The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 55

Krista Tippett

Becoming Wise

“We’ve tried to retire mystery in the West,” says Krista Tippett, Peabody award-winning broadcaster, host of NPR’s On Being, bestselling author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and the 2014 National Humanities Medal recipient. Join us for a conversation where Krista shares her perspective on the the power of imperfection, the beauty of honest questions, the pursuit of joy, the constancy of surprise, and, yes, wisdom.

In every podcast description, we talk about what you will learn, the skills you will gain. But Krista’s broadest message is that true learning cannot be so rigidly defined. Skills are necessary to leadership, but the ability to let go of that need may be just as important.


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Book: Becoming Wise
Bio: Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of ​every background to join her conversation about faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. We are very lucky today to have with us Krista Tippett. Krista is a Peabody Award Winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014 she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. That is an amazing reason to receive a medal. She’s the host of NPR’s “On Being.” I have been listening to her interview really interesting, amazing people in highly engaging ways for at least 10 years and I’m just so excited, giddy, to have Krista on the show with us. The book that we’re talking about is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living. Krista, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Krista: I’m really happy to be here.

Peter: Krista, I’m a little intimidated because you’re usually on my side of the aisle and I really, really adore your book. I could do this whole interview just on the introduction of your book, which I felt was so robust, but you wrote in there, “We tried to retire mysteries in the west,” and it’s so true and I mentioned this briefly to you before the show. I’ve written that I don’t like personality assessments because they put an answer, an easy answer, to a question that should leave us eternally curious, which is who are you? Who are you as a person? How are you changing? What’s different about you today than you were yesterday rather than, “Oh, you’re an ENTJ, I know how to talk to you.”

We try so often in organizations to shortcut a process that would kill mystery and lead us to answers that allow us to take powerful action and move forward with ambition, and I want to ask you what your experience is in really delving into and lingering in mystery and bringing that sensibility to your listeners and readers.

Krista: Well, I think that, as I write in the book, I think that we’re still living with this legacy of the 20th century, when there was such incredible change and progress. If you think about all the big movements and events, the bad ones as well as the good ones, it was all about ideologies and it was about solutions and there was this great human aspiration, which bleeds over and becomes hubris, that we could solve the problems. Even in physics, they thought they were just about to have the theory of everything, but what happens in individual life, in organizational life, in public life, in national life, in global life, again and again, this is the human condition, the nature of reality, that however great the answers we reach … Every great solution is always only temporary, is one way to say it.

Peter: You write this beautifully – I want to quote you to you, “I’m not surprised by the fact that inexplicable and terrible things happen in a cosmos as complicated as ours with sentient beings like us running the show, but I’m emboldened by the fact that surprise is the only constant. We are never really running the show, never really in control and nothing will go quite as we imagined it.”

Krista: Nothing will ever go quite as we imagined it, and that is just this basic human truth. When I say we try to retire mystery, I don’t think there was an evil impulse. I think that it was an optimistic impulse. I think we thought we could tie things up and just always keep getting better and smarter and more perfect. You remember in the … When was it, in the ’80s that this great political scientist said we reached the end of history.

Peter: Yeah.

Krista: We know what the perfect social system is. It’s a liberal democracy with a capitalist underpinning and we just have to keep perfecting it, and we know now that that’s not true, and I think we’re also relearning that it’s … That anything that is living has surprise as the only constant, has mystery around the next corner, both for good and for ill, and so when I want to inject the word “mystery” back into our vocabulary and questions and your curiosity. You’re staying open, staying curious about what’s going to happen next. I’m actually talking about us being more reality-based. Really in fact more logical. More dealing in facts rather than illusions, but this way of thinking and this assumption that somehow we can always make it more perfect and tie things down and get rid of mystery is …

This is the view of reality on which our organizations and systems and structures are still based, and a lot of them are failing us and we’re innovating new ways to do things, but it’s very … Right now, it’s all emergent and it’s easier to see what’s failing and what’s not working and to feel like we’re flailing around in so many of our disciplines.

