen, uncelebrated corners of civil society, wherein the hardest of circumstances, human beings are rising to the best within themselves and reaching beyond themselves. I want to pay attention to that, to take it seriously even if it’s not making the front page of the New York Times. There’s a bit of a spiritual discipline in deciding to train your eyes and ears on that.

It’s a simple move but it changes the way you see the story and the way we are telling our own narrative and the way you move through the world.

David: Has something happened recently that has made it harder to hear these people, to see them?

Krista: In a 24/7 news environment, and with all this immersive media, you don’t just hear the story of the thing that went wrong today once in the morning. You hear it 150 times. You hear it on 150 platforms. The old definition of news was, here’s the narrative, right? Here’s what’s happening that you need to inform your sense of who we are and what our world is. The news was supposed to be the extraordinary thing that happened. If you heard it once in the morning, you took that in alongside all the other ways that you assessed the world and experienced reality. Including, maybe, the nuns who were teaching in the local school, in the hospital, in the food shelter, and all the other pieces of civil society that were around you. A lot of them were these quiet humble, service-oriented things. Now there’s just this bombardment of terrible news and terrible pictures and media constantly internalizing that as the narrative. That is a lie and it’s a lie that’s bad for us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.