11 Questions with the Most Curious Man in Hollywood

Photo by Sam Jones

The following is a guest post from Brian Grazer (@briangrazer), an Oscar-winning movie and television producer and New York Times bestselling author. His work has been nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 195 Emmys, including A Beautiful Mind, 24, Apollo 13, Splash, Arrested Development, Empire, 8 Mile, Friday Night Lights, American Gangster, Frost/Nixon, Genius, and many others.

He is the author of Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection (coming out September 17th) and the New York Times bestseller A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. Grazer was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and is the co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, along with his partner, Ron Howard. They are known as having one of the longest-running partnerships ever in Hollywood. According to the New York Times, “…one thing becomes clear when you speak to Mr. Grazer: His desire to win — to remain Hollywood royalty — is undiminished.”

In his guest post, Brian answers many of the questions I asked 130+ of the world’s top performers for my most recent book, Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World. And to get the full Brain Grazer experience, which I highly recommend, click here to listen to our first conversation.

Please enjoy!

Enter Brian…

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

The book that I gift most to people, because it has had a lasting impact on my psyche, is The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee. I admire Bruce Lee for his physicality, of course, but more so for his deep philosophy, known as “Jeet Kune Do” or “the way of the intercepting fist.”  The key element of Jeet Kune Do is its “formless form.” Bruce Lee rejected the rigid rules and structures of Kung Fu and other traditional fighting styles. Instead, he borrowed from several styles to create his own fluid, rapidly efficient technique that was all his. In The Warrior Within, John Little explains how Bruce Lee’s philosophy helped him overcome tremendous challenges and pain to become a man whose originality, intense belief, and commitment I’ve long admired. One of his principles that has become infinitely useful to me is: no action is action. When I’m in disagreement with someone or deciding what action to take during a dilemma, sometimes I will consciously use Bruce’s technique of letting energy go through you, versus refuting a point or getting mad or trying to make my case. Sometimes by not making your case, that’s the strongest case. And sometimes no action is action. Here’s one story that comes to mind.

Many years ago, Seagram’s, led by CEO Edgar Bronfman, Jr., bought Universal Studios. Edgar reached out to a few very big producers who had deals with Universal, like Steven Spielberg and Ivan Reitman. I had a deal with Universal as well, but he didn’t reach out to me. In one minute, I impulsively thought of at least 10 actions I could take. I was about to call his office to try to arrange a meeting. But then I paused for a second and thought, “I’m going to do absolutely nothing and let the gravitational forces of the cosmos take over.” Guess what? Just two months later, I was invited to the White House to screen the movie I had just produced, Apollo 13, for President Clinton, the First Lady, and esteemed cabinet members. I arrived at the White House with Tom Hanks and my partner Ron Howard, who was the director. We greeted everyone, and I saw that Edgar Bronfman was there as well. When the movie ended, I was flooded with compliments. Edgar witnessed it all. That became our meeting and birthed one of my strongest relationships ever with a studio. No action became the best action I could’ve taken.

I love this quote from Bruce Lee:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? My readers love specifics like brand and model, where you found it, etc.

One of my favorite tools that I use daily and that has been life changing for me is the Pocket app. It costs five bucks per month, but I’d easily pay 100x that given how valuable it is to me. Throughout my day, when I come across articles or videos, I store them in Pocket so I’m not distracted by feeling I have to read something that moment or I’ll lose it or forget about it. It takes a millisecond to store in the app, and there’s also an extension for the browser on your computer. When I’m ready to digest them, Pocket converts the articles to audio. It’s incredibly easy to use, and the audio quality is excellent. You don’t even need an internet connection, so it’s awesome for flights.

For me, the value of Pocket goes way beyond the benefit of convenience or organization. Ever since I could pick up a book as a young kid, I’ve had a very hard time with reading. I now realize I had acute dyslexia, before it was even labeled as such, so teachers assumed I was just dumb. I would get Ds and Fs because I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. It was pretty debilitating, and I carried a lot of shame because of it. But what I was proud of was my curiosity. I asked tons of questions. And my grandma Sonia told me to never stop asking questions, saying, “You’re going all the way, Brian!” — despite not having any empirical evidence. She inspired me to work harder to learn. Instead of goofing around in class, I started to pay close attention to my teachers as they lectured. I would also go see them before and after class to talk about the lesson and ask about anything I didn’t understand. My grades went up, and I ended up getting a scholarship to USC. More and more in my life, I would look to people in order to learn.