Peter: There are two things that stand in the way of our wanting to see reality as reality – I love how you put that – and one of them is we need to make plans and we need to make investments and we need to move forward in certain things. That doesn’t mean that we need easy answers, but we need to put a stake in the ground and say, “While I don’t know, I’m going to actually make this bet,” right?

Krista: Yep, yep.

Peter: I think that’s fine. We could do that without knowing and I think admitting that we don’t know leaves us open to seeing how things change and modifying them. The harder thing to overcome – the second thing – is our emotional response to not knowing. The fear that comes with … It drives, in many ways, our desire for the easy answer because if we think history is over and we know everything there is to know, then there’s nothing to be afraid of. We can control everything, when the reality is we can’t. In your experience and in the conversations that you’ve had with people who as a profession think about and live with and explore the things that stop us from seeing reality as reality. What could you say to people that might help us manage the fear that comes with living in mystery?

Krista: It’s such an important point that even while I want us to celebrate the reality that there is mystery and surprise and uncertainty around every corner, we are actually not constituted physiologically to handle that very well, so I’m also very much developing a new perspective, view of reality, mentality around this has to include a real huge measure of compassion and acknowledgement that some of us at any given time are either hardwired to better served by our circumstances to dwell with uncertainty without it making us crazy and the truth is, uncertainty does make us crazy as creatures when we are vulnerable. It’s actually the hardest thing to deal with.

As humans, we actually know what to do with a real clear enemy and a real clear fight, and that is in very short supply right now. Mostly what we have in our workplaces, in our political life, in what’s going on in our neighborhoods and our kids schools and the economy is it’s just not adding up. It’s not going the way we thought it was supposed to, but it’s more about these gaping questions and this uncertainty about how it can work or how it should work or how we have to refashion it to make it work, and that is very stressful for human beings, so part of opening up to mystery as a strategy for being reality-based is absolutely about being grounded in that knowledge and reckoning with that, that this is a new human reality and we have to deal with the human aspect of it. The human condition aspect of it.

Peter: The sense I get is a softness, that in effect, we’re not all-powerful and to realize that allows us in some ways to be a little softer in judgment of ourselves and other people. There’s great power in that kind of softness.

Krista: Yeah, and you know, especially in the realm, I think, of business literature, but generally … There’s this new awakening we have to something very old, which is that failure and vulnerability are part of life, right? I feel like people like Renee Brown, some of her neuroscientific … Just some of the ways we’re starting to understand our brains and our bodies are inclining us to just start to see this as a fact which flies in the face of this 20th century solutions-based, all-powerful-based way of moving through the world, but then what’s been done with it, in some circles, is we started to build the failure into our hero trajectory so that failure …

We acknowledge that failure happens, and I really do see this in business as much as any place else or in education we [inaudible 00:11:41], but then we turn it into a step on the way to our success, so we don’t quite take in what we’re learning, which is that failure … Yeah, that opening to softness and to vulnerability that in fact doesn’t go away, even if it is a stepping stone on some path to success, again is the only way to be rooted in reality, to develop resilience, which may contain a lot of power but is distinct from mere power, which again is always going to be temporary.

Peter: I want to read a poem that you have in the book that I fell in love with and that I think has a voice in this conversation that we’re having right now and it’s called “Perfection, Perfection.” It’s by Father Killean McDoughnall, am I getting that right?

Krista: Yeah, a Benedictine monk.

Peter: Benedictine monk. “I have had it with perfection. I have packed my bags. I am out of here. Gone. As certain as rain will make you wet, perfection will do you in. It droppeth not as dew upon the summer grass to give liberty and green joy. Perfection straineth out the quality of mercy, withers rapture at its birth. Before the battle is half begun, cold probity thinks it can be won, concedes the war. I’ve handed in my notice, given back my keys, signed my severance check. I quit. Hence I could have taken even the perfect chiseled form of Michelangelo’s radiant David squints. The Venus de Milo has no arms. The Liberty Bell is cracked.”

Krista: Isn’t that great?

Peter: I love it.

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: What specifically drew you to the poem?

