Interview: Guy Raz

Guy Raz is the host and editorial director of the TED Radio Hour, a co-production of NPR and TED, that is a journey into the world of big ideas (here’s a great episode on creativity). Prior to that, he was the weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s a professional listener, a father, and a believer in the power of curiosity.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
I am an introvert. Which may seem weird for somebody who wears blue glasses and [has] a show that’s listened to by millions of people. But the nature of what I do is kind of a job for introverts. I’m behind a microphone on the radio. You wouldn’t recognize me [on the street]. You just hear my voice. It’s a way for me to do a very public thing and be a public person, but also live a very private life.

I’m very loyal to people. I like to think of myself as a curious person, a very open-minded person, somebody whose thoughts and views change. I don’t really believe in the idea of certitude. I think you can have very strong beliefs that can be changed. And my views on many things change a lot depending on what ideas I’m exposed to.

The work I do: If you went to a therapist but it was recorded and broadcast to lots of people, that’s how I see my job. I’m there to draw somebody out, to bring out the best in them. I really believe that everybody has a story to tell. And my job is to pull that out of you in a way that can connect with people who don’t know [you] and may not have the same experience.

What would you say the role of curiosity is in your work?
I think curiosity is the most important attribute a journalist could have. I teach journalism at George Washington University [and] I’m often asked, ‘What do I need to do to become a journalist?’ And my answer’s always the same: develop your sense of curiosity. You can apply a skeptical eye to things, but you can’t be cynical.

You have to often be childlike in your curiosity. Be dazzled by the idea that when you look up at the stars, you’re looking at the past in real time. That when you are looking at another human being, you are both part of a species that is unprecedented in the history of our planet.

I try to remind myself of these incredible things that are around us. Because it’s through that kind of contemplation and observation that I find my ideas and the meaning behind what I’m trying to convey.

Can curiosity be taught? Or is it something you have innately?
Almost nobody has it innately after a certain age. I think all children have it and then it goes away. And the reason is because as we grow older and our myths are shattered and our questions are answered, we enter into a kind of reality-based view of the world. And we start to understand that we have a role to play in society and we stop asking questions about the stars. It’s not because we are incurious. It’s because we are focusing on really practical things.

I think that curiosity can be recaptured. It is a sense that I developed and that I continue to develop. And it really has taken off further since I became a parent. I’ve become a more curious person just by listening to the questions my children ask me. My son was trying to figure [out] how long it takes for the light from the sun to reach us. We looked it up and we figured out it was eight minutes. The light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach our eyes! And that’s just so cool. There are all these things around us that are amazing, that I’ve rediscovered through the eyes of my children.

How do you tell a good story?
A good story has a narrative. It doesn’t have to be a clear path, it can be a jagged path and it can be a complex path, but part of it is finding moments that allow you to understand what eventually would come. Oftentimes, we know the end of the story, especially when we interview people who are famous or whose stories are well known. But it’s how [they got] to the end that really makes that story compelling.

The trick for me is not that the person I talk to is necessarily a good storyteller, but that through the bits and pieces that they’re recounting, we can help them shape those ideas into their story. Oftentimes, people don’t realize that they’ve got a great story inside until they start to talk about it. Telling a good story is, in part, about drawing it out from yourself or from other people.

Sometimes those stories are just moments. It can just be a moment where there was something you smelled and it reminded you of your childhood or going to see somebody you loved or playing or maybe it was the smell of fresh laundry. Stories have a vividness. They really bring you into a world. Even if it’s just temporary or momentary.

From your time in radio, what have you learned about listening to other people?
If I were to really describe my job, it would be as a listener. I listen to people for hours and hours and hours every day. And I’m very lucky because I get to hear their experiences and hopefully even sometimes get them to reflect on those experiences.

There’s an incredible radio producer named Dave Isay [founder of StoryCorps] who really inspired me to become a radio reporter. His description of listening is as an act of generosity. And I believe that is true.

When you sit down and listen to somebody’s story and you ask them questions, it is an act of generosity and it is an act of empathy. It’s not that you do it to be generous or empathetic. You do it because you love it and you’re genuinely interested. It’s a chance to show somebody you have profound respect for them and for their story. Oftentimes, people aren’t listened to. People don’t get a chance to talk and tell their stories. Listening is probably one of the most powerful ways you can connect with somebody.

We’re living in this very unusual time. It’s a period where the way we communicate is changing. The way we interact is changing. Human-to-human contact is actually becoming something very valuable. Conversation between two people is increasingly rare. People are communicating through devices and through screens more and more, and that will almost certainly be the primary method of communication in a very short period of time. Maybe this idea of just sitting with somebody and listening to them is almost becoming a privilege.

Given that you are hosting the TED Radio Hour [TED focuses on ideas worth spreading], what’s an idea you would like to spread?
I’m really interested in what we are like as an advanced primate. This idea that we are a hominin [humans and our close extinct relatives] species, and we are the only one of our species of its kind on the planet. It’s unprecedented. Even 12,000 years ago, we cohabitated on earth with another hominin species. And 30,000 years ago, there were at least two others. So, we are this very advanced species of hominin and yet we can’t seem to understand that. We’re so tribal and so identity-oriented and focused. To me, that’s only a part of who we are.

We are this fascinating and very basic species that has done incredible things, has the capacity to do incredible things, has done unbelievably damaging things, destructive things. But we’re all so hung up on our tribal identities. I think sometimes we should just stop and reflect on this very simple, maybe it’s naive, fact that 99.9% of our DNA is identical. We are more or less an identical species with very, very, very minor differences that are cosmetic.

Any idea what it would take to remind us of that?
An alien invasion. But realistically, climate change. Climate change is the biggest threat to world peace and to human survival. And that, to me, seems like a huge opportunity for us to come together.

When did you last see lightning?
Driving to the town of Truro on Cape Cod. It was a couple weeks ago, and there was a storm just over the tip of the outer Cape. As we were driving, the sky – every 45 seconds – was illuminated, and you could see everything: every tree, every pine cone along the highway. And then it would just be pitch black, and you would just see the occasional lights from a car passing. Then every 45 or 50 seconds, this giant illumination in the skies. It was incredible. It was so sharp, you saw the details in everything just for that split second.

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