This is the story of how a divinity school graduate, once an unknown, came to touch 28 million lives in a year.

Of course, she is not unknown anymore. She is Krista Tippett and her podcast, On Being, was downloaded 28 million times in 2016. And the numbers are still rising.

There are many chapters in this Horatio Alger tale.

  • About a young U.S. State Department employee and aspiring journalist who found her calling elsewhere.
  • About an accidental entrepreneur who found a niche that loved her and converted that into a major market segment.
  • About how someone found her passion and how luck, and the universe conspired to channel that to help millions.
  • This is also about what the world needs right now and how a compassionate, driven broadcaster is helping countless people reaffirm their faith in human existence and live purposeful lives.

I like the last one best, so that is where I will end.

Tippett ended up in West Berlin in the 1980s during the Cold War. At different times, she was a stringer for such publications as The New York Times and Newsweek and assistant to the U.S. ambassador.

The Berlin Wall turned West Berlin into an island in the middle of East Germany. Tippett had people she loved on both sides, and they had clashing world-views.

West Berlin was heavily subsidized, and it was possible to live there as a starving artist. But, she notes, West Berliners sought frenetically to disguise their impoverished inner lives.

In East Berlin, there was poverty of choice. You could not choose your college major or even what color to paint your apartment. But East Berliners improvised and lived lives of dignity. Poetry could not be published, so they created poetry circles that fostered community and nourished the spirit. Friends and family were more important in East Berlin, and people invested in them.

In West Berlin, Tippett sat in on meetings where nuclear missiles were moved around like chess pieces. The players were on a power rush, and alpha males abounded. She got the sense that this was not her place.

Geopolitical power was seductive, but this was not where she wanted to put her energy.

Still seeking her path, she enrolled at Yale Divinity School.

These were the days of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, strident voices given megaphones by many media outlets. Faith was taken hostage in the culture wars.

Religion became a weapon to beat political opponents down, close minds and make people angry and alienated. At the same time, spirituality was becoming more important.

Tippett believed that she could create programs that were balanced and opened people's minds. And she would not proselytize.

And so a new interview series, Speaking of Faith, began to take shape.

Tippett wanted to shine a light on the divisions within traditions--Evangelical christianity, Islam, Eastern religions--as she asked a basic question: "What is a good life?"

Then, 9/11 happened.

The vice president of programming for Minnesota Public Radio asked for samples. Tippett produced three shows in five weeks.

The first was "Where was God?"

Religion was not considered important enough to give a whole hour on National Public Radio, but Tippett did the occasional show and specials. She interviewed religious leaders on what 9/11 meant. She did a show on Islam. And another episode--"Just War"-- examined how Christian theology dealt with war.

In 2003, she began a weekly show on Minnesota Public Radio and another station it owned, Southern California Public Radio.

Her audience grew slowly and steadily.

She touched raw nerves and provided a healing service that was sorely needed and one that was also ignored by most major media.

A 2011 survey revealed the impact the show had on listeners. It helped them cope with crises. It enabled conversations that would never have happened otherwise.

One listener said her father had died of a debilitating illness. He listened to the show over and over and passed away in peace.

By this time, the show had changed its name to On Being. It became an entry point to conversations on difficult topics in the workplace where formal and informal rules precluded talking about religion and touchy subjects.

There has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards homosexuality in the past two decades and On Being played a role with episodes on gay marriage and interviews with people torn between conflicting values. An evangelical preacher, for instance, believed that homosexuality is a sin, but also that how he treats an individual is more representative of Christianity.

As a result of the program, a woman who was estranged from her son reached out to him to reconcile. There are any number of such stories.

On Being is now carried by 400 radio stations and reaches 700,000 listeners a week. Millions more download each segment as a podcast.

And what is Tippett doing with the megaphone that she wields? Her latest project is Civil Conversations, an online resource to renew public discourse and nourishing everyday life. In today's political climate, it addresses a big need.

So what can you learn from this tale that will help you on your journey?

First, do something that calls to you from the deepest recesses of your being. This is a voice that is often obscured and drowned out in the clamor for "prestige" occupations or high compensation. But if you listen carefully, you will be able to discern its whisper.

Second, address some really deep need that human beings have.

Finally, be consistent. There were days and weeks of hardly any listeners when Krista began her journey. But she showed up and continued to do so. Do likewise.

I asked Tippett, "What is the one thing she would recommend for leaders focused on pursuing a passion?" She asked if she could ponder this for a while and get back to me. Her answer resonated so deeply that I am relating it here in her own words:

"I'd like to suggest boldly that the work of our time, the very fate of our country, involves reweaving the fabric of civic life, common life. I believe this is a calling that leaders of integrity across the political spectrum can embrace. And the late 20th century illusion that we could compartmentalize our lives into work, play, family, politics, this has collapsed. Companies and workplaces are not islands remote and untouched by cultural tumult.

"The unsettled, fearful nature of this moment is walking through the door of every workplace every morning in the mind and heart of each person. We know in life that whatever we don't face directly will haunt and shape us indirectly. And so I believe it is in the long-term self interest of every leader of any kind of enterprise to begin to grapple with the question of how to find appropriate ways to acknowledge, address, and calm anxiety in the public space that is our lives at work.

"More pointedly, I feel we need every leader of an institution, large or small, to be exploring: 'How is our enterprise a member of its community or communities and how might that reality become more generative and proactive?' "

Tippett's latest book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, recently published in paperback. It contains a bit of her story and lots of insights from the many notables she has interviewed over the years.

Published on: Feb 28, 2017
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