Book Review of "A Curious Mind" by Brian Grazer
Monday, September 21, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Lee Hark, Assistant Head of School & Upper School Director, Durham Academy, Durham, NC
From the outset of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, it’s clear that movie producer-cum-author Brian Grazer wants the reader to see him as an affable, paradigm-busting guide to enlightenment – Virgil with hair gel and a robust expense account. Even the art department at Simon & Schuster is in on the act, depicting Grazer (and his notorious gelled hair) on the book’s cover as childlike and full of wonder.
There is a sweetness to this book, and an earnestness, and it’s almost impossible to be cynical about it. The tone is energetic -- for which I credit Charles Fishman, his co-author, who has some serious writerly chops (he wrote The Wal-Mart Effect, for one, which is excellent) --though whom do I blame for pithy, one-sentence paragraphs? The overall effect is like a puppy that keeps bringing you socks; it’s too cute to be annoying.
Why should we listen to Grazer’s advice here? First, because he knows a lot of famous people. He co-founded Imagine Entertainment with his friend Ron Howard, the studio that made Apollo 13…and Cry Baby (I’m curious as to how that particular film got green-lit, but so be it). He also made Night Shift and Splash and Sports Night, so on that alone I’ll read 225 pages of what the man has to say.
A Curious Mind (perhaps a not-so-subtle twist on A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar winning film he produced in 2001) is first a book about the positive effects harnessing curiosity can have. Some of Grazer’s premises are:
- Curiosity is a personality trait, like being funny or shy.
- You’re born curious, but also ...
- You can develop curiosity by exercising it.
- Curiosity is a mindset.
That’s all right and true, and now that I’ve told you about it, you can skip those parts of the book, which frequently conclude with clunkers like this: “If you harness curiosity to your dreams, it can help power them along to reality” (page 118). Hell yes! Now I realize why my dreams haven’t been coming to fruition. It’s not that I’ve spent the last two weeks binge-watching House of Cards while downing pints of Chunky Monkey; I simply haven’t been harnessing my curiosity. Currently, I am curious as to whether or not there is more Chunky Monkey in the freezer.
Beyond that, I struggled to pin down the point of this book – is it self-help? An autobiography? A treatise on the emotional courage it requires to succeed in a creative field like movie-making? As is often the case with books that try to stretch an essay into something more, at times his thesis just seemed ... overwrought. For instance, is America really waging a war against creativity? According to Grazer, indeed we are in the ways we prejudice creativity and innovation over curiosity. “Unlike creativity and innovation,” he says, “curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do" ( page 61). This idea is later confounded by Grazer’s interchangeable use of curiosity with those same terms, along with empathy and emotional intelligence.
There are few specific mentions of curiosity’s role in education (beyond Grazer’s own education, described as an obstacle he overcame), but when he does mention it, we see the normal bias toward public education, at least in his criticism of formal education. “…[A]uthentic curiosity in a typical seventh-grade classroom isn’t cultivated,” he claims, “because it’s inconvenient and disruptive to the orderly running of the class” (page 14). Would that description sound familiar to most independent school teachers? It shouldn’t. It’s more likely an evaluation of Grazer’s own experience as a student. Few things are more insulting to teachers than people who intone about what makes a successful classroom environment even though they haven’t been in one since college. Of course, Grazer did make Kindergarten Cop ... I said it was almost impossible to be cynical about the book.
This book isn’t intended specifically for managers or educators; however, there are lessons to be learned. First of all, it’s clear that by being curious (or at least confident and empathetic), Grazer established a career in a notoriously difficult work environment. Even as a novitiate, he was able to talk himself into the offices of Hollywood’s true power-brokers. Out of those initial meetings developed what Grazer calls curiosity conversations. The more interesting parts of this book are excerpts from the hundreds of such conversations Grazer has conducted with famous people over the past 40 years. It tickled that part of me that craves access to the inaccessible. If breakfasting with Oprah poolside at the Hotel Bel-Air while swapping life lessons (in our pajamas) is wrong, I don't want to be right.
In all seriousness, the rules behind Grazer’s curiosity conversations intrigued me. Grazer says the best curiosity conversations “disrupt his worldview” (page 44), and he is right on the money when he notes, “If you only get answers you anticipate, you’re not being very curious.” To be a good supervisor, says Grazer, “you have to be curious about the people who work for you ... to keep relationships vital and fresh” (page 133-34). After reading this book, I wonder what it would look and feel like if teacher evaluations were structured along these lines. Do I enter meetings with faculty (or parents or students) expecting to have my worldview confirmed or disrupted? When I ask questions, am I prepared for answers that surprise me? Do I always resemble the example Grazer sets? I hope so, but I don't think it’s likely.
In the end, though the book reads like Malcolm Gladwell-lite, it is more than Lifestyles of the Rich and Curious. Reading it is a thought-provoking way to spend an afternoon, and (perhaps accidentally) Grazer made me ask myself some tough questions that will likely lead to change. And that’s a win.
Grazer is famous for his hair, which he gels straight up. “…[There were] people who hated the hair. The hair made them angry. They looked at my hair and immediately decided I was an [expletive]. I loved that” (page 121). And I love that he loved that.
 Grazer has a tendency to use curiosity and empathy (which he calls “active inquiry”) interchangeably. Case in point: “My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick; I want to see if I can connect a person’s attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments” (page 24).
Lee Hark is the assistant head of school and upper school director at Durham Academy in Durham, NC. Follow him on Twitter @leehark or reach him by email at email@example.com.