Krista: Well, it’s about it. I can talk about these things because this is my struggle. I’m not talking about something abstract in the world out there. I mean, I am a living, breathing embodiment of somebody who knows these deep truths about not just humanity but about my humanity, but I grew up … I was born in 1960, grew up with that, in that world where I could make the world. I would save the world. My father was like the classic self made man and I have always been so hard on myself. It’s costly and it’s exhausting to carry around those high standards and to need to have that projection of not failing, not being vulnerable, so when I have these conversations all the time with people who … People who are wise or even people who have become saints are themselves … You don’t become wise … You become wise through these struggles, right? Through grappling with these things, so I have these conversations. I listen to people who’ve learned something and who live with this gracefully and always imperfectly, partly because I need to … Right? Because I am always grappling with this myself.

Peter: As am I.

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: You wrote in the section on words, “My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits,” and I think this idea of generous listening is so important for leaders. Often times I hear people, myself too, ask questions to make a point.

Krista: Right.

Peter: I think there’s so much that I would love to hear from you about … You ask questions for a living that do successfully elicit honesty and eloquence. What’s the trick? What advice do you have, in a sense, to help people be in that state of mind and being that allows them to probe in that way?

Krista: I think that there are certain muscles, spiritual muscles, social muscles, that we train culturally and having good answers and being good in an argument and representing your positions and debating. I was a high school debater. These are things that we value and that we need but in school and in family and in institutional life, we haven’t, for a few generations, at least, trained ourselves in being good questioners, and by that, I mean truly asking a question that you don’t already know the answer to that is not a part of your agenda. I sometimes say that listening is not primarily about being quiet. It’s about being present, and one quality of asking a generous question, of really being present as a listener, is in a willingness to be surprised. That’s kind of a litmus test for, “Are you really asking this because you’re curious?”

Peter: It’s so counter-cultural in many ways.

Krista: It’s counter-cultural.

Peter: We ask questions to reinforce the points we’re trying to make so often.

Krista: Right. We have folded questions as performance pieces into that reverence we have for answers and opinions and advocacy. Again, all good things but not complete, and I think right now in our political life it’s so dysfunctional and, to me, talking about the gap between how we’re functioning now in a lot of our institutions, and the gap between that and what we are actually learning on our cutting edges about ourselves, it’s almost to me like a lot of what is most visible right now is just a caricature of the worst things that went wrong with the 20th century. All of these worst qualities we’re talking about. The extremes of being all about solutions and certainty and having no questions left which means actually having no curiosity about your fellow man, for one thing.

It’s counter-cultural and it will take time and it’s something we have to start practicing as much as just deciding that we believe in … I mean, in journalism … When I wrote that sentence you read, the way journalism has done this is the questions … There’s this idea of hard questions, and a hard question is really about how the journalist comes across. It’s about them, and I guess, you know, how would we measure the success of a hard question? It would be that a point was made by the journalist, that the person on the other end of the interview’s responds to inadequately or …

Peter: Gotcha, right?

Krista: Aggressively.

Peter: Kind of a gotcha.

Krista: Yeah. Yeah, but what you don’t have … You may have revelation on the part of the journalist. I mean, sometimes in this scenario the journalist is telling the world something in this interview that they didn’t know, but you don’t have revelation. You’re not going to elicit revelation or real learning. The journalist is not going to be surprised in one of those situations nor … The person who’s speaking is not going to be in an open enough place to say something that surprises themselves.

Peter: It’s such a divergent way of being that I’m curious about your own journey. You started out as a journalist. I never read any of your really early stuff and I don’t know what kind of a journalist you were, but I imagine there was some form of journey from the journalist who’s trying to figure out how to get in the first paragraph the “who, what, when, where, how ” …

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: To the engagement that you have now with larger mysteries and virtues in the world. What helped you get there and also what did you struggle with?

