Social Impact Authors: How & Why Authors Justin Zorn & Leigh Marz Are Helping To Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
15 min readJun 16, 2022


Justin and Leigh: We view leadership as being positional — like an outer role one holds, say a CEO — and situational, such as when a person of any age or standing demonstrates wisdom, clarity, and compassion. We view leadership as knowing ones growth edges as well as one strengths. Having worked with leaders throughout the course of writing our book, we’d add that leadership requires a certain amount of silence–for reflection and discernment–as well as to create space for others to offer their input and guidance.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz.

Justin Talbot Zorn has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the US Congress. A Harvard-and- Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of human thriving, he has written for the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, and other publications. Justin is the coauthor of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, published by HarperCollins in the US, Penguin/Random House in the UK, and globally in 13 other languages. He is cofounder of Astrea Strategies, a consultancy that bridges contemplation and action, helping leaders and teams envision and communicate solutions to complex challenges. Justin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife and three children.

Leigh Marz is a collaboration and leadership coach for major universities, corporations, and federal agencies as well as a longtime student of pioneering researchers and practitioners of the ritualized use of psychedelic medicines in the West. She has led training programs to promote an experimental mindset among teams at NASA and a decade-long cross- sector collaboration to reduce toxic chemicals in products, in partnership with Green Science Policy Institute, Harvard University, IKEA, Google, and Kaiser Permanente. Leigh is the coauthor of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, published by HarperCollins in the US, Penguin/Random House in the UK, and globally in 13 other languages. She is the cofounder of Astrea Strategies. Leigh lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and daughter.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Justin: I’m thankful to have had an unusually loving upbringing — but there certainly wasn’t much quiet. I grew up in Central Florida, in a hyper-talkative home, soaked in heady political activism and lots and lots of TV. I was an outgoing kid, but I suffered from some anxiety and depression under the surface. I felt perpetually frustrated with the state with the world and the indifference I saw in the face of it. I got interested in meditation as a late teen, which helped me to find some peace and balance as went forth to college and my career. My initial studies of mindfulness set in motion a long turn of events that led to writing this book.

Leigh: I’d describe my childhood as a bit chaotic and troubled but filled with unmatched advantage of unconditional love. My family roots are in the deep South — my mother was born in Mobile, Alabama and my father, Little Rock, Arkansas. Our extended family is scattered throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas and they all feel as close to home as any nomadic family could know. After my parents divorced when I was 4, my mother, brother and I were an inseparable trio. We moved many times — 11, before I reached 11 years of age. We struggled financially, relying upon foodstamps, free school lunches, and government subsidized housing to get by. The experience made us resilient and close. Today, we all live miles from each other in the San Francisco Bay Area — my brother with his family and my mom with her wife of nearly 30 years.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

Justin: A book that influenced me deeply as a kid — and still influences me today — is Shel Silverstein’s children’s classic The Giving Tree. It’s a simple illustrated book that follows the lifelong relationship between a boy and an apple tree. The boy keeps taking and the tree keeps giving — until there’s simply nothing more to give. It’s a poignant parable about nature’s generosity to humanity and the limits we need to respect.

Leigh: I remember reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in elementary school and being both deeply moved and disturbed by it. I felt admiration for Mrs. Frisby’s ingenuity and courage as well as empathy for the rats who’d been tortured and tested. It was one of the more frightening stories I’d read up until then. It offered me somewhat of an “initiation” to the sometimes harsh reality of human behavoir. Looking back, this story broadened my imagination and taught me how to take different — and even unlikely — perspectives. Even as a shy child, I found myself more willing to speak up for life’s smallest creatures.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Justin: In the summer of 2015, I was beyond burnout. I was overworked in my job as legislative director to a member of Congress on Capitol Hill. I was going to too many parties and happy hours in the evenings. I was listening to news podcasts at 2.5x speed to load up on information on the inordinate number of policy issues I was working on. I was feeling irritable, unusually sensitive to the urban noise, and almost overtaken with distracted thought. While I felt perpetually tired, I didn’t feel like I was making any significant progress on any of the causes to which I had devoted myself. So, I finally acted upon some good advice from a friend: I went to spend some time in the woods.

I went out to a cabin for a few days in the forested hills of northwestern Virginia. I spent most of the time lying on the wooden deck, face upwards to the canopy of oaks and pines. I listened to the warblers and woodpeckers. I felt the warmth of the sun. No cell signal. No Wi-Fi. No books. Little to no talking. Just a notepad and a pen. The first thing I noticed was that it was easier to breathe. It wasn’t just the fresh air; it was physiological. Tightness started vanishing from my chest. Almost effortlessly, without venturing into a deep analysis, I jotted down a fairly complete plan for a career transition that allowed for geographic flexibility while still working on the causes I valued. I’ve been largely working from that plan ever since. It was a vital lesson in the power of deep immersion in silence.