What started as a survival mechanism in grade school became a habit that would help me thrive. In fact, talking to people is essentially what led me to finding a career that I love and a life that I never thought would be possible for a kid who could barely read. Here’s how it happened…

After college, I created a discipline of meeting people who were experts in, or passionate about, anything. First, I focused on meeting people in Hollywood and then once I learned the industry, I only wanted to meet people who were experts in anything other than what I do (Hollywood). For the past 35 years, I’ve met with people across all disciplines including Jonas Salk, Margaret Thatcher, Andy Warhol, Eminem, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, Princess Di, Bill Gates, many Nobel laureates, scientists, spies, neighborhood skateboarders, assistant DAs, Uber drivers, and more coffee baristas than I can count.

How does this come back to the Pocket app? It helps me discover people I would love to meet! When I read about, or listen to, someone interesting, I immediately reach out to them to see if they’d like to have a curiosity conversation with me.

It also helps me prepare. In order to have conversations with people outside my field, I need to do my homework. Being prepared helps me better connect with whomever I’m with. I ask better questions and listen with more understanding. Pocket can’t create the empathy or that trust that only happens when we’re face-to-face with someone, but it does help with the preparation and information-seeking side of that equation. It allows me to digest any topic, including long-form pieces that I would have glossed over in the past because of my difficulty with reading.

Just recently I listened to an article in the New Yorker about a hip-hop manager in Atlanta named Kevin “Coach K” Lee. Coach K has mentored some of today’s most influential rappers, such as Gucci Mane and Migos. I met with Coach K, which led me to meet with Cardi B at my house a few weeks ago. She’s the biggest female rapper in the world and the first ever female to win a Grammy for best rap album. I didn’t go into it cold; I was ready after learning more about her music and her story.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?  Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

At the start of my career, in my early twenties, I had early success as a television producer — two shows in particular: a miniseries based on the Ten Commandments and a made-for-TV movie called Zuma Beach, both of which were very successful — but I wanted to be a movie producer.  I wrote a script called Splash, which was based on my own personal, fruitless search for true love in LA. I realized all of my romantic relationships had been superficial — I was a young producer and could go out with beautiful girls, but there was never any truth or substance to it. I just couldn’t find true love! Meanwhile, I was just starting to write up stories, though I had no formal training. I decided to write a movie called Splash, which is the story of a young man who was on the path to succeeding at many things, except for love. He falls in love with a woman named Madison, who is everything he ever wished for; however, we the audience learn she’s a mermaid, which he later learns as well. As I developed the characters, I kept defining and redefining what would be the perfect girl for me. I decided to make the story even more romantic and mythical by making her a mermaid, which naturally made her more unattainable.

I started to pitch the movie, studio by studio. And everyone, and I mean everyone, said no. Not only did they reject my script, but they felt they had to further humiliate me, saying things like, “This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” I must have been rejected hundreds of times on Splash. I felt ashamed, yet something in me wouldn’t give up.

Seven years into it, I realized I needed to shift gears on my approach. When I was first pitching Splash, I was painting it as a “mermaid movie.” Well, of course, the studios — all of which are risk-averse in nature — were going to say no to that. It’s a pretty crazy idea. But one day a friend asked me what the story was really about. I said I wrote Splash because I was looking for true love. That was really the theme of the movie. So then it hit me — this isn’t a movie about a mermaid; this is a story about the value and meaning of true love! So I went back to the studios and started pitching it as a love story. The executives started to listen. Because who doesn’t root for love? When I finally sold Splash to Disney in 1983, I realized the importance of universal, human themes in connecting with any person or audience. Whether you’re in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, on Wall Street — it is crucial to find the heartbeat of why what you’re selling matters and why it should exist. To this day, I still start every pitch by first describing the underlying, universal theme. Friday Night Lights, 8 Mile, and American Gangster are all about self-actualization. At first glance, you might think American Gangster is a “gangster movie,” but it’s not. It’s about talent, resourcefulness, and gaining respect — that’s why we root for Frank Lucas even though he’s a cut-throat killer.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

This is what my billboard would say:

COULD CURIOSITY + HUMAN CONNECTION BE THE ANTIDOTE TO OUR TIMES?