Krista: I was very fortunate in my 20s to be in Germany and then in divided Berlin. I ended up working in the New York Times bureau and I went to Berlin as the New York Times [stringer 00:21:56] which had no guarantees of publication and no real money attached, but I ended up getting to … And having great teachers, and I value that so much, those disciplines in journalism, and I got good at it, but I did not … What I didn’t enjoy was being reactive, in that kind of … There are people who are really good at this and it’s a calling and I’m glad they’re in the world, but for me, you were always waiting, day by day, week by week, to see what the world would present that you would then turn your attention to.

I also felt like I would get into a story, go into some depth, learn something and then you immediately turn on to the next story that the world has presented for you to cover, and that just wasn’t me. I wanted to keep going with something. I wanted to draw it out and also, and this is, I feel, more true now than it was then. This was the ’80s. Some of my stuff is on the internet but this was pre-Internet. It was another world, and the ethos of journalism, which had its righteous place in the 20th century of uncovering injustice and exposing corruption, and it still has its place, but that is … That is real, and we need to know about that and we need people to be shining a light on that, but that is not the whole story of who we are as a species. It actually doesn’t lead us to attend to the fullness of what is happening in our world that matters.

Some of what is happening in the world that matters is life giving, is true innovation, is reality-changing, is about expanding what human flourishing means in new ways, and this way we’ve done journalism … It’s kind of what I keep saying. It’s like, we need these particular tools and these particular skills but they’re not sufficient, and as we’ve evolved into a 24/7, 21st century new environment, you just get bombarded by bad news and by the same bad news, and we don’t internalize that as the story of the day, the exceptional thing that happened. We start to internalize this as the norm, and it’s bad for us. There’s a lot of demoralization. Now, what I also am aware of, and as aware now as I ever have been, is there’s something in us in these primitive parts of our brain that is very reactive, that is rifted by bad news and catastrophe.

It’s this part of us that knows what to do with a fight, and that knows what to do with an enemy and that knows what to do in real danger, so one of the puzzles that I work with is how to make good news riveting, and it’s not. I know it’s often … It can be really boring when journalists or news organizations try to say, “We’re going to cover good news.” It’s not the same. I started having these conversations at that monastery, at a board of this project that had come out of that monastery that father Killean was at, and it was through conversations with some of these lives, these great big, full, rich lives that had all the human pathos and drama in them that all of our human lives have, but also had committed themselves to something life-giving, often quiet, not having a publicist, but having all these ripple effects, which is the way a lot of good works in the world.

I found those conversations so much more interesting than I expected and such a contrast to the media interviews that I was used to hearing, so that’s kind of how my … This is all very gradual. It’s kind of one thing after the other. It wasn’t like this great vision formed.

Peter: Even your use of the language elucidates that, right? Because the idea, the word “conversation,” right?

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: Is in itself evocative. A conversation is two ways. A conversation suggests thoughtfulness and listening and sharing and some degree of not knowing. When I talk to journalists, I don’t know that they would describe what they do as conversations as much as questions and answers.

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: I think that’s true for organizations, too. I think leaders are often more comfortable with statements than with conversations, and it feels important. The other thing that you said that it brings me to another quote. I’ve underlined a lot of your book and it’s something very profound, I think, about what the world needs, and the sense of how serious we could be about saying, “I need to play this role in the world” and recognizing that every role is important and that you describe yourself in a journalistic role that wasn’t a comfortable fit for you and it allowed you to move in this other direction, and the idea that, yes, we need those kinds of journalists. We also need your kinds of journalists. It’s not an either/or, and the quote, which seems to bear on this, is, “I worry perhaps too late about the earnestness of my reflections, the seriousness of this writing, for there is in me and in this world a burgeoning wisdom I spend my life watching. A newfound ease in play and pleasure and joy. Hope is not all heavy with meaning. Wisdom is not all apparently purposeful. It wouldn’t be progress if it were.

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: First of all, I love that you put this quote right after mentioning Sylvia Boorstein, who I know and who is full of love and laughter …

Krista: And funny.

