A Q&A with Charles Fishman

April 14, 2015


I recently sent one of our favorite authors, Charles Fishman, a few questions about his new book, A Curious Mind—a book he wrote with Brian Grazer.

"When I first met Brian he said two things that really captured me: First, that he thought curiosity was a hugely under-valued quality, that it had been so useful in his own life, he wanted to bring curiosity back into the cultural conversation in the U.S.; and second, that what is so wonderful about curiosity is that it's democratic ... Anyone can use curiosity the way he has."
~Charles Fishman

About Charles Fishman

When we learned Brian Grazer had a book coming out, we were interested. When we learned it was being written with Charles Fishman, we were hooked.

We follow business books as closely as any other organization in the world—probably more than any other—and Fishman is in our Mount Rushmore of authors. We always say the single most important quality of a book is the quality of the writing. The applicability and uniqueness of the ideas being presented is also important, but if you can't get through the text to fish them out (pun intended), those ideas are irrelevant. Fishman is, quite simply, one of the best pure writers in the field, and has three Gerald Loeb Awards—the most prestigious prize in business journalism—to prove it. He's also written two amazing books along the way, The Wal-Mart Effect and The Big Thirst. The new one, if you haven't heard, is A Curious Mind, written with Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, who was behind A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, Arrested Development, 24, 8 Mile, Empire, and J. Edgar, among many others.

I recently sent Charles some questions about the book, which he was kind enough to answer.

Our Q&A with Charles Fishman

Q: Why write about curiosity? It seems that the more typical approach for a Hollywood producer would be to produce a memoir, not a how-to guide on how to use curiosity in your life.

CF | Brian Grazer considers curiosity the most powerful force in his life. Since he was a little boy, he has considered himself curious—and in elementary school, in fact, he had great trouble learning to read. Today, he probably would have been considered dyslexic, but in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was just considered antsy and difficult.

Starting then, curiosity really rescued him—it kept him engaged.

As a movie producer, Brian has had 35 years of something we call "curiosity conversations"—where he talks to people outside show business, every week or two, to stay connected to the world beyond Hollywood. He's talked to the last four presidents, to four CIA directors, to 7 Nobel Prize winners, and also to Michael Jackson, Kate Moss, and all kinds of experts from the worlds of science and medicine.

A Curious Mind isn't so much about what he learned in those conversations—that wouldn't be a book about curiosity. It's about the power of having those conversations—how that keeps your brain engaged in a fast-changing world, and how curiosity makes for great storytelling. And that's his business.

As for me, well, I'm a reporter. Curiosity is, literally, my profession. When I was approached about working with Brian, my agent said, "I'm going to say one word. Let's see if you want to write a book about this. The word is 'curiosity.'"

When I first met Brian he said two things that really captured me: First, that he thought curiosity was a hugely under-valued quality, that it had been so useful in his own life, he wanted to bring curiosity back into the cultural conversation in the U.S.; and second, that what is so wonderful about curiosity is that it's democratic—you don't need an Ivy League degree or a high-speed internet connection. Anyone can use curiosity the way he has.

I love both those points. He's so right.

Q: Ten years ago, I don't think a publisher would have thought to, or allowed an author to, position a book out of Hollywood this way. Do you have any thoughts from having worked as an author in the business genre about the expansion of the genre around you? I mean, you've gone from writing a more straight-forward company narrative/examination in The Wal-Mart Effect, to writing an economic investigation of a natural resource in The Big Thirst, to this book about an even harder to wrangle psychological resource—human curiosity. What's happening here? Is the business realm taking over every other arena, or is it perhaps just opening up and embracing more?

(I think in some ways, a Hollywood producer is perfectly positioned to write a book about business, seeing as how they oversee every aspect of it, from startup culture with each project to finance to leadership and management of people to sales and marketing, but I don't think it would have been considered cool or hip enough ten years ago, before Malcolm Gladwell—who provided the blurb for the back cover—and others came along.)

CF | Great observation, and all I have to say is: Isn't that great?

I worked for 15 years at the "business" magazine Fast Company, from issue #1 in 1995 until about 2010. The point of Fast Company was that work touched all aspects of the world, and that lots of arenas that didn't get a lot of attention in the business press—like Hollywood, and show business, not-for-profits, unglamorous places like farms, grocery stores and insurance companies—that all those might have lessons for other businesses, and also for how to live.

