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Curiosity Thrills This Cat

For film and TV producer Brian Grazer, asking questions is the answer

spinner image Brian Grazer, Curiosity Thrills This Cat
Brian Grazer, 64, won an Oscar for the film 'A Beautiful Mind' and is the author of the new book 'A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.'
Jim Wright

My world was small growing up. I never really left the three-mile radius of my tiny neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Still, I was always a curious kid. My Grandma Sonia would always say to me, "You're so special. You're going to be very successful. Think big. Be big."

When I was young, I could read — but it was very hard for me. I'd look at my report card, see straight D's and F's, and say to myself, "There's no evidence that I'm going to be that special kid my grandmother thinks I'm going to be." I didn't want to break her heart and say, "Hey, Grandma, I don't think that's going to happen." So I continued to dig deeper, ask questions and evolve as a person.

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Smash cut, I graduate from college and realize I didn't learn much except for how to get good grades. I decided to meet with this famed professor at my alma mater. I sent him letters and called his assistant and didn't get a response, so I decided to wait outside his classroom, approach him and ask for 10 minutes of his time. He said OK. I managed to turn the 10-minute coffee with him into one and a half hours. The experience was so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined in terms of learning, emotional and intellectual growth, wisdom, and some real takeaways with what he was doing with neurolinguistics, which was at its most nascent stage at the time. I felt my value as a person becoming bigger just having spent time with this man. And that was the moment I decided to start doing curiosity conversations.

Right around then, I got a job as a law clerk at Warner Bros. and decided that every day I'd meet a new person in the movie or television business. I had this canned speech. It went, "Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work at Warner Bros. in business affairs. I'd like to come meet your boss" — I never started out talking to the boss — "and I promise you that I do not want a job."

Everybody said yes. Not necessarily that day, but I learned that if I kept going and pushing and researching — whether it was Mel Brooks or Warren Beatty — they'd eventually relent and give me the 10 minutes that I could turn into an hour. These conversations became a discipline. And I learned so, so much. Then, once I had produced the film Splash, I said, "Now I'm going to meet everybody outside of show business."

Being curious isn't something you get tested on. A movie has to get good reviews, high grosses — it has to beat expectations. The same thing with television and the ratings. But being curious isn't like that. It's not a public thing. It's private, and the test is a private one. You have to be on your toes. Once, I met with Isaac Asimov and his wife. They left after two minutes. He said, "You don't know enough about my work," and he was right. I hadn't done enough research.

When I am talking to someone, I can constantly see whether I am failing or succeeding. I am regulating what I am saying in terms of how I think I'm doing. I'm always searching for the truth of a subject or person, and I look at every meeting as a grand experiment.

Over the years, I've learned you don't just have to do your homework — you should come with a gift. It can be anything. You can try to immediately engage someone by telling him or her something that person probably wants to know but doesn't know. With Ralph Lauren, I brought a piece of music he'd never heard before. When I met Dr. Dre, I brought him the theme to the movie Exodus, because his music, when it's really extraordinary, is very melodic. Sometimes I bring interesting stories, and this helps to unlock people. Why? Because they don't have to talk first. If you give them something — either a great question or a piece of information — there's immediate trust, because they see that you care, that you've listened.

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I don't keep a list of people I want to talk to. It's organic. But I'd like to interview Tom Brady. Someday I'd love to meet Vladimir Putin. I'd ask him how he sees the landscape of the world, what could make it better, how that could be done. I wouldn't put him or anybody else on the spot. But I'd want to know these people's opinions, the secret to how they became them.

Conduct a Curiosity Conversation in 6 Easy Steps

1. Think of every meeting as the best date the person you're talking to will ever have.

2. Do your research.

3. Add empathy. Think, "What is this person going through in his or her life at this moment? What matters to him or her?"

4. Never ask for anything. It poisons the purity of the conversation.

5. If you can't resist having an agenda, then say, "I have an agenda." Otherwise, you undermine the process.

6. Pay attention. Always have smart, thoughtful, interested eyes.

Anybody can have curiosity conversations. You might not be able to start off with Oprah Winfrey. You could start with your neighbors across the street. Take the risk. They could just blow you off, but they probably won't. Ask real, genuine, thoughtful questions. If you keep doing that and start creating a constellation of dots in the world you're living in, they'll connect and change your life. They'll offer you opportunities you never thought existed. They'll help you find purpose. They'll increase your level of knowledge. They'll improve your social life, your dating life, your relationship with your kids. All of those things will happen.

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