Leigh: I was hired to do a pilot program to the climate team of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. To its credit, NASA is devoted to building the “soft skills” of the highly technical teams that work there. The training was intended to address communication issues common to multigenerational teams. In the pilot debut, my co-lead and I threw everything we had at them — a two-week training packed into two days. There was nary a moment to reflect, digest, or even protest. There was no space, no silence.

This was an enormous opportunity for me and, looking back, I believe I was equal parts honored and petrified. Unfortunately, it was probably the “petrified” part of me that did most of the agenda planning. I seemed to feel the need to demonstrate my worth, and the value of the content, by way of the proverbial fire hose. In doing so, I’d overlooked the obvious: the room was filled with introverts — more than 75 percent, according to NASA’s internal tally. By the end of the first day, the participants looked weary and disheveled, as if they’d been hit by a hurricane.

With a near-total overhaul, it all worked out. We cut content. We scheduled more breaks. We added intervals for silent observation. I went on to deliver the work for years, grateful for the lesson and the patience I was afforded.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

Justin and Leigh: In our book, we express our sense that the most intractable problems facing humanity might not be solved with more thinking or talking. With due respect to the voice and the intellect and the buzzing machinery of material progress, we ask the reader to consider the possibility that the solutions to the most serious personal, communal, and even global challenges could be found somewhere else: in the open space between the mental stuff.

Of course, we don’t want to imply that everyone just needs to find some silence and all the problems will disappear. We still have to challenge oppressive social systems, to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to build equitable economies. We still have to do the work. But — while all these practical shifts are necessary to overcome the challenges of these times — they’re not sufficient. We also need to address the underlying agitation in our consciousness. To repair our world, we need to reclaim our capacities to cultivate silence, to be in silence, to perceive the signal of what is true.

Through all the diverse stories we tell and the research we present in the book, we show how silence it a pathway to humility, renewal, and respect for life. And these are prerequisites for solving the personal and global challenges we face.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Justin and Leigh: We often say the “soul” of our book is found in the story and the word shared by Jarvis Jay Masters. Jarvis has spent more than thirty years on death row in San Quentin prison for a crime that the preponderance of evidence now shows he didn’t commit. He’s been in legal limbo for years as his case works its way through a labyrinthine appeals process. Jarvis is now a renowned meditation teacher who’s taken vows with Tibetan lamas and published two books: Finding Freedom and That Bird Has My Wings. He emphasizes how the noise in prison isn’t just the nonstop hollering or the party beats playing on lo-fi radios. It’s the vibration of fear — the angst of uncertainty, violence, and state-sanctioned death. Still, in San Quentin, Jarvis has become adept at finding silence. He finds it in moments doing exercises in his cell. He finds it when he studies astronomy and reads Buddhist texts. But mostly he finds silence by skillfully navigating the noise in his own consciousness. “My responses to the noise were probably the loudest,” he reflects. “I started quieting the noise by quieting my responses to the noise,” he tells us. The deepest silence, for Jarvis, has a moral dimension. He can access it, he tells us, when he gets beyond his own personal worries and turns his focus toward compassion for others.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

Justin and Leigh: Back in early 2017, we were pretty despondent about the state of the world. You probably know the feeling.

It was before COVID, the war in Ukraine, and so many other crises that define these times. But, even then, we just couldn’t see a way forward. It was like there was something blocking the capacity for deep conversation about difficult topics and blocking our ability to find creative solutions. As parents of younger kids and as people who have been active in struggles on climate, poverty, mental health, and domestic violence, we felt at a loss for what to do.

Around that time, we both started feeling an intuition about the first step toward finding a way forward: Tune-in to silence. Get beyond the noise and distraction, and simply listen.

We were both what you could call ‘lapsed meditators,’ but this wasn’t a calling to get back to mindfulness practice. It was something that felt simpler but also somehow bigger. It was the idea that the problems facing humanity might not be solved with more thinking or talking. We wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about this idea, and it ended up resonating with a lot of people, becoming one of their most viewed articles in recent years. So, we followed the cookie crumbs and started interviewing people — neuroscientists, activists, poets, executives, national politicians, a man incarcerated on death row, a Grammy-winning opera singer, a heavy metal front man, a cowboy-lumberjack, and an air force lieutenant colonel. We’ve asked these people: What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known?

And — through their stories and insights — we’ve written a book about the question of why silence matters for our personal and collective wellbeing and how to find it in our noisy world.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Justin and Leigh: A few years ago, Leigh met a fellow mom on her daughter’s volleyball team. They hit it off instantly. The mom was partner at a big San Francisco–based law firm. She was working up to seventy hours a week with a daunting commute while raising two daughters on her own. Somehow, she seldom missed a game. Upon hearing that Leigh was writing a book about silence, she launched into a self-berating tirade about not having a meditation practice. “I know! I know! I totally need to meditate! I’ve got to do that. I’ve been meaning to do that forever. I don’t know why I don’t do that!”

