Our Calling in Life:
A Conversation with Scott London
By Joel Metzger
Scott London is the host of "Insight & Outlook," a weekly cultural affairs program heard on public radio stations in the United States and on global shortwave. I recently emailed with him and discussed his radio show, journalism, the art of interviewing, along with his perspective on finding one's genius and following one's calling.
Joel Metzger: Do you consider yourself primarily an interviewer?
Scott London: I've never really known what to call myself. Sam Keen once described me as a "philosophical journalist."
Metzger: Do you have a favorite question you love to ask guests?
London: I want to know what a person cares deeply about, because that is always the key to a meaningful conversation.
Metzger: In general, what's the ideal way to research a guest?
London: I like to talk to as many people as I can about potential program topics and guests. If I can get at the question of why people care about a person or subject, then I have a better sense of where to go with an interview.
Metzger: Let's pretend you're interviewing Joe America, just an average unknown from middle America. What questions do you ask?
London: I think the answer depends on what you hope to elicit from him. Facts? Analysis? A personal story? Vision? Wisdom? Journalists differ. A print reporter typically wants just the facts. A Ted Koppel wants analysis. A Barbara Walters goes for the anecdote or vignette. A Bill Moyers, perhaps, looks for some underlying vision or creative outlook.
Metzger: What have you learned from doing this work?
London: Something very humbling: what matters is who you are, not what you say. Journalism favors the articulate, the quick-witted, and the well-rehearsed. These people don't necessarily have anything meaningful to contribute.
The best news medium is still word-of-mouth. When information comes to me directly from someone I trust and care about, it's already suffused with meaning.
Metzger: Do you find that the genius of great visionaries is reflected even in their pedestrian activities?
London: Listeners of my radio program have told me that they don't always remember what was said by a particular guest, but they do remember how something was said — the spirit and the intention behind the words. That is the beauty of radio: the resonance of a person's voice often carries more information than what is actually being said. Of course, the distinctions is not especially important if you're talking about, say, a muffin recipe, the Stanley Cup finals, or aviation mechanics. But it's immensely significant if you're exploring some of the deeper quandaries of human existence today.
Metzger: Do you see a unique greatness in all deep thinkers?
London: Most deep thinkers I have met share a common distinction: they seem to have come face to face with their own ignorance. Last year, I had the privilege of spending some time with Laura Huxley, widow of the great British author and thinker Aldous Huxley. Just before Aldous died in 1963, she told me, he gave a presentation to a distinguished group of scholars in California. During the question-and-answer session, someone asked him what he had learned from his many years of writing and research on the human condition. He replied, "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and to find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than: Try to be a little kinder to each other." Aldous Huxley was the consummate deep thinker.
Metzger: You said earlier that "journalism favors the articulate, the quick-witted, and the well-rehearsed." How do you think the media can draw out ideas of visionaries and thinkers?
London: That is a great question, and something I've explored with some of my colleagues in the news business. At bottom, I think it depends on how you define your role as a journalist and who you think you're speaking to.
Some years ago, young reporters at the New York Times were urged to write their stories with an image in their mind of a twelve year old girl. That was the ideal "image person," as we call it in the trade — the common denominator for whom a news story should be tailored. Needless to say, when journalists imagine their readers as children, their stories speak to the lowest rather than the highest in us.
One of the corollaries of that approach is a certain paternalism that has become all too common today. Journalists often see themselves as guardians of the truth. They insist on protecting the public from what they consider dangerous ideas. They do this in very subtle ways. Sometimes it takes the form of a kind of chic cynicism. A cover story about an influential thinker will carry the word "guru" in the headline. What rational person would identify with a guru? Sometimes it takes the form of a point-counterpoint reportorial style where all views are immediately canceled out by competing views, leaving the reader unsure what to think. Or — the most insidious approach — to describe a trend or idea, always and only, by its most kooky adherent or the most misguided experiments carried out in its name. So, for example, a story about the popular medical intuitive Caroline Myss will begin by describing all the groupies who show up at her talks, rather than attempt to represent her ideas in a serious and systematic fashion.