So for me, talking to someone like Brian Grazer about curiosity, and the power of a personal discipline like that to re-shape the world of work and play, is completely natural. It comes from this new style of "business" journalism—in which we're acknowledging that work is a powerful force, that it's what we spend most of our time doing, and that there are many ways of thinking about work, offices, and management besides the traditional ways.

What I so appreciate about Brian is that he didn't want this book to be a stereotypical Hollywood memoir or "tell-all" at all—he was on a mission to use the fun stories from his own career, and from beyond Hollywood, to light up in an engaging way the power of being curious.

Would a publisher have been interested in this book, written in this way, 10 years ago? Maybe. Certainly not 20 years ago.

And yes, what qualifies as a "business book" has broadened dramatically—but I think in a really constructive way. Frontline workers think and read much more about management, incentives, customer service, economics, and human resources than they did 20 years ago. We all benefit from that. And we've got some great books, too.

Q: I thought that Grazer was giving up a level of intimacy by not writing a more personal, reflective memoir about coming out of a legal clerk's office to conquer Hollywood, but not only do you still get those great stories, you get so many others unrelated to Hollywood, as well. And in the end I felt like I know him better because all of these stories are framed within a narrative about what makes him tick. For instance, instead of getting a story about being Sting's neighbor, you get one about the Chilean torture victim Sting introduced him to, the long walk he took with her on the beach, and the fundamental life lesson he learned about personal mastery from her. This is really powerful stuff. I don't even really know what my question is here, but would you care to expand upon it?

CF | This book is a little bit of an oddity. That's really the point you were making in your first two questions.

It's not a straight Hollywood memoir, like Rob Lowe has written so vividly.

It's not a straight business book, like the head of people at Google, Laszlo Bock, just wrote so brilliantly with Work Rules.

If it's going to work, it has to have some wonderful inside-Hollywood stories (like Brian connecting with Ron Howard by spending part of each day leaning out the window of his office at Paramount Studios, watching who was walking by).

If it's going to work, it also has to have some real insights about the power of curiosity—to spark creativity, to give you courage to pursue unusual ideas, to help you be a better boss.

But really, if it's going to work, the Hollywood stories have to be linked with the business-book stories. The two elements need to reinforce each other.

That, frankly, was my job. My job was to talk to Brian, and get not just the stories, but how he saw the stories connecting to his work and personal life—and then try to discover the larger ideas everyone could benefit from.

"Oh, he does that while making a movie—but I run a software company, and I could do exactly the same thing."

The Hollywood stories had to be entertaining, but vitally important, they had to drive the substance forward as well.

Q: At the risk of turning this interview into an "inside baseball" account of the book, I know you visit the printing presses when your books are in production. What is that experience like, seeing the ink hit the paper and the paper roll off the lines?

CF | Who wouldn't want to see his book get printed?

Both The Big Thirst and A Curious Mind were printed at the QuadGraphics plant in Fairfield, Pennsylvania. It's a huge place, and you walk in and you are immediately struck by the wonderful odor of new books—the paper.

Inside is a kind of book-lover's wonderland, frankly. In one place, they are manufacturing the hard covers—literally, the actual hard-back covers—from scratch, one at a time.

In another place, books are being printed on wide sheets of paper, 32 pages on one sheet, 16 pages on each side, and that piece of paper is then folded in this wonderful origami to make a single 32-page "signature" of pages in the right order. (The top of the folded page is eventually trimmed away to liberate the pages.)

Just getting the printed pages, in a block, glued into the hardcover takes about 10 steps.

I love a factory—I've been to a Tupperware factory, the factory where those Valentine's Day "conversation heart" candies are made, and the nation's only bomb factory. And written stories about all of them.

And I'll be writing about book manufacturing, too. As soon as the craziness of book launch gives me a moment.

Q: So many of the stories in the book come from Grazer's discipline of "curiosity conversations" in which he tries to arrange time with people he's interested in—from CIA directors and scientists to science fiction authors and the world's richest man—just to chat and see where the conversation goes. Do you have a personal favorite one of these conversations from book? 

CF | My favorite is Brian Grazer sitting down to talk with etiquette expert Letitia Baldridge. Just this wonderful juxtaposition of Jackie Kennedy's former White House social secretary sitting down with Hollywood movie producer Brian Grazer. Brian, it turns out, is really fascinated by this world of manners, and the framework they provide for how we get along with each other. He asked Baldridge to explain the difference between "manners" and "etiquette"—and I'll let readers discover that for themselves in the book. It's a wonderful answer (and it's on page 88).

