April 9, 2015
Jack Covert Selects: A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life
A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, Simon and Schuster, Hardcover, 300 pages, 9781476730752
I left my appointment with the orthopedic surgeon I had hoped would diagnose my chronic knee pain frustrated. I tried to explain my frustration to anyone who asked how the appointment had gone, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. They’d done x-rays when I arrived at the clinic, and the doctor asked me about my current activities, he’d bent my knee forward and back to identify where the pain was at it’s most intense. Pretty typical doctor’s appointment stuff. Certainly I’d hoped for something more definitive than the over-simplistic “there is some cartilage wear and tear,” and “you’ve got a wonky knee,” something I could really address beyond the advice to see a physical therapist and buy some good shoes, but there was something else that bugged me, something about the doctor’s demeanor, which seemed to range minutely from disinterested (once he’d figured out there was no surgery required) to disengaged.
It wasn’t until I began reading Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman’s A Curious Mind that I realized the source of my frustration, that I could really put a word to it. It wasn’t that the doctor wasn’t a good doctor—that was impossible to discern in a 10 minute consultation—, or even that he might not be right about the cause of my knee pain. It was, instead, that he hadn’t been curious. I had expected him, once he saw that I’d had a previous surgery on my knee, to ask questions, to engage in the mystery of what another doctor had once done, and how that might be factoring into the cause of my pain. I expected for him to probe the area, move it around in a variety of directions, have me stand, walk, describe how the pain started, how it had evolved. Instead, he looked at the x-rays, gave me an unspecific diagnosis, and left me to find a physical therapist that might take my insurance. It’s entirely possible that a curious doctor who had done all of those things I listed above might have given me the same diagnosis, but…I would have felt completely different about both my experience and the path forward. As it was, I’d determined to seek a second opinion elsewhere.
Curiosity, Grazer declares, has been ignored too long. As a naturally curious person, he finds it unusual and unfortunate that curiosity even has a bit of a negative connotation. Curious children are often regarded as impertinent. Curious adults are often regarded as nosy, or pushy. We tell people to mind their own business, to keep their eyes on their own work. We advocate for specialization, for focus. However, Grazer argues, curiosity is fundamental.
Here’s the secret that we don’t seem to understand, the wonderful connection we’re not making: Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity. Curiosity is the technique that gets to innovation.
Yesterday, a coworker asked whether it would be useful to set up a phone call with a vender who may not have anything that fits our current needs, and as the various people chimed in with “don’t waste your time,” I once again started thinking about A Curious Mind, and Brian Grazer’s commitment to meeting and talking with anyone and everyone he is intrigued by, which he calls “curiosity conversations,” inspired by but not limited to others in television or the film industry. Even if this vendor’s representative had nothing immediate to offer us, perhaps we might learn something about her business that would tangentially inform our own..if we were just curious enough.
Grazer gives an example of how his curiosity conversations can pay off in this way:
Stop and think about yourself for a minute. Regardless of what work you do—whether you work in movies or software, insurance or health care or advertising—imagine if you decided today that for the next six months you would meet a new person every single day in your industry. Not to have an hour-long conversation, but to meet them and talk for five minutes. Six months from now, you’d know one hundred fifty people in your own line of work you don’t know right now. If even 10 percent of those people had something to offer—insight, connections, support for a project—that’s fifteen new allies.
I'm a rather introverted person who rarely feels comfortable initiating any kind of conversation. This limits my effectiveness as charming dinner companion, chatty cocktail party attendee, warm networking event participant. It's not that I can't talk to people; it's that I think an awful lot about what I should and should not say, and how I'm going to feel while I grope for a topic of conversation. Curiosity is the solution, says Grazer. Nothing breaks the ice faster than asking questions. And if the end result of your curiosity is a wider range of peers, if not a greater number of friends, then the practice is well worth it.
Being curious about our competition can help us maximize our own potential as well. He uses Sam Walton and Wal-Mart’s Saturday meeting rituals as an example. (And if you haven't read Charles Fishman's excellent The Wal-Mart Effect, you'd best add that book to your reading list along with this one.)
Walton had strict rules for this part of the meeting: participants were only allowed to talk about what competitors were doing right. They were only allowed to discuss things they'd seen that were smart and well executed. Walton was basically curious about why customers would want to shop anywhere besides Wal-Mart. He didn't care what his competitors were doing wrong that couldn't hurt him. But he didn't want them to get more than a week's advantage on doing something innovative--and he knew he wasn't smart enough, alone, to imagine every possible way of running a store.
Many people have a 'don't look at the other guys' kind of approach to competition. Tennis players are often quoted as saying, "I've just got to play my game and not worry about who's on the other side of the net." Walton was always worried about his competitor's game; not to take them down, but to learn from them.
Being curious not only affects the quality of the work Grazer does when telling stories, it shapes his leadership style as well. As a movie's producer, Grazer acknowledges that he is “the boss,” but makes it clear that curiosity leads to better management results than any kind of top-down declarations.
Asking questions elicits information, of course.
Asking questions creates the space for people to raise issues they are worried about that the boss, or their colleagues, may not know about.
Asking questions gives people the chance to tell a different story than the one you’re expecting.
And that’s the hard part. Being curious means you have to put your expectations aside, that you can’t already have plotted out the story, or guessed the answers. You have to be willing to fly by the seat of your pants. When Grazer has conversations with massively famous people, like United States presidents or Isaac Asimov or the man who created the H-bomb or the polio vaccine…he doesn’t go into these meetings with an agenda, and he doesn’t take it personally if the person he is talking to doesn’t really want to talk to him. Instead, he listens and he learns. And that’s what any of us can employ in our own work conversations.
Indeed, people at all levels should ask each other questions. That helps break down the barriers between job functions in our company, and in any workplace, and also helps puncture the idea that the job hierarchy determines who can have a good idea.
But in case as you read this review and begin to think that A Curious Mind only offers work-related advice, then I will have misled you. A Curious Mind is a hybrid of sorts, so much so that when you first begin reading, it feels a bit unfocused. The timeline of Grazer’s references and stories is fluid and he moves forward and backward, the word curiosity being repeated almost unrelentingly, and the movement between biography, interview, management advice, and tidbits on how Hollywood functions weaves in and out. There is even a bit of Hollywood insider-ness, especially in the appendix at the back of the book that not only lists the famous folks that Grazer has had curiosity conversations with, but background and insight that didn’t quite fit into the main narrative. As you continue to read, that weaving begins to form a tapestry, and, if you are like me and you use post-it notes to tag the most memorable lines or nuggets of wisdom, you’ll find a tab on nearly every page until the book is virtually littered with them. And the promise of the subtitle, a Bigger Life, upon conclusion of the book, you will feel it is imminently possible.
Part of my job, all of our jobs at 800-CEO-READ, is to get the right book into the hands of the reader. A Curious Mind is, literally, that book, the right book for every reader. I cannot imagine there is anyone who would not benefit from Grazer and Fishman’s contribution to the most notable books of 2015.
About Sally Haldorson
Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.