Welcome to Notes on Quotes, a new podcast and article series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quotation of their choosing.
Krys Boyd is the host and managing editor of KERA’s Think with Krys Boyd, a National Public Radio program that airs in markets across the country and is a top-rated podcast on Apple podcasts. including the actor Bryan Cranston, public radio host Diane Rehm, the author Malcolm Gladwell, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Her show Think is known for it’s thought-provoking, in-depth conversations and genuine respect for ideas. Growing up in Dallas, and listening to public radio on KERA, Krys has long been a role model of mine. Krys told the The Dallas Morning News, “I can’t imagine anybody in the world not wanting this job, talking to some of the most important people in the world about what they do.”
This print interview has been lightly edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast version is currently private – contact email@example.com with inquiries.
Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?
Krys Boyd: There’s a quote by Calvin Coolidge, a president of the United States, and it’s about persistence, and it says,
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
I love that quote!
I do, too. As you mentioned, the quote comes from Calvin Coolidge. He was the 30th president of the United States. For our listeners, Calvin Coolidge took the presidency upon the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, and he served as president from 1923 to 1929. As president, Calvin Coolidge’s name was “Silent Cal,” a nickname he earned because he was a man of few words, and because he had a reputation for being a man of action. Out of all the many quotes you could have picked, why did you pick that one? And I see that you actually have the quote there on a plaque! [Stephen Harrison note: The quote was inscribed on a golden plaque that Boyd had brought into the studio.]
It’s not so much because I admire President Coolidge. I don’t think he’s high on the list of the very best presidents. But, I like this idea that work is ultimately as important or more important than any of the other assets you bring with you, including talent and potential.
Sometimes we get obsessed in our society with people who have this party trick magical ability to be good at something without working hard at it. That was something that really impressed me, especially when I was younger—this idea that some people are just naturally gifted at things.
The older I've gotten, the more I feel like talent kind of gets you in the door, and maybe natural ability to do something better than other people can puts you in the right place. But then you actually have to start learning your craft or your art or your science by putting in the work and actually doing it.
You get good at something, you get amazing at something, by doing it over and over, and refining, and practicing. And there’s really no substitute for that. And so I think ultimately I believe that success is really tied into your willingness to put in the work.
Your quote reminded me a little bit of this Winston Churchill quote that goes something like, “Never, never, never give up.” Do you think that people sometimes have a tendency to give up too easily?
It’s really easy to, when something gets hard or when you think you might fail at something, to say, “I didn't want that after all” and to pick something else. And I think a lot of people who have the potential to be very successful give up too soon, because they are so afraid of looking like a fool. I mean, you're going to stumble. You're going to fall. You're going to fall, ultimately, on your road to whatever it is you want to do well.
There is an argument to be made sometimes for cutting your losses and recognizing that you've made the wrong choice. You know, I know people who went to school for four years or six years or eight years and then discovered they don’t want to be an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor, and had to make a different choice. But giving up too soon, because we're trying to sort of save face, is definitely a hazard.
Coolidge mentions several other qualities—talent, genius, education. And he says those are ultimately less important than persistence. Then he makes a bold statement: “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent,” meaning all-powerful. Do you agree that persistence can be omnipotent?
To a degree, yes. Refusing to give up doesn't necessarily mean only doing the same thing over and over—sometimes persistence is about finding another way around the mountain, right? If you can’t get over it the traditional way, maybe you find a way to jog around it, or tunnel underneath it.
I do think that privilege plays a role in our ability to persist sometimes. There are people who just have so many obstacles placed in their way that it’s really hard to keep going at things. But I've known a lot of people who just really couldn't allow themselves to quit doing something, and so they finish it out.
Often we think about challenges as related to our careers, or our art. But most people stick out a challenge like parenting. Many people stick out romantic relationships. Not to say that they’re not rewarding and amazing, but we are often able to keep doing things as long as we tell ourselves that there’s just no other option.
You’ve had several roles in your career. I read at some point, you were working in El Paso as a local TV reporter and reading traffic reports on the morning radio show. That was two jobs at the same time, up to 70 hours per week. You’re also married and have children. Can you talk a little bit about the ups and downs in your personal and professional career and how this idea of persistence has played a role?
