Julie Burstein

Julie Burstein is Peabody Award-winning radio producer, best-selling author, TED speaker, and tea enthusiast.


BS: What do you do for a living, and how did you get there?
JB: In college, I volunteered at the campus radio station at Wesleyan and those few hours on the air were my favorite time, aside from playing cello and other instruments in everything from the orchestra to the new music group to the ancient instruments ensemble. When not on the air or in rehearsal, I was up to my elbows in clay in the ceramics studio getting ready for my senior show. I had a clear sense of what I loved to do – but it was also luck and a little bit of chutzpah that led me to my first career producing radio programs about music and the arts.

In the spring of my senior year I was leafing through the notebook of jobs in the career resource center, and in between listings for management trainees at banks there was a note looking for a production assistant at WNYC in New York. I dug out enough change to call the number listed from a pay phone, but the man who answered said “Oh, I already finished interviewing candidates.” “That’s too bad,” I said, “I am going to be in NY tomorrow – might I just stop by to talk with you about the work you are doing? It sounds so fascinating!” “OK I guess,” he said.

I, of course, had not had plans to go to NY, but I made them quickly, and early the next morning I got on a train and spent an hour talking with him about art and music and dance and radio. And a few days later, he sent me a letter offering me the job.

That was many years ago – as you can probably tell from the binder of jobs and the change for a phone call.  I began work in a time with no cell phones or internet job boards. Even then, people asked me “why are you working in radio? Why not work in TV?” And my answer was “The pictures are better on the radio.” Which is true – because listening to a story on the radio allows us to fill in our own images and emotions. Radio is an art form that asks us to collaborate with what’s created in order to bring it to life.

Over the years I have been a producer for NPR, an arts reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, and in the early part of this century I led the talented team that created “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen” for PRI and WNYC. My work has received many awards including two Peabody Awards. And my work with Studio 360 led to my first book, “Spark: How Creativity Works.”

Today I love the variety in my current work. At the moment I am developing a podcast with a remarkably talented writer and performer which will debut this spring. I coach writers, scientists, teachers and business leaders who want to get better at raising their voices in public. I work with cultural organizations like The Metropolitan Museum of Art to help them find new ways to tell their stories. And I speak all over the world about creativity. My work today draws on what I learned over many years in radio – to listen carefully, ask open-ended questions, and create a space in which real connection can happen.

BS: Tell me about your first TED experience.
JB: After “Spark”was published I was so honored to be asked by TED to speak at TED 2012 about creativity. It was my first experience at TED, and I loved working with their team as I prepared my talk. Meeting other speakers and attendees was fantastic and led to some great stories for Studio 360!

BS: You document your daily tea rituals. Do you have a work ritual?
JB: Tea meditation has become an essential ritual for my life and my work. Though people who have known me for a long time would be surprised I have a ritual at all, for most of my life I was allergic to repetition, I was always looking for the next new thing.

My dear friend Wendy Suzuki (a world renowned neuroscientist and host of the podcast series I produced for PRX, Totally Cerebral) introduced me to tea meditation about 18 months ago and I immediately fell in love with this simple practice of drinking tea in silence for a few minutes a day, sometimes with family and friends and mostly on my own. Tea meditation combines three of my absolute favorite things — listening to the world, drinking really good tea, and holding beautiful ceramic bowls and cups in my hands. I was never really able to meditate before, I never worked through the antsy feeling of sitting still. But I can sit for a long time with a bowl of tea in my hands, it focuses and grounds me. Whenever I can I sit outside and I love observing the natural world around me for a few minutes each day and documenting what I see and hear on my instagram, @jbraku. The practice has deeply influenced my work as a creator and coach. I am able to draw on a new sense of focus and calm that allows me to more deeply help my clients.

BS: What are the risks you take with your work? And how can people build their own creative muscle?
JB: Creating anything new involves risks — if it is new, it is unknown, it has never existed before and so we won’t know whether it works or not unless we begin. For many people, the biggest challenge to allowing ourselves and our organizations to be creative is the difficulty of managing a project through the uncertainty that accompanies anything truly new. I am often asked to lead workshops on uncertainty and creativity, for universities and businesses, and I love that work, even though it often means encouraging people to figure out how best to endure the anxiety and sometimes fear that accompanies uncertainty. My tea practice helps me with uncertainty, physical activity is useful for other people. Finding a partner to talk through the challenges and celebrate the successes can also be a wonderful way to carry ourselves through the uncertainty. Each of us need to find what allows us to not fight the uncertainty but ride it, like a wave, in order to find ideas that are truly new.

Perhaps the best way to build your creative muscle is to create — without worrying about the outcome. To quote the artist Chuck Close, who I profile in “Spark,” “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” I would add that play is essential too — find something you love to do, not for the outcome but for the process, and give yourself time to play. Finally, observing and listening, is critical. In our ever more distracting world, being present in the moment and open to see, hear, and feel what is around you and inside you will help you to expand your creative muscle. Attention to the world around us, reflection, and introspection are more important than ever in the 21st century.  And sipping a good cup of tea can make listening to the world and reflecting on our lives a pleasure.

See photos of Julie’s tea meditation.
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