NPR’s CEO Jarl Mohn: How to Unlock Your Hidden Genius

NPR’s CEO Jarl Mohn: How to Unlock Your Hidden Genius

By Tracy Moran

Jarl Mohn
SourceStephen Voss/NPR


Because everyone can live up to their potential — here’s how.

By Tracy Moran

We’re awarding 10 brilliant undergraduate students up to $10,000 to make their passion project a reality. Find out more here, and stay tuned for the OZY Awards Ceremony, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. 

You don’t have to be a genius to have a brilliant idea or to be a success, but there are certain ingredients that help create game-changing ideas. So argues Jarl Mohn, NPR’s CEO and a longtime investor in the digital media space, as well as an avid art collector. 

OZY recently caught up with Mohn to see what he thinks is needed to net a major win in any field. He holds an important seat at the table for the second annual OZY Genius Awards this year, where he — along with Emerson Collective’s founder Laurene Powell Jobs, Yahoo’s Global Anchor Katie Couric and Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond — will help select the winners. Our condensed and edited conversation follows.

How do you define genius?

I think the word is thrown around a lot. I believe what Thomas Edison said, which is that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. I think it’s great to have that kind of perspective, because so many people romanticize it and, as a result, they remove it from the list of possibilities for themselves, and I think that’s sad. In fact, anybody in any craft, with enough attention, grit and perseverance, can show signs of genius and maybe even perfect it at some point. 

What are the essential ingredients to making any project not just a success but a game-changing win?

For any project to be a game-changing win is difficult — they come about rarely, and I don’t think every project can be or necessarily should be. But, ultimately, it does happen from time to time, and it’s really about experimenting, trying different things, seeing what starts to take root. In those really rare instances — and I think they’re really hard to plan for — when something truly magical happens with some result that is so far beyond what was initially expected, it’s about knowing when that is and how to take advantage of it. It’s about how to chase and accentuate the magic … and seeing whether something catches fire.

When employees or potential partners come to you with a plan, what impresses you most?

It’s important to have the feeling that somebody’s really thought it through in great detail. The more passionate they are, the more excited about a plan they are … then the more leaning in I might do. I always like to know that they have thought through any eventuality and allotted for that in asking about contingencies.

What are your red flags?

If people haven’t thought that through very well, that’s not very exciting and doesn’t give you much confidence, because with most projects, nothing ever goes the way it was originally intended. People have to be able to adapt and be flexible and able to respond quickly, so when I hear a plan, I want to know how much thought people have given to various scenarios — and how passionate are they, how committed are they personally to making a particular plan or project successful. I really want to know that people have a deep belief in what they’re proposing, and that they personally have a commitment to seeing to it that it’s going to be a success.

What does it take to stay inspired and execute a genius idea in such a fast-changing world?

I think it’s probably different, depending on the person’s values. Some people may be inspired for financial gain; others for recognition from their colleagues. So I think almost everyone has a different set of values that gets them up in the morning. For me, personally, it’s the challenge of doing something new and interesting and learning from it and getting a chance to work with people I really respect. 

Be persistent, and hang in there. I really believe that’s the essence of great success. 

Within the media world, who’s a genius you admire, and why?

I’ll broadly define media and stretch it a little to include the world of art, because that’s a personal passion of mine. I think of two really remarkable artists I know and have spent time with and whose work I’m very much a believer in and lover of. Those artists are Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Both are from the California Light and Space school, and the thing I love is that they both made the decision back in the 1960s that the work they were going to do was going to be related to light and space; they weren’t going to be using traditional materials, and it was going to be all about experiencing light and experiencing the spaces we inhabit, which in itself, I think, is a brilliant idea. And they’ve been doing this work, just iterating, trying and experimenting, since then. They’re still making breathtaking work.

In mainstream media? John Malone, whom I worked with for years at Liberty Media. Most think of him as a genius because he’s so smart and always thinking through all the possibilities, and he’s thinking about the future and how various pieces of the puzzle interplay. Because he’s playing at such a high level, and he’s got his investments in so many areas, he has significant scale where he can actually change the outcome — which is always a good thing. He’s somebody I really admire and has a very long-range view of media and where it’s going.

Have there been any great successes in media in recent years that surprised you?

I would say most of them have surprised me. To suggest that we saw any of them at the scale that they’re currently operating on is hard to envision. When I think about things today that are such a pervasive part of our lives, like Google or Facebook, those are pretty remarkable. 

Any final tips for those applying for an OZY Genius Award (OGA)?

Be persistent, and hang in there. I really believe that’s the essence of great success. Another Edison quote I really love: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” People think opportunity, when it knocks, is loud and obvious — and it’s not. I would think the chance to participate in something like [OGA] is a great opportunity.