If you’ve listened to National Public Radio at all over the years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Guy Raz’s voice. Formerly the host of All Things Considered, he made the jump into podcasts nearly a decade ago, hosting shows like the TED Radio Hour, How I Built This, kids series Wow in the World, and Wisdom from the Top on Luminary.
Most recently, he released a book called How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs, in which he distills many of the lessons that he’s learned over the years hosting the titular podcast, exploring a wide range of ideas that have helped build some of the world’s most successful businesses. I spoke with Raz about how he has built his own career, and how he manages to juggle so many projects.
Tell me a bit about your background, and how did you get to the place where you are today?
I started out as a student journalist in college, and I kind of came to NPR by accident in the ‘90s. I really wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but I couldn’t get a job in newspapers at the time because they were very hard to get. These are the most competitive jobs in the U.S. So I ended up getting an internship at NPR in the ‘90s.
My intention was to become a newspaper reporter but I became a radio reporter. I really began my career there: I started out doing everything from a production assistant, to an assistant to Daniel Schorr, who was a wise old man at the time at NPR as a news analyst. I eventually started writing freelance articles for newspapers in the DC area, like the Washington City Paper and then The Washington Post, and at the same time, became an NPR reporter.
[I then] went overseas for about six-and-a-half years, covered the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war. I was based in Berlin, in London and in Jerusalem. It was a very different world than the one I live in now, spending much of my time in conflict zones.
When I was overseas, I left NPR and went to CNN, where I was a television reporter. I came back, rejoined NPR as a reporter, and then eventually became an anchor on All Things Considered.
And then I left the news world in 2012 and began to focus on this new space, podcasting. I collaborated with TED to create a show called The TED Radio Hour, which was a very big departure from what I had been doing, because it was a show about ideas and science and human behaviour. It really transformed my life and got me into the world of podcasting. So I left broadcast news in 2012, and that’s how I I got into the world that I’m in now.
Take us through a recent workday. How do you work, and how has your routine changed since the time of the pandemic?
I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and have some water. And then we have a team meeting at 6:15 a.m. I’m in the Pacific Time Zone and most of my team is in the Eastern Time Zone, so it’s 9:15 a.m. for them. We have a 15 minute Zoom chat, and when that ends, I try to exercise every day from sort of 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. Then I shower and shave, and oftentimes at 8:45 I have to be in front of my laptop computer in my studio for a live interview that I do for How I Built This. We do this twice a week — every Tuesday and Friday at 9 a.m., we have about a 45 minute live interview with a different founder.
On the days when I’m not doing that, I’m still usually in the studio by 8:45 a.m. I might interview somebody for How I Built This — those interviews can last two, three hours. I might have a recording session for Wow in the World, which starts at around that time, and that lasts about an hour. I might have to write an introduction for a How I Built This episode, I might have an interview for another podcast I do called Wisdom from the Top.
So every day begins differently, once I’ve gotten through the routine of my team meeting and exercise — the day is different every single day. But essentially, it’s a series of interviews and conversations that I have from my studio (which is currently in the garage behind my home), which is where I do all of my interviews right now because of COVID.
In some ways, my routine is much more predictable now, because in normal times, I’m on the road three or four times a week. I’m on aeroplanes for live shows or for interviews or for other work that I do. Now, given that I’m not doing any travelling, for obvious reasons, we’re not doing any live shows. We’re doing everything virtually and remotely. I spend most of the day in my studio, with a break for lunch — when I have those breaks. But usually my day is jam-packed; every half-hour is full. It’s either an interview that I’m going to be doing or a recording session for one of my shows or a writing block for when I need to be writing, or a pre-interview call with every guest that I bring on to How I Built This.
And then there are calls with my partners, for my children’s production company Tinkercast, the company that produces Wow in the World. Some days I’ve got calls with other people who have been working on projects with us, whether it’s connected to a book or our television projects.
I also try and make room for calls with people who are looking for mentorship. I can’t do as much of it as I would like, because I just don’t have the time. But I try to make space for it and I obviously prioritise people at NPR — interns and others. I’m not an employee of NPR, but I’m very connected to NPR because I’ve worked with NPR for more than 20 years, and because it’s such a part of my life.
I make dinner; I do all the cooking in the house. My wife handles the dishes. I try to do cooking for our two boys on the weekend so they have food during the week. And then oftentimes, I’ll come back to the studio to do things like answering emails. I’ve got multiple email accounts and I wait to do that until the end of the day. That alone is a full time job.
I will say that I’ve been much more efficient during COVID because I’ve had to be, and despite the fact that it’s been difficult and challenging, I’ve actually been more productive because I’ve been at home and I haven’t been on the road.
How do you keep track of your workflow? Do you have any tools or systems to keep yourself on track?
Mainly it’s people who keep me accountable. I have multiple deadlines and multiple partners I work with. I have a wonderful assistant who is on top of those deadlines and is very good at reminding me when to meet those deadlines. And my Outlook calendar is my bible. Why Outlook and not Google Calendar? Because the NPR team uses Outlook, and they need constant access to my calendar. So that is why I use Outlook. It is not… great, but it is what I use. I look at that calendar every day. It changes all the time; in the middle of this conversation, a calendar entry changed. That really is what also keeps me accountable: just following that calendar and making sure that I’m ticking everything off that list.
You’ve conducted thousands of interviews over the years: How do you go about planning them? What type of routine have you settled into for researching a subject, coming up with the questions, and actually going about asking them?