Early in my career, when I started as a reporter at a local TV station, I just didn't make enough money to support myself. In fact, I had made more money working at a now closed-down department store called Foley’s in college selling petite twin sets to little old ladies, than I made at my first journalism job. So I needed a second journalism job, which was this morning drive radio job.
Depending on the shift that I got at the TV station, I would work about 5 a.m. to 9 at the radio station, and then go home for a little bit, and then sometimes work 1:30 to 10:30 at the news station, and then turn around and do it all over again. Sometimes it was seven-day weeks depending on where my weekends fell. I learned to work really hard early in my career, and I've always been grateful for that. I wasn’t so grateful at the time when I was falling asleep whenever I wasn’t working.
But ever since then, nothing seems quite as physically challenging. You had to be in top form, ready to go, and bring it for many, many hours a week. So I'm very glad that economics required me to work really hard.
Later on, combining parenting with work is hard in any circumstance. Mothers and fathers alike who have been raising children while working a career—you know it’s hard. There’s the constant sense that you're not giving anything 100% and everything needs 100% that is important to you in your life.
I had some challenges when my children were very young. My first husband died very suddenly and I was left with a 10-month-old and a 3-year old. And I was looking to rebuild my career after taking a little time off when I was newly home with my daughter. It was a really, really challenging time. The thing about that time is it wasn’t a choice. I had two kids to support. So I just needed to do what it took.
Initially I cobbled together some part-time work and some contract work before I was able to get back into a full-time position here KERA, which is the station that now produces the radio show and the podcast that I do.
Having gone through that, I realized that you can suffer the worst thing that you think is going to happen to you, and find the other side of it. It just—it’s not visible in the moment. It’s like walking through a tunnel where you don’t see a light at the end, until it’s there, and then you've found your way through.
In the circumstances you described, you are maybe finding a trait of persistence that you didn’t know you had.
Absolutely. It does sort of take away fear, in a way, when you have experienced something that before it happened you would have imagined was the worst thing that could ever happen. You realize there’s very little that you are in control of in some ways. You just have to shed the illusion that you can make the world work the way you want it to work.
You also know that you can survive what you think will just destroy you. That it won’t destroy you. And you become intrepid after that, because you realize that you can probably get through really hard times.
By persisting, you gain this layer of strength. There’s a thing called post-traumatic growth, which basically means, when something terrible has happened, after it’s all over, after it seems impossible and every day is just horrendous—and I wouldn't recommend it exactly—after that, you're changed. You're left a different person, with more confidence in your ability. The whole thing about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger—it’s a saying, because it’s true.
Nowadays, you host the Think radio show for up to nine hour-long episodes each week. Sometimes to prepare for an episode, you have to read two non-fiction books in a night, and up to 200 books in a year. There’s a lot of preparation involved in every interview. So I can see how persistence would be important in your line of work. But is burnout ever a concern?
I guess it’s a concern because I don’t want to burn out. I’m lucky that I truly love my job. My kids, who are teenagers, will say, “Why do you want to do this homework all the time?” And the answer is sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes, like everybody else, I would love to come home, spend a long time cooking dinner, and watch a dumb TV show. That’s not really an option for me.
I try to bring my sense of curiosity into the preparation, which is definitely the vast majority of the time. The time spent on the air in front of the microphone is nine hours a week, as you pointed out. The rest of the time is reading and researching and writing. That’s the price of the amazing, fun thing that I get to do when I'm interviewing someone.
To go into an interview unprepared, is so terrifying that I don’t burn out on the preparation, because I know that’s just what you must do. Once I stop doing that, once I start phoning it in… You have to recognize that you’re not going to do it well if you’re not prepared.
I'm visualizing it sort of like an iceberg, where there’s the one hour of radio time, and then several hours of preparation time underneath that.
That’s a great analogy.
I’d like to shift course and talk about the quote in the context of society more generally. At Slate, we regularly write about technology, and there’s this popular idea among tech companies right now called “fail faster,” meaning that if an idea doesn't work, you should just drop it and move quickly onto the next.
But I get the sense that Calvin Coolidge might take issue with this “fail faster” idea, and that he might say that there’s value in sticking with a project over the long term. What do you think is the value of persistence in these “fail faster” times?