I think these approaches stem from a professional ethos, a largely unquestioned set of assumptions, that most journalists share. It's usually passed down from teachers and mentors, and reinforced over coffee, at the water cooler, in meetings. The problem is that the public has no real place in this worldview. Some months ago, I spoke with the editor of a major newspaper in the Midwest. He told me that in the newspaper business readers are commonly viewed as either "a consumer whom we have to please in some way, or an idiot whom we can ignore."
The upshot, as I see it, is that mainstream journalism is not interested in engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the public. They prefer to simply fire salvos of information at people.
Metzger: Is this an inherent and necessary loss when the media needs to cover a broad picture for a massive audience?
London: No, I don't think so. There are other ways of doing journalism. One is to see your role as the facilitator of an ongoing public dialogue. Then the goal is to advance the conversation and bring as many perspectives to bear on it as possible. Another approach is to be a story-teller: to faithfully represent the stories being told and being played out in the culture at large. This approach focuses on subjective narratives and shared sources of meaning, rather than objective facts and events. These approaches could expand and enrich the tradition of American journalism.
Metzger: This compares well with the journalistic approach of ONN: to talk about a single perspective only, with a point of view that is human-centered and empowering to the individual. Such an approach works well with the spiritual and personal topics of noetics. It might work with other areas. The news? Maybe, maybe not. To an extent, this is the approach of many sources. They give the news seen through a specific slant. If you agree, you subscribe. If you don't, you look elsewhere. This can work if sources take on a certain responsibility: to consciously honor people and the potential of every individual.
London: Yes, some news providers seem to inhabit a universe all their own, don't they? This is especially true of magazines. For example, the Utne Reader and National Review could just as well be written in different languages. And, as you say, people generally opt for the sort of news and information that reinforces what they already believe.
Incidentally, many people I've spoken with on the program say they don't read newspapers, watch television, or listen to the radio. Several guests have told me that they deliberately stay away from the media because it disrupts their daily rhythms and interferes with the natural processes of thought. Gregg Levoy, author of the wonderful book Callings, recently told me that he does regular "media fasts."
A couple of years ago I spoke with Robert Muller on the program. He's the former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and has been called one of the best informed human beings on the planet. He has an almost encyclopedic grasp of the facts concerning the state of the world. Yet, curiously, he refuses to read papers or tune into the news. When I asked him how he stayed informed, he said that he talks to a lot of people and that he gets mail from concerned citizens around the world who tell him all he needs to know.
I have certainly found this to be true in my own life. The best news medium is still word-of-mouth. When information comes to me directly from someone I trust and care about, it's already suffused with meaning.
I'm a member of a number of salons. We get together at cafes and in people's living rooms on a regular basis just to discuss what's happening in the world. The perspectives I get from talking with my friends in this way are vastly different from anything I can get by turning on the news or picking up the paper.
By the way, the Internet is also a great resource for this kind of sharing.
Metzger: This points right back to two priorities on my list: conversation and friends. I insist on a conversational tone for all ONN writings. I want to create a casual, person to person environment to discuss these topics which are entirely personal. ONN is not a forum for news and objectively reported events. Rather, it is a venue for subjective and experiential discussion, which is best shared between friends in a salon-like atmosphere. The setting is online, of course, but I'd prefer the feeling of a living room. And this friendly, subjective sharing has more significance than the preferred way to get the news. It creates a platform on which personal and life-affirming ideas can thrive.
London: I'm not as optimistic about the Internet as you are, Joel. I think it's an unparalleled medium for the dissemination of news and information — particularly within one's own "community of interest." But it has many drawbacks as a means of interpersonal communication.
It's especially limited as a source of conversation and friendship, in my experience. Over the years, I've watched many online relationships turn sour and seen numerous conversations spin out of control. Serious misunderstandings are inevitable in a text-based environment. Genuine dialogue and interaction are hard in real life. But in a virtual setting they are practically impossible.
According to most studies I've seen, real community on the Net — the sort characterized by norms, trust, deliberation, caring, and so on — is only possible when people augment their online conversations with real, face-to-face interaction.