Peter: Funny. You didn’t necessarily connect the two things, but knowing Sylvia, they were connected in my mind. I thought, “Oh, of course she would put this paragraph after mentioning Sylvia. I think the broadness of what we can do and how we can do it, that there’s room for seriousness and there’s room for play and there’s room for wisdom and there’s actually room for stupidity. There’s really room for all of it.
Krista: Yes. Yes, and this is part of, I think, what goes wrong with why we can’t figure out how good news is interesting because we steal all the joy out of it because we try to present it and package it in the serious way that we present and package what went terribly wrong today.

Peter: I don’t know what to do with this, but the thing that comes up for me is, I feel like presenting and packaging destroys the world in many ways, and I find myself playing a role in that. I mean, I run a leadership training and I think about, “Well, so, how do we frame this and how do we package this?” It’s actually my most hated work, I have to admit. It’s the stuff that I dislike the most, and yet I still find myself doing it because I want to present in a certain way and I feel like the most we are able to move from … I’ll use that word again, from presentation to conversation, the more we could muse and explore without having to package and present, but I don’t know exactly how to do that, even in my own life.

Krista: Yeah. I think we have to accompany each other in learning that and figuring it out because it’s not instinctive. What is instinctive now and what we have all kinds of models for is what you’re talking about, is packaging and framing. We know how to do that, but we are, I believe, being called to really behave in very radically different ways from the way we have behaved as individuals and in all kinds of organizations. Our muscle memory is not serving us now, even when we can see what’s not working as it should. Part of, I think, what we have to let, we get to let the joy of this be, is first of all naming delight as a virtue and saying, “This should be …” One we way should know we’re walking in the right direction is if it feels good. I believe that.

Peter: Right.

Krista: There’s a hedonistic way to do that, but I’m not going to let that stop me from saying that because I think that is true, and you know, I take a lot of … One of my models for this is the local … Like what’s happening in the realm of food, how we are having to just reckon with how we went awry in the name of progress and innovation and turned food from real to unreal, and we’re having to undo decades of not just eating habits but agriculture and industry and standards and all of that, but the people who were in the forefront of that movement have this great … They are insisting that one of the things that drives them … that they can let themselves be driven forward by pleasure, because ultimately taste, better taste, is a litmus test of whether something is more humanely produced and grown and cooked and in touch with the community, so this is a wonderful model we have in front of us, is because this is one of the places that we are healing and that we are actually advancing.

What would be the corollary to that? The analogy to that in other disciplines? In our business life? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I think we get to walk it together and we have to insist that there should be real joy in it. Not in every moment, not in everything, but as part of the experience.

Peter: I love that. Krista, you broke the book into virtues, words, body, love, faith and hope. Why those? They seem critical for leadership as well as living and I’m not even sure of my question, but I’m wondering how you selected those. They’re not even words … It’s not … Flesh, flesh was an important chapter for me.

Krista: Yeah, me too.

Peter: I think it’s so forgotten. You’re talking about it now. You’re talking about the physical pleasure of eating and letting that guide us, letting the … I’m going to butcher because I don’t have it in front of me and I don’t know it by heart, but Mary Oliver’s line, “Let the soft animal of your body do what it does.”

Krista: “And love what it loves.”

Peter: Love what it loves. Thank you.

Krista: Yeah, yeah.

Peter: Love what it loves. I love that poem, and I think we don’t follow suit, so I think they were beautifully chosen. I’m wondering how you made those decisions.
Krista: It was completely emergent and it was born of a lot of struggle and doing it wrong and making mistakes and feeling completely in despair that I would ever be able to finish this, so …

Peter: I know that feeling.

Krista: I started out with an idea of, I don’t know, 10 or 12 chapters and they had these poetic titles. Things like time and mystery and virtues, and it was just this process of getting it wrong and knowing it was wrong and not knowing how to make it right but just knowing it wasn’t working and simplifying … Sort of like mysteries or virtues that I thought would be chapters, I started to realize, no, these run all the way through it. They run all the way through it. They run through every chapter, and I think also a big turn was that when I … I was initially following this question that people have asked me across the years, which is, “You’ve interviewed all these wise people.” What are the common denominators? This is our desire to break it down.

Peter: I want the answer.