OPEN THE CONVERSATION WITH SOMEONE TODAY, FACE-TO-FACE!

People are more connected digitally yet feel more alone than ever before. We are living in a more polarized world. We are getting further and further away from understanding a fundamental human thing: feelings. We can’t get empathy from our screens. This would be my message because when we are face-to-face with someone, able to look each other in the eye, we are relating to them, we are understanding them, creating a pathway to empathy — to peace, not war.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

The tent in the backyard I built to marry my wife Veronica in, in front of my family and closest friends. At the end of the day, the investments that matter the most to me always come back to the most important people in my life.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I love food. I post food videos on Instagram because it allows me to be self-effacing, fun, and free. And it makes my kids laugh! 

One day, I was walking down Abbot Kinney in Venice and stumbled upon this matcha shop called Shuhari Matcha Café. I was so curious about it and asked a bunch questions when I walked inside: “What exactly is matcha?” “Why do you choose to work at a matcha shop?” “Why is it so good for me?” “What’s the proper ritual?” I talked to the girl behind the counter and then took a video of myself trying matcha for the first time in their backyard Zen Garden. I posted it and saw that people really like to learn. Food is universal; it’s a unifier.

My latest obsession to capture on IG is a sandwich inspired by David Chang’s BLT. But I add one hormone-free fried egg and my favorite condiment of all time, Chile Crunch — a crunchy, smoky, crazy-delicious blend of garlic, onion, chiles, and spices, made in Denver, Colorado (you can order it on Amazon or at Williams-Sonoma). I put it on everything!

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Over the last few years, I’ve turned my curiosity onto my spirituality. I grew up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, so I have been straddling two faiths since childhood. I’ve always believed in God but never felt at home within a specific place of worship. A few years ago, I met a local pastor named Monsignor Torgerson, who presides over St. Monica Catholic Church, a few minutes from where we live. When I met him, he looked at me without judgment, which I had never felt from a religious figure before. This started a friendship that has led to a very personal spiritual journey that continues in my life today.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

When I was 23 years old, I worked as a summer law clerk at Warner Bros. that I turned into something that would change the whole course of my life. My job was to deliver legal documents to celebrities and executives around town. I was on the path to becoming a lawyer, and I knew I didn’t want to do it. I quickly became more curious to learn about this industry I knew nothing about. So I spontaneously stretched the truth a little on the job. When I would deliver documents, I would tell the front office or assistants that the papers were “absolutely invalid” unless I personally handed them to the signers themselves. My system worked, and I was able to meet with the biggest stars at the time, like Warren Beatty, as well as the biggest directors and agents. This was long before the internet, when it wasn’t unusual that they would invite me in and have a conversation. One day, I got the opportunity to meet Lew Wasserman, the most powerful person in Hollywood at the time. But as soon as I got off the elevator, before I could even say a word, he picked up a yellow legal pad and a #2 pencil and said, “Put the pen to the pad — they have greater value together than as separate parts. Now get out of here, kid!”

What Lew was saying to me was that I had to create my own IP (intellectual property) and that the next time I walked in the door, I’d better have something to offer. I had no money — I couldn’t buy a script — so what he was saying was that I had to create something of my own. His advice is what inspired me to write Splash, and then after that, I wrote Night Shift, which starred Michael Keaton.

So my advice is, no matter who you are meeting with or what job you are in or interviewing for, always bring something of value. Research the person or the industry you’re in or the product you’re working on, and develop an original point of view and/or a fresh idea. No matter how afraid you might be, you will stand out if you have something to say. Whether they like your idea or comment or not, you’ll stand out. The bigger risk is to not make any impression at all. Preparing ideas will give you something to say, which also will help you feel more confident in whatever environment you’re in. Start there and you will be way ahead of most of your peers. People will remember you for it.