My second favorite is Brian meeting with Norman Mailer, the legendary writer. Mailer was already quite old—in his 80s —and Brian met him in the Royalton Hotel in New York City to talk about boxing, as he was starting the boxing movie Cinderella Man, with Russell Crowe. In the midst of the conversation, Mailer puts Brian in a headlock. Right in the lobby of the hotel. Brian had a classic reaction, "For an old man, he was pretty strong. I was sitting there thinking, 'I wonder how long this is going to last.'"

And then, of course, Brian had Michael Jackson to his office. And decided that he couldn't have a serious conversation if Jackson wouldn't take off his gloves. So Brian Grazer asked Michael Jackson to remove the white gloves. I'll leave the ending of that one for people to discover, too.

Q: Getting back to our bread-and-butter topic, work, there is a section in Chapter Five about how "Every Conversation is a Curiosity Conversation" in which you write, "Curiosity at work isn't a matter of style. It's much more powerful than that."

What does that mean, and how so? Beside the fascinating segue between the design of Google's homepage and conversations with and about Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, and others, it delves into the idea of using questions as a valuable leadership, management, and general workplace habit. Can you talk a little about that for our readers? 

CF | This was one of the revelations of working on the book for both of us: The power of curiosity at work as a management tool.

I stumbled on this simply by watching Brian at work. He doesn't really like ordering people around—although as an executive producer, he often has $500 million worth of movies and TV shows in production, for which he is responsible both financially and creatively.

So he has to get things done, of course.

And a lot of the people he works with are not just smart, they're rich, powerful, and influential—big-name directors and big-name movie stars.

In watching him, what I noticed is that he asks questions:

"Why are we doing this movie?"

"Do we love this movie?"

"Why are we stuck at this point?"

"What's the plan for getting this project out of the ditch and moving again?"

The questions do two immediate things. First, Brian learns things he wouldn't learn if he were just giving orders. He ends up doing reporting on his own company and his movies—and what he learns helps the quality of the projects and the management of the projects.

The second thing asking questions does is convey to the person Brian is talking to that it's their responsibility—to pick great movies, to move those movies forward. If your boss wants to know whether we love this movie—this product—he's saying, Let's make movies we love. If your boss wants to know the plan for getting a project moving, he's saying it's your responsibility to have a plan, and you have the authority to execute the plan.

Asking a question creates a level of engagement and empowerment that giving instructions simply doesn't.

That's why we've got almost a whole chapter on that topic. I think curiosity—asking questions—is the most underused management tool around.

Q: You wrote a manifesto for us about the six kinds of curiosity. In the book, we learn that Grazer's strongest sense of curiosity is emotional curiosity. What has that done for him, and what does it offer other leaders?

CF | Brian's strongest impressions and memories from meeting the people from the curiosity conversations—people like Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world; Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state; Edward Teller, the "father" of the hydrogen bomb—is not what it means to be rich, or how to negotiate in the Middle East, or the atomic physics of a hydrogen bomb.

His strongest impressions are of what those people are like. Carlos Slim, warm and completely unhurried—as if he had all afternoon for lunch with Brian. Condi Rice, who Brian says has this wonderful twinkle in her eye when you meet her in person. Edward Teller, who was utterly dismissive of Brian, and of storytelling in general.

Brian is in the emotion business. Movies do many things—explain the world, tell stories, take us places we would never otherwise go. But at the bottom, every movie works or doesn't because it has an emotional core that connects with the audience. So Brian is always looking to understand the emotional makeup of people, particularly people of great achievement. He's trying to connect their emotional makeup to their ability to get things done.

That's something we should all be doing. If we paid a little more attention to the other person's perspective—whether a reluctant colleague, or someone we're negotiating with, or someone we're trying to sell a product to—if we paid attention to their emotional responses, we might connect with them more successfully. That's clear in Brian's movies, which all have a powerful emotional impact, and it's also clear in Brian's ability to be successful in Hollywood.

"This was one of the revelations of working on the book for both of us:
The power of curiosity at work as a management tool. ... Asking a question creates a level
of engagement and empowerment that giving instructions simply doesn't."
~Charles Fishman


You can read our general manager Sally Haldorson's Jack Covert Selects review of the book to learn more, and come back in tomorrow for the second installment in the series.

We have updated our privacy policy. Click here to read our full policy.