Krista: Right, right, present it. Something that is so important to me that has become ever more important to me as I’ve done the show and that I realized once I was well into trying to write the book is that this idea of wisdom and this idea of spiritual genius was this phrase of Einstein, that there’s such a thing as spiritual genius in the world, that we need as much as we need objective knowledge, that this is not about exceptional, rare people out there like Mother Teresa. Wisdom is available. It is accessible. It’s something we can all cultivate. It’s also not something you can be 90 to possess, although it is going to look different at 90 than it does at 29, but there’s a very special wisdom at 29 and there’s a special wisdom at 45 and there’s a special wisdom at six, and it’s something we can also so that it’s there for all of us to cultivate and that it emerges through the basic, raw materials of our lives. That’s where I started correcting myself.

I can write a fancy chapter about our perception of time or about mystery or about virtues, like isolating virtues out, but that wasn’t true actually to what I’ve learned, and not just to what I hear from other people but what I’ve learned in my own life and in trying to incorporate the example of these people into my life, that it’s very elemental. This is good news, right? It’s taking seriously the words that come out of our mouths. This is something we do all day, every day, with everybody we interact with just about. The power in that, and our power to take that seriously and to have the words that we speak and write and use and elicit from others, to shape that, to shape ourselves so that that is more life giving and generous and that it leaves a much more beautiful imprint on the world.

This is a really simple thing that we know but rarely pause to consider how in the course of any day you can have an exchange with someone. You can say something to somebody or somebody can say something to you that ruins your day or makes it. Wisdom is in that kind of acknowledgement and really working with that, and it’s the same thing with how we inhabit our bodies and how that makes us attentive to the physicality of others and to everything around us, on love, opening that up. Faith, which is too small a word for this part of ourselves where we grapple with mystery and the human condition, and hope, which is, I think, a renewable resource and it’s a choice, but again, these are very, very elemental aspects of any life, and with infinite variety.

Peter: You end with faith, as you were talking just now, and it brings me to a quote of yours that gave me so much hope, actually, and fell on me so powerfully. Even as I say, “Let’s live in our curiosity,” you spoke this quote with a certainty that made so much sense to me. You wrote, “Who am I to speak for God? But this I believe. If God is God and that, in itself, is a crazy shorthand begging volumes of unfolding of the question, he/she does not need us craven. He/she desires us, needs us grateful and attentive and courageous in the every day.” There’s so much profundity in that and it cuts through so much noise. I want to appreciate you for that and I don’t know if you have any additional thoughts. I don’t know if it needs additional thoughts, but it really landed very powerfully for me.

Krista: Thank you. I mean, that’s a really intimate piece of writing, and partly because I take words so seriously, I hesitate to words that mean the most and God is one of those words, and the words that mean the most and yet are so inadequate, and yet, St. Augustine said we speak in order not to remain completely silent about some of this, and so, I don’t know. It means a lot to me that you … It’s so wonderful to hear that read back to me, but it’s scary to write about these things. I went to seminary before I started this radio show not wanting to be a minister but just wanting to get into theology and understand it. There’s something about … This is an impossible thing to talk about. It’s an impossible thing to be in conversation about. These great questions of meaning and religion and yet we have to … I think we, and they’re hard to talk about and they are scary to talk about, and even when you read it to me, it feels presumptuous for me to say anything about God even though I qualified it all the way through, and yet we long to talk about these things, and we don’t have a robust vocabulary for talking about these things.

We have a robust vocabulary for talking about all kinds of other things like money and sex and what the Kardashians are doing today, right? I think that this is important enough, and actually it’s so exciting, when you do venture into this kind of conversation. We’re ready for it but we have to learn it and we have to kind of learn it together and we have to teach each other together and I think kind of push the boundaries at what now feels possible and even socially acceptable.

Peter: I want to confess that even as I was listening to you and about to read that quote, I had a hesitation and my hesitation was, I know this moved me and touched me deeply and this is a show for leaders on leadership and business and organizations and we’re going to talk about God, and I had the same feeling that you had, which is, it is intimate and important and I think so often even brought into the conversation of life in ways that are public and draw away from the intimacy in a way that can be damaging, and so I love … I’m touched that you were touched by bringing it in and that you brought it in and I think it’s the sort of where I want to be in conversations, so I appreciate that.

Krista: My 20s and all these years that I was a journalist and then I was with the State Department in divided Berlin, I was a completely political person. I was interested in … I was ambitious, I wanted to make the world a better place, I was interested in power, I wanted to be close to real power and not fake power, and … Oh gosh, where was I going to go with that? I was fluent in German and I didn’t talk about religion or about these questions of meaning. I mean, I talked about political meaning and what was going on in divided Germany was very existential and really had these religious overtones in its way, but I completely …

I just missed this whole part of life and these kinds of questions and whatever spiritual life is for a long time, and that was the fashionable thing to do, and I didn’t know anyone, and I knew a lot of wonderful, impressive people, and I didn’t know anybody in those years in that place who talked about these things, but when I then made this big shift in my life, this very odd series of events and changes of heart and starting to ask spiritual questions and not even wanting to call them that because I didn’t think it was respectable, but when I then started telling people in my previous life, and these are mostly people in Europe and the UK and in Germany … I mean, also Americans. Diplomats, journalists, very, very smart people, what happened, and this happens to me still, is people start coming out of the closet, right?

It turns out people were thinking about these things. Some people were going to church or synagogue. Even if they weren’t, these are the questions and we do want to at least dance around and have some curiosity about what this part of ourselves is and what it could be, and we all hit these moments in life where we need to delve into whatever this is and what it can be for us, and where we hit the limits of our so-called rational disciplines, but again, I go through the world with people saying that it turns out it’s there, but again, we don’t know how to name it. We don’t know how to talk about it in a way that feels respectable and substantive, and I think there’s probably a sense in which … It served me so well that I also came from that place myself, right? I mean, I’m not a stranger to that, to that ambivalence. I live that too.

Peter: Which is the mystery.

Krista: Yes. Yeah.

Peter: You’ve had all of these unbelievable conversations with incredibly loving, faithful, embodied, hopeful, articulate people. How has that impacted your life and how you live your life day-to-day, so not even necessarily simply the … Not even simply. There’s nothing simple about any of it, but the worldview, but in the way that you move through the world on a day to day basis. Can you think of ways in which these conversations, these relationships that you’ve developed through conversations have changed who you are and what you do and how you walk through the world?

Krista: Yeah, you know, that’s a question I ask people and I think this is the first time somebody’s asked me this so pointedly and it’s a very challenging question, but like you, you can’t ask this question in the first five minutes, right? We’re at a place now where we have been in conversation and I’m ready to open that door in myself and think about that. I would say when I do any individual interview, I do all this preparation and kind of steeping myself in not just what somebody knows but how they think and I’d say in any given interview, I always take something away that I carry around with me.

You started with this idea of mystery and the reality of mystery is very present for me now and very thrilling, and what that means on a more practical level is that it makes me ever more comfortable with … I need to tie up [inaudible 00:48:37]. I think it’s a good thing. Robert Coals, who I interviewed years ago, said, “Mystery is a great companion,” and I’m also thinking about the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that part of the reason … That if you stop being surprised or surprise-able, that you’re not alive anymore, and that he wakes up every morning and can take joy and gratitude and existence because he never ceases to be surprised and by the same token, he can’t reconcile himself to injustice. He’s always surprised that it’s this animating thing, and so I think that having the conversations the way I do, the way I’ve learned to do them over time, it flexes that muscle in me.

I have all the same challenges that anybody else has. I sometimes worry that people put my life up on a pedestal and imagine that because I steep myself in wisdom, that I don’t feel like I’m a bad parent half the time and have my days of darkness and go through all the crises that everybody else goes through, but I would say one real liberation of this life of conversation is, as you say, I talk to people who have learned to live gracefully and who are really learning things, and they may be physicists and they may be poets or theologians, but because people open up with me, what I know is that everybody’s life is like this. Even Desmond Tutu’s life is like this and the Dalai Lama in his bizarre way. It’s everyone … That lives of wisdom and beauty and grace emerge through all the things that go wrong and not in spite of them and not because people have had some kind of privilege or been shielded from what goes wrong.

