Guy Raz in the radio studio.

Courtesy of Guy Raz

How Encouraging People to Move on Sparks Innovation

In this on-going series, meet Guy Raz, a member of the NationSwell Council, a community of leaders who share a passion for service and engaging around solutions to national challenges.

As the host of the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, Guy Raz examines what it means to be a human being (or “an upright, advanced primate,” as he puts it): how we love, grieve, judge, create, imagine, and empathize. The approach stems from his experience as a journalist, during which he served as a foreign correspondent covering political conflicts across the globe, a defense correspondent reporting on the Pentagon and as host of “All Things Considered.” After witnessing an intense focus on differentiating people, Raz uses his radio show to create a community of individuals who believe in possibility and the desire to do better. He spoke with NationSwell at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NPR.

What is the best advice that you’ve received on being a leader?
When you’re starting out as a journalist, it’s really hard. There’s a lot of failure and a lot of uncertainty because no one takes you seriously and most of your work gets rejected. There were moments when I was starting my career when I would write something and somebody here at NPR would see it. Maybe they wouldn’t read it, but they would see my byline, and they would say “Hey, great job. You’re doing great work.” And that meant the world to me. I really think about that a lot as somebody who’s been doing this for 18 years. When I see people starting out, I make an effort to acknowledge and recognize their work — to help them and to give them advice. Leadership is about passing it on — it’s as simple as that.

What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you first started your career that they didn’t?
I wish that someone would’ve told me that there’s so much uncertainty and combining it with being young and feeling vulnerable will mean that you will have some very tough times. Your whole life there’s a safety net, and everyone is encouraging you. Then you go out into the world and no one gives a shit because they don’t know anything about you. You’re just another 20-something in the city. The combination of that and the uncertainty of your future often causes periods of depression and anxiety.

When I was younger, I experienced anxiety and depression like I had never experienced in my life. I had gone from thinking I was relatively emotionally stable to being in a spiral in my early 20s. I wish I knew to expect that because it was so disorienting when it happened. It was a long time before I sought help. I think we do a disservice to young people, even more so now, because we don’t prepare them. We encourage them, and then that day is over and we send them out in the world. I don’t know what the answer is, but one step would be to have a conversation about it and understand that we set a lot of people up for a period of difficulty and disappointment.

How do you as a leader inspire others?
By helping people to realize their potential and what they want to do. I’ve always tried to be the kind of leader that encourages people to move on. Very rarely have I worked with the same people for more than three years. When the best, best, best people that work with me come and say that they want to try something new, of course, my first instinct is “I can’t lose this person,” but I’ve got to do it. So I always say, “let’s figure out how we can make that happen.”

What is your idea of a perfect day?
A day spent with my children and my wife. I know it’s a lame and clichéd answer, but I love being around them. I love watching my boys interact. They fight. They get along. They play. They hit each other. I just love being together with them. There’s nothing more meaningful than being around family.

What’s on your nightstand right now?
“Originals” by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, which is about original thinkers and how ideas form. “Presence” by Amy Cuddy; she’s a friend of mine and I love her TED talk about faking it ’til you become it. I’m reading “Napoleon” by Andrew Roberts, which is really great. [Napoleon was] an amazing guy. He created an apparatus that’s still in place in all of Europe — the school systems, the civil justice system, the criminal court system, the bureaucracy, the progressive nature of Europe. You could call him a dictator or an authoritarian. But by our standards, even today, he was incredibly progressive.

What is your all-time favorite book?
As a journalist, the most important book has been “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell. The reason why it’s so important isn’t because of the story, but because of what it represents. Orwell was a young communist and he went to Spain to fight with the communists. He grew to be incredibly disillusioned with them…and was still sympathetic to the ideals, but while most communists would’ve hid those feelings, he wrote in a very transparent way about the flaws of the movement that he believed in. And that, to me, is the mark of a great journalist — a person who is able to fight against their own biases and write something that is real and meaningful and truthful. He represents integrity as a writer that is unmatched.

The novel that’s really stuck with me is “Atonement” by Ian McEwan. It’s beautifully written. In recent years, I haven’t kept up with novels as best as I should, but I still think Ian McEwan is one of the greatest living writers.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
To create two human beings. I always say that I’ve been really lucky. NPR has sent me to report from more than 45 countries. I’ve seen incredible things. I’ve been in remote villages of Afghanistan where I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever seen and a goat is slaughtered in my honor. [I’ve visited] tiny villages in Kosovo and places in Pakistan. I’ve been all over Iraq, and I’ve met incredible people, but there hasn’t been anything more interesting than watching my kids grow up. You see elements of yourself in them, and you try to correct it because you don’t want them to have your craziness. They’re the 2.0 version of you. You know your own flaws, but then you see your kids, and they’re just better at dealing with things. They’re more advanced versions of you, and it’s just cool.

What is something that people should know about you but don’t?
A few things. My wife and I did not have a wedding. We got married alone. I am really into making stuff at home. I make Kombucha. It’s very NPR of me. And I make a lot of plant milk. Today, I brought a bottle of Kombucha, a jar of vanilla hemp milk and a jar of vanilla oat milk to work. I do a kids news show every Friday, which is one the most fun things I do.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.