People disagree on this, of course. People strike up friendships and fall in love on the Internet every day. Several books have been written about the promises of virtual communities. TV and radio programs (including my own) have devoted entire episodes to the subject. But I'm not convinced. I think the strengths of the medium lie elsewhere.
Metzger: I agree more than you think. My object is make our correspondence somewhat casual, not to pretend that you're sitting in an armchair next to me. Yes, this communication sure isn't conversation. To me and the readers, you aren't physical!! But it is not a one-way newspaper either, nor is it anything like the formal technical reports that people expect to see passed around electronically.
I'd like to return to your perception of genius. One could say that it's a quality that you fostered through your interview show — and all your programs. How would you define the quality of genius?
London: People often define genius as a set of character traits or as a way of being ("Eight Ways to Think Like Einstein," etc.). I prefer to think of genius as the fulfillment of our true calling in life, as the flowering of our unique potential, whatever it happens to be. What good is thinking like an Einstein if you're a Charlie Chaplin, or a Picasso, or a Bobby McFerrin? What good is acting like a Mozart if you're a Pele, or a Maya Lin, or a Garry Kasparov? Every genius inhabits a universe of his or her own making, so imitating the behaviors of others is pointless.
Metzger: How can we each look for our own genius and where it lies?
London: By finding and following our calling. That may be easier said than done, but I think it's the key to unlocking our innate genius. When our skills and talents are informed by an inner purpose or directive, we can do magnificent things.
I've explored this subject on the program a number of times. James Hillman and I had a very interesting conversation about destiny, character, and calling. If you're unsure of your calling, he told me, a good question to ask is, "How am I useful to others?"
I wish I could have interviewed Joseph Campbell before he died. Not only was he a genius (one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, in my view), but he also spoke very eloquently about the whole subject of life purpose. As you may know, he taught at Sarah Lawrence for almost 40 years. Every other week or so he would have an individual conference with each of his students. As he said in the Bill Moyers interviews, "there you're talking on about the things they're reading, and suddenly you hit on something that the student really responds to. You can see the eyes open and the complexion change. A life possibility has opened there. And all you can say to yourself is, I hope this child hangs on to that. They may or they may not. But when they do, they've found a life right there in the room with you."
That's what he meant when he said "follow your bliss." When you have a little intuition of where your joy is, grab it! No one else can tell you what it's going to be. You've got to learn to recognize your own depths.
Our calling may have very little to do with how we earn a living, or what we do with ourselves all day. Friendship, the capacity to heal, a passion for nature, motherhood, a talent for story-telling — all these can be expressions of our calling in life. If that's the case, then it doesn't matter very much where the money comes from or how we spend most of our waking hours.
Metzger: I love this, Scott! Talking about following your bliss is getting right to the heart of ONN. Not only is ONN the child of my calling, but the content here is the stuff of passion, speaking right to the fire of inspiration. It's easy to see that your career is the child of your bliss. Can you talk some about the path that you travelled to find that calling? The obstacles and triumphs you came to in realizing it?
London: My childhood friends and family remind me that as a kid I used to go around recording stories and jokes on a little portable tape recorder I owned. When I was twelve I started hanging around the local radio station, spending all my free time with the deejays. I got my FCC license as a freshman in high school and started doing a weekly show for young people. In college, I had two radio shows simultaneously. Later, I worked as a deejay and correspondent in Europe. When I returned to the States, I immediately started volunteering at WHYY, the big radio station in Philadelphia where I lived at the time. I also supported myself for a while doing voice-overs, narration, editing, remixing, and other production work.
I mention all this because at the time I had absolutely no idea that I had a future in radio. I used to despair over what to do with my life. I considered going back to school. I seriously contemplated becoming a vintner in California. I took odd jobs here and there. But, even though I had no conscious awareness of it, my calling was revealed in the details and daily activities of my life.
One more thing on this: I like the word "calling," but I think it gives us a false idea about our life's work. I prefer the word in its plural form — "callings." I've been "called" or "prompted" by an inner voice many times in my life. These callings have taken several forms — the impulse to change jobs, to relocate to a different country or city, to begin or end a business relationship, to give up a full-time job in order to care for a relative, etc.