That is still, even knowing that as I do and having seen it reinforced time after time through these conversations, that doesn’t mean that I don’t flinch and dread it and wish it weren’t happening when I hit those moments in my life. I do, but I think that the kind of ongoing conversation and reflection about this does give me these really practical tools and these … I do feel accompanied by just being in this conversation and knowing these people are out there. It gives me ways to kind of pin whatever’s going wrong to deeper wisdom, some kind of perspective. It doesn’t make things better but it helps you inhabit it more fully and the beautiful and terrible thing that we know is that it’s not about what goes wrong for you, it’s about how you walk through it to the other side.

I’ve just been going through a hard, really challenging year on a number of levels and just took my second last child to college and so I’m facing the end of 22 years of being an active parent, so this is a grief, right? This is a loss, it’s a grief and it’s not something I don’t wish it weren’t happening, because it’s the right thing for my son, but I have all these tools and all these voices in my head, and mostly what they tell me is to not … To really let myself not wish it weren’t happening but to walk through it and be with it and inhabit what is happening, and to know that in that, I will be able to find, to discern, to experience, to discover what wisdom and whatever is life-giving in it that I can walk out the other side with.

Peter: The book is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living. Krista, it is such a pleasure to speak with you and I love what you have said and it brings me back to this “Perfection, Perfection” poem. It’s done. I’m done. That the reality of life is so much more complicated and I’m just very appreciative of your spending the time with us and sharing your perspective on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Krista: I will just say, don’t you think also that it’s, in terms of leadership, because I’m an organizational leader now for the last three years, which I wasn’t before, but it’s just the same dynamic and it’s very hard and things do go wrong and I don’t think fewer things go wrong, but if there’s something new and good that’s happening, it’s letting it in, right? That rather than having to be the leader or the parent, because we modeled this in all of our places, who never had any questions alongside their answers, where to acknowledge a weakness or a mistake would be failing, just to be able to open ourselves to that, to the fullness of ourselves and the possibilities that open up when we let that reality be in the room. That in itself is a great opening.

Peter: And it’s a humility, right?

Krista: Yeah, yeah.

Peter: There’s a humility that says, “I don’t know how this is going to pan out or turn out.” It reminds me of this Buddhist story of the man who had one horse and the horse escapes and all of his neighbors come and say, “How unfortunate,” and then the horse comes back with 3 wild horses and he says, and all of his neighbors say, “How fortunate,” and he says, “Who knows?” Then his son is trying to train one of the wild horses and gets thrown from it and breaks his leg and everyone says, “How unfortunate.” He says, “Who knows?” Then the army comes to conscript all the young men but leaves his son because he has a broken leg, and they say, “How fortunate,” and it could just go on and on and on and on.

Krista: Right, right.

Peter: The humility that says we don’t know, but we can be with it, and as you were talking about the grief that you feel along with the joy of your son leaving for college and I have so many friends who are in this situation this week …

Krista: Yeah.

Peter: It makes me feel like it’s a gift to see the grief itself as a gift also.

Krista: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Not to fight the fact of it. It’s really been a great conversation. I’ve so enjoyed myself and it’s lovely to meet you and thank you for having me on your podcast.

Peter: Thanks, Krista. If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation


  1. Loved this conversation! Such an interesting juxtaposition to the previous episode. I so appreciate how Krista didn’t define the “Wisdom Code” in favor of idiosyncrasy (another word for “the mystery”?)

    Also, Peter, your comment “it’s a gift to see the grief itself as a gift also” is so beautiful. It reminds me of the first verse of the song “Thanksgiving Eve” by Bob Franke:

    It’s so easy to dream of the days gone by
    So hard to think of the times to come
    And the grace to accept every moment as a gift
    Is a gift that is given to some

  2. Rich Dorfman says:

    Such a powerful podcast, Krista goes right to the top of the list of someone I would love to spend a couple of hours having a conversation with, …

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