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Thoughts from a curious mind

Famed movie producer Brian Grazer aims to show people how curiosity -- even more than innovation and creativity -- can be the force that drives success at work and in life.

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Brian Grazer on meeting Apple's Steve Jobs: "I knew I had to be very alert, or I would have been dismissed pretty quickly." © Jeff Lipsky

When you're an award-winning Hollywood producer, people do everything they can to get a meeting with you. But for the past 35 years, Brian Grazer -- who co-founded Imagine Entertainment with friend and director Ron Howard -- has been the one chasing face-to-face meetings with people he's curious about.

Grazer, whose film credits include "Apollo 13," "Splash" and "A Beautiful Mind," has now transformed more than 450 of these "curiosity conversations" with visionaries from a variety of fields into a new book, "A Curious Mind," coming out this April from Simon & Schuster. (Disclosure: Simon & Schuster and CNET are both owned by CBS.)

What he learned from all those talks is that instead of focusing solely on innovation and creativity, we should invest more in our natural curiosity and work to disrupt our point of view. For Grazer, that means talking to -- and listening, really listening to -- people who have a different way of looking at the world than he does.

"I seek out their perspective and experience and stories, and by doing that, I multiply my own experience a thousandfold," he says. "What I do, in fact, is keep asking questions until something interesting happens."

In some cases, it took Grazer more than a year to set up the hour-long meetings he wanted. His effort paid off and he was able to mine the minds of a who's who of visionaries, most outside the movie industry. They include Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, boxing champion Muhammad Ali, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, scientist Jonas Salk, astronomer Carl Sagan, and musicians Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani.

He's also chatted with two US presidents (Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan), former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who asked him about his signature spiked hair. "Castro," Grazer says, "loved the hair."

He also recounts painful encounters with physicist Edward Teller, who was dismissive of his movie career, and with science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, whose wife, Janet, cut the meeting short after deciding that Grazer hadn't done enough homework to have a meaningful conversation.

"I had arranged a meeting with one of the most interesting, inventive and prolific storytellers of our time, and I had managed to bore him so thoroughly in just 10 minutes that they couldn't bear it and had to flee the black hole of my dullness," Grazer remembers. "Here's the thing: Janet Asimov was right ... I wasn't prepared well enough to talk to Isaac Asimov ... I hadn't taken the time to learn enough about him."

CNET sought out our own curiosity conversation with Grazer and asked him what he's learned. Here are a few of the things he shared.

On the definition of curiosity: Curiosity is the process of asking questions, genuine questions, that are not leading to an ask for something in return.

On why curiosity conversations take courage: It's about living in discomfort. It's about living outside of your comfort zone. Any one of these people that you're meeting is an expert in a world and with a vocabulary that's completely different than yours -- certainly Isaac Asimov is proof of that. You have to [overcome] a very steep learning curve just so you can relate to them and relate in a way that holds their interest.

[With Asimov], I could have prepared better or found a way he thought would have been beneficial to him. Because every one of these meetings, you have to bring something with you -- you have to bring something to give them.

On why a failed conversation is still a worthwhile conversation: I met Edward Teller. Everything he believed in and stood for was antithetical to what I believed in and stood for. I like running into that in life. I like extreme points of view, a level of commitment -- and I certainly love mastery. So when that's all living inside some other person, I benefit from the experience and I benefit from trying to just get a glimpse into why they have such a different point of view. I find rejection or failure to be a really interesting and valuable experience.

On why technology shouldn't replace face-to-face meetings: Technology has brought us further than man could ever imagine, and it makes all information available. But it might not do the same exact thing that one human being asking another human being might do.

When it's two people, it's a biochemical event -- when you're with someone else and you're both interviewing or speaking to each another and digging deep into questions and answers. The gray area between the question and answer will come through body language and nuance. All those things affect and create information that might not be created with a computer ... I realized that "the sex" really came from middle space and that middle space was often the emotional takeaway that's unanticipated and isn't available on the Internet.

On meeting Apple's Steve Jobs: It was pretty brief. He had a very serious demeanor. It was very absolute. It was declarative sentences. I knew I had to be very alert, or I would have been dismissed pretty quickly. So I was OK with a short meeting because I knew I couldn't keep up with this guy.

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