I have a wonderful team. A small team makes How I Built This, but [they are] very amazing and wonderful and efficient producers. One member of our team is assigned to create what’s called a research packet. They will basically look for every single article — anything written about the person that I’m going to interview. They will compile that in a packet — usually a 20-page (minimum) document. That is what’s called a pass off, and [it] is full of very detailed biographical information, including a timeline. I will read all of that material before the interview. Sometimes it takes three hours, sometimes it can take seven or eight hours or more. And even more if the person has a book. I try to read as much of their material as I can so I’m prepared and know their story, hopefully [better than] they do by the time we go into the interview. I usually do that reading at night and on weekends.
How do you come up with the questions?
You know, I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t come in with prepared questions anymore. And part of that is I’ve been standing at the free throw line throwing baskets for 23 years, and for the first 10 years, I missed a lot of those shots. And now I make a lot more of them because I’ve just practiced. I can go into an interview with [anyone if] I’m well prepared. I have some notes in front of me of things that I really want to tick, but I don’t have prepared questions anymore.
Is there a favourite thing that you’re always looking to get out of a person?
I’m trying to get inside their head and inside their experience. There are multiple ways to do that — there’s no single right way to do it, and it doesn’t work the same way with every person. So I will often ask version of the same questions many times.
What is your workplace setup?
In Oakland, California, I have a studio. It is a physical room that is inside of another room that is inside of a converted garage. It’s called the whisper booth. It’s a very quiet space. Anybody who tells you that they’re in a soundproof booth is not being accurate, because there are, as far as I know, only one or two truly soundproof booths in the world, and they are like sensory deprivation chambers. It’s impossible to make something completely soundproof. Even a perfect recording studio might have pipes or some slight sound, but you can get them very close. The Whisper Booth does that, and it essentially prevents outside sounds from coming in.
So that’s where I work. It’s outfitted — you can see a photo of it if you do a Google Video search of my name.
It’s got orange acoustic panels all around, so it’s a nice bright colour. That orange paneling is made from recycled jeans, that work really well. We bought from a cool company. And then I’ve got my laptop in there. It’s about 6′ x 8′, so it’s a small space. I am there for much of the day, but I go in and out because it gets hot. It has circulated air, but no air conditioning to keep the sound down.
Do you have any like tools or gadgets that you just can’t live without?
Most of them are kitchen gadgets. My favourite tools in the kitchen are kitchen shears. I use them all the time, like [the] Benriner Japanese Mandoline, which is great for slicing vegetables — but watch your fingers!
In terms of my work in my studio, I really rely on a few really important tools that have made my life easier. Some of them are very simple. I hardwire my computer into the internet router instead of using wifi, which gives me a much more reliable connection, especially when I do video and live content. It’s a little dongle adaptor that I plug into my Mac and that enables me to plug [in] an ethernet cable. That thing is like it’s like 10 bucks, but I can also plug an external mic into it, and that thing is just really awesome.
I use my iPhone as a camera to make videos. I have a really cool clamp that clamps to the edge of my desk that can hold that — it’s like an arm that I can put my iPhone into, and then I can adjust it and use that to make videos. Also, because I do a lot of video, I have a ring light in my studio, but I use reflectors that I clamp to the acoustic paneling, and the reflectors kind of [accomplish] what a window would. They create the appearance of natural light in the studio, rather than have a light shining on me.
Do you have any favourite life hacks or shortcuts that make your life easier?
I would say my life hack is I do not use any electronic devices one day a week. We chose Saturday because it really feels like the weekend day, and Sunday’s the day when people start to kind of ask questions about things that are going to happen on Monday. So on Friday night, my wife and I take our devices, we take our children’s devices, and we lock them up. And we spend Saturday like a family in the 1990s or ‘80s or ‘70s, a time before screens. And we are bored sometimes, and we play board games and we go for hikes. And we sit around, we talk, our kids complain about being bored, and it’s great because kids don’t get the opportunity to be bored anymore. So that’s something that we’ve been doing for about a year and it has vastly and dramatically improved my life.
Do you have any side projects that you’re working on? Any hobbies that you use to recharge?
I have many side projects that I work on. I mean, I have my main thing, which is How I Built This, and Wow in the World, and everything else is connected to those things in some way. But I’ve got many balls in the air — I’m juggling different proposals and ideas and people are pitching.
I love to cook and I try and spend time every week and weekend cooking. I love experimenting with different ingredients and grow a lot of vegetables in planters. We do lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We have a pear tree, so this summer I’ve been making a lot of pear-based things at home. With an ice cream machine, I’ll get the fresh mint from our garden and soak that overnight in milk and then make mint ice cream. I love experimenting with cooking and foods. That’s a really big part of my life outside of work.
To of blow off steam, I spend as much time as I can with my children and my wife, and we really work on making sure that we do at least one outdoor hike or outdoor activity every week.
Between How I Built This and Wow in the World, what is something that you’ve learned in one project that you’ve been able to apply in the other?
So much. With all of my shows, I try and think about them in a very simple way. People have a limited amount of time during the day for non-work activities. Let’s say it’s two, three, maybe four hours — call it personal time, maybe they’re working out. In normal times, maybe they’re commuting, maybe they’re cooking. And my feeling is that if they are going to give me one hour of their time — which is extremely valuable time — I have to make the content that I offer them worth their time. And that doesn’t matter if it’s Wow in the World or How I Built This or Wisdom from the Top.
I’m always thinking to myself, if I listened to this in my free time, would I walk away saying you know, I got a lot out of that; that was a good use of my time or walk away saying that was really not a good use of my time. And as long as I can say [the former]. I know I’m on the right track.
What lesson have you learned from the pandemic that you’re going to take with you when we’ve eventually released back into the world?
That spending time with my family is the most important thing in my life. That I am first and foremost a dad. That is my first, second, third, and last most important parts of my life. So much of what I do does not have to be done by travelling to places. I can actually do so much of what I do where I am with my family.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.