We recently came across a book called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — and the World’s Getting Worse. You could say something similar today: We’ve had forty years of mindfulness, and the world is more distracted than ever. We both have tremendous respect for mindfulness, and it’s helped us both in our lives. Leigh has integrated meditation into her leadership and organizational development work with nonprofits, major universities, and US federal agencies. And during Justin’s years as a senior policy staffer in the US House of Representatives, he helped launch a mindfulness program and led meditation sessions for policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

But the challenge is that meditation isn’t for everyone. Any “one size fits all” approach is unlikely to be an enduring solution to the complex challenge of staying centered amidst the destabilizing winds of modern mental hyper-stimulation. So, this book is an invitation to look beyond the traditional rules and tools of mindfulness. It’s a field guide to finding simple and accessible ways to navigate the auditory, information, and internal interference of the world in which we’re living. It’s an invitation to forget about questions like “Am I doing it right?” Each one of us — in our own way — knows what silence feels like. It’s something inherent to being human. It’s a gift of renewal that’s available to us, always, even if it’s sometimes hidden.

Golden is for anyone struggling to navigate the noise of modern life. It’s a book for anyone seeking new sources of clarity, energy, and creativity. We think of it as a “non-meditator’s guide to getting beyond the noise.” For Leigh’s new friend, the volleyball mom, the framing of Golden offered her permission to find another, better, way to her own quiet. Not long after their conversation, she and her daughters got a new family pet, a Goldendoodle. Today, rather than beat herself up about not meditating — she takes brisk walks at daybreak where she soaks in the silence.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Justin and Leigh:

Invest in Public Sanctuaries

Think of a special public space — like a forested reserve, a rose garden, a pocket park between skyscrapers, or an inviting library — where you’ve been able to rest your nerves and recover your clarity. While quiet time is too often an exclusive luxury for people who can afford it, public sanctuaries democratize the power of silence. Consider what you can do to expand such sanctuaries. Maybe it’s advocating for funding in the municipal budget; maybe it’s envisioning a new public amenity and working with others in the community to create it.

Enshrine the Right to Attention

Most of us now spend a majority of our waking hours on computers, phones, TVs, and other electronic media on which advertisers compete for our attention. Yet — in contrast to other valuable and scarce resources — there are still few public rules that govern the manipulation of human attention. Consider how you can advocate for the defense of attention. It might be through political activism, demanding, for example, that governments “articulate what is off-limits” in terms of algorithms that seek to deliberately extract attention and send users, including children, down “rabbit holes” of endless watching or scrolling. As a worker, you can stand up for your “right to disconnect” from email, laptops, phones, and other “electronic leashes” after the workday has ended. Get creative in finding ways to manage the claims on our attention and reduce the burden of noise.

Deliberate Like the Quakers

When you’re grappling with a difficult question in public policy or the future of your community, let silence be an ally. In a Quaker business meeting, when it’s clear that the participants aren’t listening to each other, the clerk will typically ask for a period of silence. It’s an opportunity to re-center, to take a few deep breaths, and to connect to the higher purpose of the meeting. The silence isn’t forcing a resolution before the group is actually ready. It’s simply helping people to get out of their own narrative, get present, and listen. What can you do to bring this ethos of discernment into public deliberation and the social discourse where you live?

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Justin and Leigh: We view leadership as being positional — like an outer role one holds, say a CEO — and situational, such as when a person of any age or standing demonstrates wisdom, clarity, and compassion. We view leadership as knowing ones growth edges as well as one strengths. Having worked with leaders throughout the course of writing our book, we’d add that leadership requires a certain amount of silence–for reflection and discernment–as well as to create space for others to offer their input and guidance.

What are your “5 THINGS I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Justin and Leigh:

  • We wish we’d understood sooner: The true toll of auditory, informational, internal noise — for our physical health, mental clarity, relationships, and our capacity to find solutions to the challenges humanity is facing today.
  • The importance of silence for individuals, families, friends, organizations, and society as a whole.
  • That our means for finding silence doesn’t need to look like other people’s preferred strategies or what happens to be trendy. For example, when meditation — which had been one of our preferred way to find silence — was no longer conducive to our changing lifestyles, we wish we’d sought out sooner other, better, way to find quiet.
  • The importance of having an experimental mindset. When we first started our careers the norms primarily validated certainty and expertise over listening, observing, learning, and adapting.
  • That for the vast majority of us in the vast majority of situations, just listening — simply noticing noise and tuning in to silence — is within our sphere of control.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Justin and Leigh: We appreciate a quote often attributed to the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We appreciate how this quote turns us toward our personal power — even in the most impossible of circumstances like those faced in Viktor Frankl’s lifetime. We’d add that this quote doesn’t simply imply a whole lot of “doing” or action–it has also meant, for us, surrender, letting go, and expanding into a situation that is painful or challenging. This too can lead us to growth and liberation.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Justin: Wendell Berry (although he doesn’t have computer, so it won’t do much good to tag him)

Leigh: Tricia Hersey, The Nap Bishop

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Justin and Leigh: You can find out more about our work helping responsible businesses, nonprofits, and leaders turn down the volume and find creative and enduring solutions and see our recent media and publications at our consultancy, Astrea Strategies, found at:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.



Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator