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The Gift of Curiosity
Brian Grazer believes curiosity is a natural gift that parents and teachers should encourage in children at school, at home and in the broader culture. From the time of his first job in Hollywood, he contacted anyone who intrigued him. He initiated “curiosity conversations” with people outside his Hollywood sphere – people who were strangers until he talked to them – over the course of 35 years. His quest to know more taught him that curiosity is “democratic” by its nature. Asking questions and really listening to the answers makes equals of both parties and unites them in seeking knowledge. The essence of life is not getting the answers, but “asking the questions.”
After Grazer graduated from the University of Southern California, he happened to overhear a conversation outside his office window. Someone had quit a job working for an executive at Warner Bros. Grazer immediately called the executive and applied for the job. Grazer had no real sense of what the work was likely to be. He was just curious. The job involved delivering legal papers around Warner Bros. Grazer could have just left each set of papers with a secretary or aide. He never did. He always insisted on delivering his papers to the recipient personally. Thus he spoke to many powerful, famous people in the movie business.
Grazer set a goal of meeting a new person daily and holding a curiosity conversation with each one. He wondered how people did their jobs and lived their lives. At first, he sought contacts in film and entertainment. As time went on, he expanded his search to include anyone in any field.
One definition of curiosity is “wanting to know.” Grazer uses curiosity as a “management tool,” to help himself be less shy, to fuel his “self-confidence,” to deal with anxiety, to avoid doing the same things in the same way and “to tell stories.” Curiosity can rescue you from a boring party or help shift your career. Curiosity fuels creativity and motivation, and it also can properly channel “anger and frustration.” Following your curiosity makes you brave. Curiosity brings gusto to your life and enables you to deepen your understanding. It inspires originality and inspiration. Curiosity stimulates you. Curiosity drives stories, which in turn raise questions to be asked.
In its way, each of Grazer’s meetings contributed to his career, but none were as significant as his meeting with Ron Howard. Grazer met Howard, a former child actor turned director, by calling him up and introducing himself. Grazer had to push the shy Howard to meet. That call changed both of their lives. They became best friends and lifelong collaborators. More than three decades later, they remain close. Together they made Splash and Night Shift. They then formed Imagine Entertainment and made Parenthood, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon and Apollo 13, and won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. Howard’s curiosity is a match for Grazer’s.
Do You Want to Be in Pictures?
When Grazer evaluates whether a story would be a good film, his curiosity raises these questions:
- “What is the story about?” Is it “a comedy, an adventure” or a tragedy?
- Who tells the story? What “tone” should a film use to convey it?
- How do the characters connect? What puts them in jeopardy?
- What is the emotional core of the story?
For curiosity to be useful, be attentive to the answers people give to your questions and retain them. Develop the will “to act” on what you learn. Just learning something is not sufficient. When the answers to your questions show you new ways to work, live, learn or love, take action and follow what your questions reveal. Curiosity keeps you from deluding yourself. If you can ask tough questions and follow the answers, curiosity will keep you grounded. Asking questions as an exercise is pointless. Use questions in concrete ways to seek new, practical knowledge that you can apply to your life and work. Curiosity can stifle fear. It helped Grazer overcome his fear of speaking in public. He uses questions to build his confidence. When being ignorant of something makes him nervous, he asks questions until he learns what he needs to know.
Persistence and Preparation
Persistence demands curiosity, but curiosity has its risks. If you don’t want to know more, to know what happens next and to know what could happen, you won’t persevere. When finding answers means more to you than passivity or the dread of failure, you keep asking.
If you get a chance to ask someone questions, be prepared. Grazer met famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who wrote, among hundreds of other titles, I, Robot. Asimov and his wife sat down with Grazer, who asked a few tentative questions. Asimov’s wife, Janet Jeppson Asimov, stood up and told Grazer he was too ignorant of Asimov’s work to waste the great author’s time. The couple left, and as they walked away, Grazer knew Mrs. Asimov was right. He wasn’t prepared; he hadn’t done his research. He vowed never to waste another opportunity.
Curiosity connects you to the people in your life. To be truly curious about your loved ones, you must be genuine. Ask authentic questions and be sincerely interested in the answers. Curiosity helps you with nurturing and “sustaining intimacy.” Many people ask their spouses or children desultory questions at the end of each day. The responses are often monosyllabic or elusive. And why not? No one wants to answer an insincere question. When you ask your partner or children sincerely interested questions and you really listen to their answers – and then ask follow-up questions that show you listened – you create intimate bonds and fuel trust. Ask your kids about their day and really listen to their answers. Show curiosity about their lives.
When you lose curiosity about those you love or assume you know every answer they might give to any question, then the bond between you weakens. Coasting in familiar comfort is easy, but if you do that, the person you used to know will become a stranger. Then boredom and routine will dominate your relationship. That’s how people forget how magical they once found each another.
The same dynamic holds true at work. Hierarchy does not interest Brian Grazer. Nor does telling people what to do. He prefers to ask probing questions, and then to ask more follow-up questions to determine what those around him think is the best course. Often his questions reveal that no one – at that moment – has an answer. That’s useful knowledge, because it means those responsible for knowing will ask more questions. Asking questions often spurs unexpected tangents that can drive a conversation in new, exciting directions. Asking questions teaches you how to advocate for the course of action you believe in; asking enough questions, even of yourself, reveals the strengths and weaknesses of your position.
Never order anyone to do anything. If you need someone to lead, ask candidates if they want to lead and if they’re ready. To generate a collaborative dynamic, give people a chance to answer your questions rather than respond to your commands. Create an atmosphere in which no one is afraid to ask a question and no one fears giving an honest answer.
Sometimes you need to ask yourself the most basic, open-ended questions, such as: Where is your focus? Why do you “focus on that?” What worries you? How do you plan to deal with that issue? Heed the questions that drive your ambitions and emotions. When you understand them, you’ll recognize that the questions you ask always reflect your values more accurately than the statements you make. When you ask questions of those you work with, live with, teach or love, you learn about them and they gain insight into your values, morals, feelings, goals and concerns.
Curiosity and Taste
You cannot develop taste without curiosity. Taste is a cultivated, knowledgeable point of view that you can state so clearly and plainly that those around you can agree or disagree with you. To have taste, you must be able to tell whether something – a song, a movie, a poem or a dress – has merit. Your opinion must be comprehensible to other people, including those who know either more or less than you do about the subject. Your sensibility also must reflect your spirit and soul.
To learn enough about any subject to have informed taste, indulge your curiosity. If you’ve seen only one movie, you can’t have an informed opinion about cinema. Immerse yourself in the fields that fuel your curiosity. As you find things you love, go off on tangents. Apply your curiosity to all aspects of a field you care about so you learn not only its content but also its context.
Notable Curiosity Conversations
The many interesting and sometimes famous people Grazer interviewed include:
- John Calley – This important Warner Bros. producer greatly influenced Grazer’s work. Calley’s credits include The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Dirty Harry, and many more films. He taught Grazer the importance of simple conversation. Calley did most of his business as a producer by sitting and talking with various possible collaborators or employees. His methods were distinctly nonlinear. This taught Grazer that you should never think you know where you are going. Ask questions without preconceptions.
- Lew Wasserman – In his day “undoubtedly the most powerful person in the movie business,” Wasserman ran MCA Universal Pictures. He had been a producer, an agent, a fixer and a connective force among disparate power fiefdoms in Hollywood for decades. Grazer spent months angling to get just 10 minutes with Wasserman, whose direct, highly useful advice was this: No one can produce movies unless they own something – the contract to a star, or the rights to a book or a screenplay. Because he knew Grazer had no money, Wasserman told him that the only way he could become a producer was to secure an idea. Grazer could write his own script or find ideas elsewhere. Grazer realized his curiosity was far more valuable than money.
- Barack Obama – At the time of Grazer’s interview, Obama was still “the only black United States senator.” Obama then had such low seniority in the Senate that Grazer had to walk a long way to his office, far from the Senate floor. Obama’s extraordinary speaking skills and his ability to relate to others intrigued Grazer, who thought Obama spoke the way Muhammad Ali boxed, with rare dexterity and self-awareness. Rather than discussing policy, Obama and Grazer talked about the routines of their lives. Grazer was deeply impressed with Obama’s confidence, leadership and charisma.
- Norman Mailer – Grazer met the famed American novelist while making the film The Cinderella Man – which is about a boxer. Grazer regards Mailer as boxing’s most insightful and knowledgeable writer. He wanted to hear Mailer’s thoughts about “Depression-era America.” They met at a hotel bar. After some discussion, Grazer asked a question about a particular fight. To answer it, Mailer grabbed him in a headlock and held him there for some time.
- Princess Diana – Grazer met Princess Diana at the royal premiere of Apollo 13. The protocol of the evening placed Grazer across the table from the princess. Although her beauty made a strong impression on him, he refused to be formal. He joked with Diana and she answered him joke for joke, and she told him she enjoyed his film. After dinner, Grazer told Princess Diana he loved ice cream and wanted some. She suggested he ask a waiter. Grazer told the waiter he wanted to share a bowl of ice cream with the princess. She looked startled, but when the ice cream arrived, she shared the same bowl with Grazer, matching him bite for bite.