The advice I would ignore is when people try to talk you out of an idea you believe in. After being repeatedly rejected on Splash, I learned that no one really knows what will work and what won’t. The fact of the matter is, Splash was a huge success, and everyone said no to it for seven years. That taught me that “no” is really only a temporary point of view. You should never compromise or give up on the things you believe in most.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

I’ve been in Hollywood for 40 years, which means a lot of parties, events and award ceremonies. I’m not jaded, but I am now much more thoughtful about where I want to spend my energy. Just this past year, where I would have attended eight or nine functions over Oscars weekend, I went to one lunch and then got dressed for the Oscars. At the last minute, we decided to order takeout and watch it from home. Other than the year I won an Oscar, it was my best Oscars yet.

Here’s a very simple thing I do before committing to an event or responding to an invite:  I ask myself, does it fill me up or does it drain me? The answer leads me to the right decision every time.

I also ask myself: Why am I doing this? What’s my intention? Am I going because I think it will be fun? Am I just curious what it will be like? Is it because showing up for this person is really important? (If I won’t like the event but it’s important to someone I care about, then it makes the cut.) If my intention for going stems from love (love of the event or the person), then I say yes. If it’s an intention based on fear (of missing out or of not being part of the group or of not seeing someone for business), then I say no. That’s not the right intention for me. And I get so filled up by simply staying with my family that there has to be a compelling reason for me to give that up.

I’ll tell you how I transformed something that I felt was a distraction into something I look forward to. For over a year, I dreaded using a sleep apnea machine and would only last a few days at a time before calling it quits. I felt like it was a burden. My doctor kept telling me I needed to use it, but nothing worked until two things happened. First, my wife Veronica started calling it the “tube of life” instead of a sleep machine, which reminded me of the bigger picture. If I use this thing, I may live longer and not have a stroke. OK, pretty important. Second, I discovered an app that connects to the machine and scores my sleep every night. Now I can’t wait to check it first thing in the morning to see how I’ve done. Sometimes reframing or gamifying something mundane can make all the difference.

Lastly, starting my day early and alone helps me say no to distractions later because I am able to ground myself in what I want to achieve for the day. I wake up at 5 a.m. and create an environment which includes a dozen or so small candles, bottles of still and sparkling water, sliced apples, and Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee (thank you, Tim, for the recommendation). I listen to articles and videos and write a lot of notes and ideas — I’m old school, I like to write them out on several note cards, or “buck slips,” as they’re called in Hollywood. Then, throughout the day, I convert them into a more systemized form in Notes on my iPhone so I can follow up on each and every one.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

When that happens, I immediately have to do something to change up my energy and my environment. A quick bike ride to the rim overlooking the ocean always clears my head. Or sometimes I’ll go in my studio and start painting. I’m not particularly good at painting, but it doesn’t matter. Just the act of getting out of my own head ends up clearing my head. When the tide is right, one of my favorite ways to get clarity is to surf. I’m so focused on every facet of my body and technique that I’m actually not even thinking. I’m in another dimension.

If I’m overwhelmed and facing a decision, I ask, “Am I at my very best to make this decision? Do I need to do a palate-cleansing exercise like meditation, a bike ride, or listening to music outside? I ask myself: does this really need to be decided now? Otherwise, I do the Taoist approach: do nothing until it feels right. Which is also Bruce Lee.

What are you most excited about these days?

My new book! Face To Face: The Art of Human Connection comes out September 17th. I wrote this book because I realized that everything I’ve succeeded at in life and that has mattered to me happened because of two things: curiosity and human connection.

In the book, I share personal stories and take you “behind the scenes” on some of my movies and television shows, like A Beautiful Mind, Empire, Arrested Development, American Gangster and 8 Mile, to show just how much in-person encounters have revolutionized my life and how they have the power to change yours too.

I talk about what I’ve learned through interactions with people like Bill Gates, Taraji P. Henson, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Eminem, Prince, Spike Lee, and the Afghani rapper-activist Sonita — namely, the secret to a bigger life lies in personal connection. I’ve found that only when we are face-to-face, able to look each other in the eye, can we form the kinds of connections that expand our worldviews, deepen our self-awareness, and ultimately lead to our greatest achievements and most meaningful moments.