What seems common to each of these callings is a powerful inner knowing, an unshakable conviction it is the right thing to do, regardless of convention or the opinions of others. Sometimes it's accompanied by a burning desire to pursue a new course in life even though everyone in your world seems dead-set against it.
It usually involves some sacrifice, I've found. But, as Campbell pointed out, it's a necessary sacrifice. If you've had a sense of your call and you don't follow it, if you decide to stay where you are because it's safe and secure, then life simply dries up. And then you come to a place in middle life where you're at the top of the ladder, but the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Metzger: Scott, you're a vintner of the radio! You're collecting the finest thoughts and distilling them into a rich liqueur. I think you have pinpointed some qualities of finding one's calling: inner knowing, steady conviction, and deep desire. And your point about calling vs. callings is an important one. For myself, I feel called to this work of speaking my truth and enabling others to speak theirs. But there are many calls I hear.
London: If the call is repeated again and again over a long period of time, it's usually authentic. True calls don't go away, they hound us until finally we have no other choice but to listen.
Metzger: Is this maxim true: "Do the work you love and the money will follow"?
London: It hasn't been true for me. So far.
Metzger: I'm running ONN and still waiting for it to follow.
London: Yes, it's a quandary. Someone told me that Marsha Sinetar — whose bestseller Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow popularized the phrase — later regretted the title. And who can blame her? Imagine the letters she must get from people who pinned their dreams on her bit of folk wisdom only to find themselves losing everything.
But if you read her book carefully, you realize that what she is really talking about is right livelihood — work as service, whether to other people or to a higher calling. If you're looking for guarantees — the money that is supposed to follow — then it's not really about service, it's about gratification.
So I don't know the answer, Joel. But I've discovered that it doesn't cost that much to live well if you live simply. Then you can have your bliss and eat too, so to speak.
Metzger: That points to something I'd like to pick up: work as service ... altruism and right livelihood ... the grace that comes when one is working for others ... not just working for one's own bliss, but to support other people and a greater understanding ... the genius that comes with following a calling ... the inspiration of vision.
London: Yes, there does seem to be a certain grace about those who devote their lives to serving others. Service, at its best, seems to be not so much an activity as a state of being.
I learned this from Robert Coles, the Harvard child psychiatrist. He wrote a book some years ago, The Call of Service, which had a profound effect on me. As it happened, I wrote a little essay about his work not long after I read the book. It was eventually posted on the Web. Someone close to Coles apparently saw it, printed it out, and sent it to him. Then one day I got a call from Coles. He said he just wanted to tell me how moved he had been by the essay. He called me one of the "finest interpreters" of his work — quite a compliment given that he's written almost 60 books and has been the subject of countless biographies and feature stories.
What prompted Coles to phone me that day? I'm not sure, but I think it was a simple desire to say thanks, to give something back — to me personally, and in a broader sense, to the world as well. The impulse was born of gratitude, not obligation or duty. And that, I believe, is the essence of true service.
Metzger: Some say that when one takes action for others, heaven showers support and the angels sing.
London: I think you are right that there is a certain grace that is aligned with your lifework. When you pursue that higher calling, mysterious things begin to occur — synchronicities point you in new directions, doors open that you never knew were there, new friendships blossom and old ones fade, apparent failures turn out to be lucky breaks, etc.
In general, though, I feel we put too much emphasis on the work — on the doing — as if finding the right vocation or plan of action will somehow transform our lives. It's a very American idea. In fact, our calling may have very little to do with how we earn a living, or what we do with ourselves all day. Friendship, the capacity to heal, a passion for nature, motherhood, a talent for story-telling — all these can be expressions of our calling in life. If that's the case, then it doesn't matter very much where the money comes from or how we spend most of our waking hours.
Grace, as I see it, is not so much about what we do as who we are. This is a hard and humbling lesson for those of us "trying to make a difference." Lao-Tsu said, "A truly good man does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done."
Metzger: Thank you very much, Scott. We've covered lots of rich material.
London: Thank you, Joel.
This interview was featured on the Online Noetics Network, a site affiliated with the Institute of Noetic Sciences featuring articles, interviews, announcements, and creative works, in February 1999. Reprinted by permission.