Katherine M. Gehl is the founder of The Institute for Political Innovation, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded in 2020 to catalyze modern political change in America. In 2020, she published “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.” Get to know Katherine and her advice on playing games worth losing. 

Katherine M. Gehl is a speaker for TEDxMileHigh: Vision. Register for the virtual event on December 5th here

As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up & Why?

As a young child, I wanted to be a Catholic nun. I even made an altar in my room where I would play mass (I don’t think I really understood that nuns did not—and still can’t—preside at mass).

By 4
th grade, I had pivoted to wanting to be a judge. My mother was engaged in a case involving school jurisdictions/boundaries, and at some point a judge decided against her. I just knew the judge was wrong, because my mother sounded totally right to me. Therefore, I decided I should be a judge and make the “right” decisions. (I believed in my ability to make the right decisions—I suspect I would have been quite surprised to discover that I was supposed to abide by precedent, for example.)

By 6
th grade, I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. None of these dreams came true—the only one I regret to this day is aspiring to a judgeship.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

In my early 30’s, I was doing well. I had a reasonable career, reasonable success, reasonable causes I engaged in, reasonable social life (but really great friends). I was reasonable and comfortable. And then I met someone. He was brilliant and intense and fun. And, he was wildly, off-the-charts successful. For some reason, it came up in some conversation that we both received “most likely to succeed” in the predictable awards season of high school senior year. Hmm. Let’s just say my success was definitely not looking anything like his.

Guess what? He took huge risks, and I took none. He played games worth losing, and I didn’t, and he never waited for permission. I always waited. I didn’t make a single-moment, 180 degree turn towards risk. It was a conscious re-orientation of my choices towards risk that has had a cumulative effect. 

And here we are: the more risk I take, in games worth losing, the more difference I make and the more alive I am. 

I don’t think of it as success. I think of it as the “verse I contribute” (see Walt Whitman). Unreasonable risk-taking has been a fabulous choice whenever I make it.

PS—No, we didn’t stay together. Yes, I told him this insight, but he wouldn’t remember. Yes, we’re still friends. No, I don’t compare my success to his—we’re playing different games. But yes, he’s still wildly, off-the-charts successful, and I’m still motivated by that example. Yes, I’m still a rule-follower at heart, but I choose not to care what that part of me thinks.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I am a bit of a hoarder. My son sleeps on a pillowcase that I used as a toddler and under a blanket that was in my younger brother’s crib. My daughter wore my mother’s 8th-grade graduation dress for her 8th-grade graduation. I also have three-ring binders with the notes my girlfriends passed to me in 7th and 8th grade.
  2. I am obsessed with genealogy and Ancestry.com—now run by my friend, CEO Margo Georgiadis. I’ve found revolutionary war ancestors, a scandal or two, and visited a ton of gravesites. My daughter says no more cemeteries—she’s done.
  3. One of my first jobs was ground crew for a hot-air balloonist. One of my next jobs was slop-line in the college cafeteria.

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

I can’t limit myself to three, because these authors’ writing changed how I think and how I do. Meg Jay, Cal Newport, Patrick McGinnis, Glennon Doyle, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Ray Dalio. Sandra Kahn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman.

Angela Merkel. Because she takes risks, plays games worth losing and wins them—in an arena still dominated by men. 

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

People are always playing games they know they can win, or games that are “small” enough that it won’t move the needle if they win is won. I’ve done that myself—tons of times. But, it’s usually a mistake. 

Playing games worth losing is so inspirational to me. By the way, that doesn’t mean, the game must necessarily be big in scale—helping one person can be a game worth losing. You’ll know what kinds of games you’re playing if you pause and reflect.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Well, I’m tempted to say Political Innovation…but that would seem like cheating (in the same vein as, “So let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”). We need to think about BREATHING. Breathing is every bit as important as eating, sleeping, moving. We breathe all wrong, we breathe too much (over-breathing is the new overeating), and we don’t even know we should care. A good first step would be for TEDxMileHigh to invite James Nestor, author of Breath (of course!) to give a talk.

And if I could, I have one more thought. We need to spend as much time in action as thinking. I do love TED.com, but I (and others, I suspect) would be better off if I listened to many fewer talks and took more action on the ideas in them. If I took action on the talks I’ve watched, I would now be sleeping more and deeper, regularly (not intermittently) intermittently fasting, and have much stronger relationships. Instead, I find myself staying up too late watching a screen, eating chocolate in the fasting window, while watching more talks (alone) about how important investing in relationships is. Hmm? I think I’m missing something there.

Note to self: What will you do in your TED talk to inspire real action on an individual level?

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

Create a cross-partisan, coast-to-coast coalition of leaders who are urgently united as public advocates for healthy competition in our elections for the U.S. House of Representative and Senate via Final-Five Voting. 

What Action Can the TEDxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

Article I of our Constitution delegates to the states the power to make the rules for federal elections. So, to fix Congress, we can go state by state. We need to pass Final-Five Voting legislation in states around the country—in as many as possible as soon as possible. For that to happen, we need founders, joiners, evangelists, and funders. Find or join a Final-Five Voting campaign in your state. Fund and evangelize to create broad-based support in your state and lead (or pressure) your state legislature to pass the Final-Five Voting bill and your governor to sign it. That’s transformational.