I think “fail faster” is based on the idea that there will always be 58,000 additional ideas in the pipeline, and that if we aren’t moving very quickly, we must be getting old and stale.
There’s good reason to know when something has outlived its usefulness. But I also think many things take time to develop. I mean, the show that I do today is very much a show about ideas—trying to find what is new or challenging or surprising in an idea that we already understand. It took me a while—it took me, you know, hundreds of interviews—before I recognized that that was what I really wanted to do. I wouldn't say that the show was a failure, but if someone had said, “Well, this this standard interview show that’s based on the same things that everybody else is talking about…”—the show could have gone away ten years ago. But it wouldn't have had a chance to kind of blossom into what it is!
I think sometimes if you fail too fast and too often, and abandon what you're doing, you can miss out on a growth opportunity. Failing doesn't necessarily require balling up the piece of paper and throwing it away. Sometimes it can mean flipping it over on the other side, taking the outline from what you've already done, and reformulating your ideas.
Can you talk a little about how the show has changed over the years? It sounds as if part of if it was figuring out the identity of the show over time.
I think a radio show or a podcast—and they really are kind of the same thing, even though we call them different names, this idea of using audio as a communication tool—a show has to have a voice. The voice can change over time to suit what’s happening in the world, or changes in the team that is making it. But there must be a sense when you tune into something that there’s a personality behind it.
My show is not full of my big personality. I don’t really have a big personality. But I think people know when they tune in that it’s going to be about a respect for ideas, diverse ideas that may or may not reflect what I think about the world, and kind of a respect for humanity.
I think that was always there. But to make it interesting, you need to make sure that you're taking something that we think we already understand and turning it inside out, just for the sheer joy of engaging with those ideas—that took a while.
Recently you had a genetics expert on your show. That made me think of this question: There’s a body of scientific literature right now that suggests that our human traits are determined in part by our environment, or genetics, or some combination. What’s your take on that for persistence? How might somebody develop the trait?
It’s really helpful to be exposed to challenges when you're a kid. I want to be really careful and say I don’t mean challenges like poverty. I don’t mean trauma. Hopefully we will get to a place in our society where we can prevent that for most or all children, not just in this country, but on the planet. But a good old-fashioned losing a race in PE, losing a spelling bee in class, and trying and failing something in school—I think it’s really important.
Our instinct sometimes is to shield especially young people from all of these hardships. If you're not careful, you can emerge into the adult world without any callouses on you. And that just means that your first years of adulthood are going to be really, really painful. It’s helpful if we don’t always know for sure that someone will come to our rescue if things don’t go our way.
I think it’s helpful in your first professional jobs to be in an environment where you're not necessarily the star or the boss. I very much believe in working your way up through whatever profession you want to do, because it’s good to know a little something about all the other people around you that will ultimately support the work that you do.
It’s hard because the adults or older people who are trying to shield you from something often have good intentions, right?
Right. As an adult, as a parent, if you have the power to like stop suffering in your child, even mild suffering, you want to do that. I think we need to be persistent in letting kids feel a little bit of pain from challenging circumstances.
I’ve heard from other highly accomplished people that a portion of their success is attributable to their hard work, and another part is simply being in the right place at the right time. What are your thoughts on this mix of persistence and serendipity in your own life?
I think serendipity is a huge percentage of it. I think everybody needs to recognize when they've had good fortune and then be ready to apply hard work. But listen: I was born into middle class white privilege. I was basically given a college education. I had a scholarship and parents who worked to put me there, but I didn't work that hard to be in a place where I was able to complete an education.
I have been in a lot of places where people were very kind to me and interested in nurturing young talent, when I was young. Sometimes things have happened sort of out of the blue that have just worked for me. Someone left a job at just the moment that I was ready to step into a particular position and was able to apply. I always want to be well aware of the role of luck in my life. Because the truth is there are a lot of people who haven't been as materially successful—or as successful as it might look from a distance— who don’t work any less hard than I do. So yes, I'm really glad you brought this up because I want to be clear that I don’t think because I've worked harder that I've been able to do something that I love. I've been very, very lucky.
The idea, I think, is that serendipity and persistence work together.
Right. You can blow serendipity by not working hard, by being lazy, by being entitled. Yes, absolutely.
Thanks again, Krys. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
It’s great talking with you.