I met Courtney Martin and Golda Arthur in January to learn about their idea for a new podcast called “The Wise Unknown,” a series exploring the power of quiet wisdom and where we can find it. Nine months later, this seed blossomed into eight beautiful conversations with people like Rosario Dawson and Idalia Rodriguez, W.Kamau Bell and Dwayne Kennedy, and Adam Grant and Bernard Chang, and an art project with artist Wendy MacNaughtont that highlights nuggets of life lessons and insights from the podcast.
Even though I got a sneak peek into Courtney and Golda’s creative process, I listened to each episode with renewed awe and wonder. “Here is another way to live a life rooted in love and care” was a recurring thought in my head as Courtney led listeners through in-depth conversations with the wise unknowns.
I caught up with Courtney and Golda earlier this month as they put the finishing touches on the last episode. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. I hope you will listen to The Wise Unknown on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
How would you describe the podcast for people who may be unfamiliar with The Wise Unknown?
Courtney: Some of the country’s favorite actors, activists, and authors introduce listeners to the “wisest person no one has ever heard of” who they credit as critical to their success. I then elicit life lessons, palpable delights, and funny stories from these guests.
Golda: The podcast is about the signal in the noise, about clearing away all the so-called guidance wrapped in shiny paper and discovering — perhaps actually uncovering — something quiet, true, and powerful.
What was the fire in your belly that motivated you to go on this search for wisdom?
Courtney: I would describe this one as a long, smoldering fire. I carried the idea with me for many years and, to be honest, I can’t remember when it first popped into my head. I love interviewing “regular” people – a la Studs Terkel or projects like StoryCorps – and this seemed like an amazing way to entice others to listen to such interviews. I have also spent lots of time in “sage on a stage” type of spaces and have given these one-way lectures at various moments. I felt skepticism over what this label does to both the speaker and the audience. I was interested in exploring that.
Golda: When Courtney told me about this idea for a show, the wheels immediately started to turn in my head. I was led by instinct, which told me this would be a good idea to build out and create.
Now that you have had seven conversations with people who have profound insights and knowledge, how did they transform or maybe reaffirm your beliefs about wisdom?
Courtney: The most visceral commonality among the seven diverse people I was introduced to was the lack of ego. I could physically feel the difference in our conversations, so much so that in one case, I blurted out, “What happened to your ego? Did you burn it up in a fire or something?!”
We all know what it’s like to speak with someone who is egoless. It’s pretty rare. Our bodies register it. That’s part of what made this project such a privilege; I got to do that seven times over.
Golda: I think there were transformative moments in every episode of this show, but one line from Ted Klontz, in particular, resonated. He said we have an innate wisdom inside us, and we need to learn how to tap into it.
Chi: One of the big takeaways for me in listening to your podcast is every person you interviewed has the ability to find the meaning of life in the most minute details, like when Dr. Bernard Chang talked about looking at the socks his patients wore as they entered the ER, not knowing these socks could be their last. Your guests can also zoom out to look at life in its totality, like when Idalia Rodriguez spoke about leaving a positive mark on this earth regardless of the hands we were dealt.
What were some of your aha moments while producing the podcast?
Courtney: I love that you noticed those moments and their dynamism, Chi. The other thing that affected me was wrestling with the meaning of wisdom and the value and definition of ambition. So many of these “unknown wise” people are not traditionally ambitious. They’re not great marketers. They’re not particularly good at self-advocacy. They don’t have a social media presence or “platforms.” But they are ambitious about being good friends, being of service to others, and making great art. That feels so right to me.
Golda: The moment I mentioned above with Ted Klontz and also the exact moment you’re mentioning here with Bernard was very moving. There’s so much we take for granted – down to our socks and shoes – but hearing Bernard say that stopped me in my tracks during the recording. I decided it would be the clip we opened the episode with because I found it so compelling. I also found Dwayne Kennedy to be a fantastic interview. For him, it’s about the work and not the branding of the work. I can relate to that.
As part of the project, you collaborated with illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton to encourage listeners to interview and draw a wise unknown person in their lives. What made you want to incorporate art into this process?
Courtney: The Wise Unknown is one big artistic collaboration. I wanted to work with Wendy, a dear friend and artist, so it made sense to invite her artistic community to this. I wanted the music to be original and fresh, so I asked my friend Kumar, a teacher at a public school here in Oakland, to contribute. Though she would probably push back on the phrase, Golda is an artist because she has a way of listening for the gems in a conversation and polishing them up perfectly. I love making cool things with my friends, and many are artists.
Golda: When you are working on an audio project, it’s always interesting to think about how it will get visually represented to listeners. Wendy got the measure of the show so well and captured the spirit of the podcast in that cover art.
Now that you are on your last episode, what kind of feedback have you received from listeners?
Courtney: Listeners have been so generous in reflecting that they love this podcast. We’ve gotten emails and voice memos from people who say they recognize themselves in The Wise Unknown interviewees, and it has brought them closer to self-acceptance and even self-love. What could be better than that? We’ve also heard often that the podcast sparks people to think about who the wise unknowns are in their lives and celebrate them. I love that, too. Many people have said that the podcast cracks them up; humor is so healing! And finally, we are told that the podcast is unlike anything they have heard. It is quieter and has a kind of grace that few podcasts today possess.
Golda: When we recorded the live episode at the Omega Institute, it was great to see the audience buzzing during and after the recording. I watched as people shared who their wise unknown was and why that person was special to them. It was rewarding to see people take this idea to heart in the way they did.
And lastly, who is your wise unknown person, the one with two feet firmly on the ground?
Courtney: One of my wise unknown people is in the synthesis episode with a thick Staten Island accent and an amazing anecdote about his dream about Marvin Gaye, so don’t miss that. But my goodness, I have so many people in my life that I consider real North stars. Ms. Terri, who works at my kids’ after-school program, knows every single caregiver and kid by name and always has something loving and funny to say. Louise, the 85-year-old woman who lives in my cohousing community, has taught me so much about the possibility of a never-ending evolution of consciousness. My 7-year-old Stella is full of surprising wisdom. The other night when her older sister was crying because her birthday was over, Stella said: “That’s just life, Maya. Birthdays all end. Even our lives all end.”
And can I just add THANK YOU to you, Chi, for being such an amazing partner in this journey and to Einhorn Collaborative for being a force for this kind of light-in-the-cracks art and organizing. I’m so grateful.
Golda: Can it be two wise unknowns? My parents, I think, are the humblest, wisest people I know, and not only are they grounded, but they keep me grounded, too. Let’s hear it for Mom and Dad!