Notes from ‘A Curious Mind: The secret to a bigger life’

  • The author, Brian Grazer, is a famous Hollywood producer, who held ‘curiosity conversations’ with famous politicians, techies, sports-people, Nobel Laureates over 35+ years to understand the world and viewpoints of someone very different from him.
  • He landed a job as a glorified courier delivery guy (“law clerk”) for Hollywood folks his law firm was doing business with. He took the opportunity to meet people he was delivering to (mostly celebrities) by claiming that the docs had to be handed “in person”. No one ever called his bluff!
  • Curiosity can help you use anger or frustration constructively. How?
  • Curiosity needs to be substantiated with two traits: (a) Pay attention to the answers to your questions (b) Willingness to act.
  • People – even famous and powerful people – are happy to talk, especially about themselves and their work. Second, it helps to have even a small pretext to talk to them.
  • The author managed to get himself a ‘corner office’ when a senior VP was fired right next to the 3 most important folks at Warner Bros. He observed John Calley – the president of Warner Bros, and figured that the “business part of show business was all about conversation.” He soon realized he could talk to anyone – not just the people he was delivering Warner Bros papers to! He used  a clear, concise message: I work for Warner Bros. I only need 5 mins, and I am not looking for a job. I want to meet you for <X> reason.
  • He had one rule for himself at age 23: “Meet one new person in the entertainment business everyday.”
  • Later on, he met people from CIA directors, Isaac Asimov, sports people to Senators Obama, Bush and McCain.
  • He NEVER met people with a movie in mind. His goal was to learn something. Though eventually some of the meetings resulted in movies. It helps to combine different perspectives: A chilean activist trapped and tortured by her government taught him about making Apollo 13 as much as astronaut Jim Lovell did. He had to portray the psychology of being trapped and crippled.

  • Emotional curiosity: What makes a person tick? Can you connect their attitude and personality to their work, their challenges and accomplishments?
  • When he met with Carlos Slim, he wanted to answer: how does the richest man in the world live every day? What does it mean to be that driven and determined that you win bigger than everyone else?
  • What I hoped for was an insight, a revelation. I wanted to grasp who they were”
  • “Even when you are in charge, you are much more effective asking questions than giving orders.” He found his director and co-producer for several movies (including “A Beautiful Mind”) in that fashion, when they both were nobodies.
  • He gets completely into the mind and the world of the person he is talking to. That person is very different from him. The big stuff is different: his goals, his values and his priorities. The minute stuff is different: how he dresses, how he carries himself, how he talks to the people around him.
  • We get trapped into our way of thinking, our own way of relating to people. We get so used to seeing the world our way that we believe the world IS the way we see it.
  • The conversations have allowed me to build up a reservoir of experiences and points of view.”
  • “That’s the long term benefit of the conversations: the things I am curious about create a network of information and contacts and relationships for me (not unlike the networks of information intelligence officers map out).”
  • “Had I not spent time trying to understand Gates (LAPD chief cop) twenty years earlier, I am not sure I would have fully grasped the reality of Hoover’s controlling paranoia (referring to the making of J. Edgar)”
  • Spoken by the most powerful person in the movie industry to the author when he was a clerk – “Go write something. Go bring the idea. Because you have nothing else.” . Ideas were the currency in Hollywood.
  • The very best professionals in the world, share the skill of being able to think about the world from the perspective of their rivals. You have to anticipate what’s going to happen – first, by disrupting your own point of view.
  • Great engineers ask: “Who is going to use this product? What’s going to be happening while they are using it? How is that person different from me?”
  • Sam Walton’s way of running Walmart: Saturday morning meetings where 500+ managers would tell him what his competitors were doing right, smartly, and what was working for RiteAid, K-Mart etc. He didn’t want his competitors to get more than a week’s worth of lead-time on doing something right. Why worry about getting into your competitors’ head when you can just walk into their store?
  • Heinz ketchup bottle – the engineer pretended to be silicone to design the silicone valve that makes the upside down ketchup bottle possible.
  • P&G spends more than one million a day on consumer research. Outcomes: the detergent that you don’t have to measure or cut packets of, the stain-remover pen. This is ‘curiosity’ put to work, not ‘consumer research’.
  • Asking questions as a management style – don’t give orders. Be curious. Ask questions when someone isn’t doing something the way you expected. Asking questions elicits information, creates the space for people to bring up issues, makes them have to make their case the way they want a decision to go.
  • Asking questions as a powerful form of persuasion: Tom Cruise example – “Can you be the leader here?” He was able to persuade Tom Cruise to set an example towards efficiency and cost cutting to meet a movie budget, with a 6-word question.
  • Not everyone appreciates being the target of curiosity. Inventor of the first atomic bomb, Teller, was ‘crabby’ when the author wanted to meet him.
  • Use curiosity to fight fear! The author is an introvert who has succeeded in Hollywood applying his curiosity. He is a great public speaker despite being fearful of it.
  • Use curiosity to beat ‘no’. Don’t whine, cajole or reason around when you get a ‘no’. Use curiosity to understand where the other person is coming from and to get to a ‘yes’.
  • Persistence is the driving moving you forward, curiosity provides the navigation. Together, they give you confidence, which builds up ambition. 
  • Herbert Allen (man behind the Sun Valley Allen and Co. conference) – “make the hardest call of the day first“. The call/task is not going to be any easier in the afternoon or evening, and the anxiety stemming from it will ruin your day otherwise.
  • The author gelled his hair to stand up vertical each day – he recognized he was in Hollywood where he needed to stand out. This was a good way of standing out because it made people curious about him. His hair became his ‘test’ for the world – “How do they see and treat different-ness?”
  • “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” The modern world talks a lot about ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ but forgets curiosity – author spends a lot of time extolling the virtues of it.
  • “If you want to succeed anywhere in business, you need to learn to make the case for whatever you want to do.”
  • Use questions as a tool to improve your own listening skills. A simple question like ‘What’s your plan?” can be powerful. You are making it clear that she (the other person) should have a plan, and that she’s in charge of that plan. The question itself implies both the responsibility for the problem, and the authority to come up with the solution.
  • Asking, rather than telling, creates the space for a conversation, for a different idea, a different strategy.
  • Asking questions transmits values – way more powerfully than a direct statement telling people what you want them to stand for.
  • Think of ‘curiosity conversations’ as a mutual fund – a long-term investment in dozens of different people, personalities, specialities and themes.
  • Introductory note the author that the author suggests: “I’ve always been curious about how you ended up as [profession], and I was wondering if you’d be willing to spend twenty minutes talking to me about what it took to get to where you are – and what the key turning points in your career have been.”
  • Be clear that (a) you want to hear their story (b) you are not looking for a job or advice or something for yourself.
  • If you are trying to meet someone who is totally outside your circle, use your own credentials, and strong interest up front. “I am a VP at X local place, and I have a lifelong interest in X. I was wondering if you’d be willing to spend twenty minutes to me about your own work and the current state of the field. I appreciate that you don’t know me, but I’m writing out of genuine curiosity, I don’t want anything more than a twenty minute conversation, at your convenience.”
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