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Academy Award-Winning Film Producer Brian Grazer Says His Secret to Success Is ‘Looking Up’

by SUSAN PASCAL

Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer, whose film credits include “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,” and “Splash,” admits that he grew up dyslexic and could barely read a sentence until the sixth grade. He says his “report cards were all D’s and F’s,” and that “there was no empirical evidence that I could make anything of myself.”

To get ahead, he recalls looking to other people–asking questions and paying attention–not only to their answers, but to how they communicated with their emotions and gestures. “What started as a survival tool to get through school has turned into the very way I find fulfillment in the world.”

In his latest book “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,” Grazer reveals his simple secret to igniting creative engagement and successful relationships by stressing the importance of embracing the underrated power of connecting to one another.

1. In our current digital age, why is it more important than ever for us to learn to connect in person in order to truly succeed?

Surviving and succeeding in the cutthroat industry of Hollywood for all these years, I can tell you wholeheartedly that none of it would’ve been possible if I didn’t take the time to connect with people. Everything that gives me joy in my life has come from face-to-face connections. Whether I’m trying to convince Denzel Washington or Russell Crowe to take a part in a movie, talking to my son, Patrick, about his future, or trying to persuade my now-wife, Veronica, to have a drink with me, I wouldn’t have been effective if I wasn’t present and looking them in the eyes with truth. Eye contact is the bridge to connection. It’s the first step.

However, as the role of technology in our lives increases, I see the very thing that has given my life meaning falling to the wayside. Now, more than ever, is the time to ignite this power that we all have to see one another. That’s why I wrote Face To Face, a book of personal stories that’s full of tangle lessons that anyone can use to immediately get ahead in life and start to see different outcomes.

We can’t have a great date, get a promotion, lead a team, win a negotiation, get through to our kids, or succeed at anything in lives or careers if we don’t make the effort to get to know the human beings right in front of us.

Technology can be fantastic (I do love posting food videos on Instagram!) and has changed countless lives, but it can never replace genuine human connection. Nothing can replace the feeling we have when we connect with another human being, looking in each other’s eyes and feeling like that person sees us and wants to be right there with us.

2. Do you think younger generations have lost that ability? Is it too late for them to learn?

If we look around, we see that it’s not just affecting younger people; lack of connection is affecting everyone. We are more “connected” than ever before, yet we feel lonelier than we ever have. In fact, loneliness is an epidemic in our country. Nearly half of all Americans today say they are lonely and in the UK, the problem is severe enough that they appointed a Minister of Loneliness. A recent study just came out stating that 20% of millennials say they don’t have any friends even though their social networks are massive. People are starving for genuine relationships, a sense of belonging, and the feeling of being understood.

Genuine human connection validates us as human beings. It tells someone: I see you. You matter. I am interested in what you have to say. When everyone is constantly looking down to check their phones, looking up into someone’s eyes, is nearly revolutionary.

Today, eye contact and in-person connection are becoming so rare that if you ARE present and you DO look people in the eye, you can really stand out and get ahead in your career. This is the top advice I give to students and young people I mentor. When I meet with an actor or writer, or any one of my kids’ friends over at the house, the ones that look up and make eye contact are the people I remember. It makes a huge difference — and we can all do it, right now, today.

3. Your book offers anecdotes on how your ability to connect has shaped your life. Can you share some examples?

Two stories come to mind. The first one is about someone near and dear to me who continues to open my eyes to connection with people and with God, and that’s Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson. 

I often go to mass at St. Monica (which I know Maria does, too) with Veronica and have grown close with our pastor. Monsignor Torgerson is a progressive, gifted, and beloved spiritual leader in the community and the city. When you say his name, the response back is inevitably, “I love Monsignor!” regardless of their faith or religious upbringing. When he and I first met, what struck me immediately was the way he looked at me. I’ve met many priests in my life and have grown accustomed to seeing a hint of approval—or disapproval—in their eyes. Monsignor Torgerson’s eyes, in contrast, hold nothing but deep love and humanity.

I had been brought up in a brand of Catholicism that emphasized guilt and judgment. The Catholicism that Monsignor preaches is completely different. A charismatic and gifted orator, Monsignor’s weekly sermons are powerful. They connect. They move me, oftentimes through his willingness to be vulnerable. He is not shy about admitting to when he’s been wrong or has made a mistake, or sharing a personal struggle and that creates trust. It builds intimacy.

And no matter the theme, his message is always hopeful, relevant, and rooted in love. It hits me in the heart, not just the mind. I always walk away with something meaningful to reflect on, something that makes me think about the bigger picture of why we are here and what really matters in life. I never thought I would be close friends with a priest, but Monsignor has proved me wrong on that one!

Another example…

Right after I graduated from USC, I got a job as a law clerk at Warner Brothers. My job was to deliver documents to famous people all over Hollywood, from Lou Wasserman to Warren Beatty. But an assistant would always come out to get the papers from me. So I had the idea to say, “I’m sorry, these papers are invalid unless I hand them directly to Mr. Beatty (for example).” They would try to argue but eventually they told me to go on in. So suddenly I’m getting to meet all of the major players in Hollywood. When I got in the room, I was always prepared with something interesting to say, some valuable insight that would spark a conversation. Through these conversations, I was able to demystify Hollywood and find my calling as a storyteller.

To this day, for the past 35 years, I’ve held “curiosity conversations” every two weeks with someone who is an expert or passionate about anything other than what I do (Hollywood) every week, without fail. There is no agenda. The goal is purely to learn and connect.

These “curiosity conversations” have expanded my world. They have allowed me to get outside of my comfort zone and meet some of the most interesting, accomplished people including Princess Di, Isaac Asimov, Jonas Salk, Margaret Thatcher, Andy Warhol, Oprah, Ronald Reagan, to name a few. But if curiosity is what got me into the room, looking the person in the eyes to build trust and connection is what kept us both in the room. Curiosity and human connection go hand in hand.

Beyond these curiosity conversations, I also embrace spontaneous interactions in my day. We never know when a hello and a smile could turn into something. I talk to waiters, Uber drivers, local skateboarders, the person in line in front of me at Starbucks…because I know that anyone has the power to expand my perspective and deepen my empathy. Sometimes they fall flat, but more often than not, I learn something from the person. No matter what, we all feel validated when someone is interested in us. That’s always a win.

There is no doubt in my mind that this approach has been, and continues to be, a huge competitive advantage in my life when it comes to both meaningful success and happiness. We all have this opportunity, if we take it.

4. Can you offer some simple tips on how readers can better learn to form deeper human connections?

Phones away

Try this one simple action: put your device away the next time you are with a friend, your kid, a colleague, and see how that changes the dynamic and connection. Be in the moment and be present.

The reason I said put your phone out of sight and not just down is because research shows that the mere presence of a phone can be distracting. It actually burns energy to pay attention to ignoring our phone!

Notice how your interactions change when you’re fully present. For me, it has been the difference between success and failure, countless times. These are the stories I share in the book, both from my personal life and my Hollywood life. I would not be nearly as efficient and successful at my job if I didn’t spend uninterrupted, one-on-one face time getting to know people in a real way.

Be raw, be human

It’s uncomfortable for some of us to look someone in the eye, especially if it’s bad news or something personal. But letting ourselves be distracted, checking our phones, looking around the room, not being vulnerable denies everyone the opportunity for a meaningful connection. If we’re not opening up to each other, what is the point of having the conversation in the first place?

I find that if I’m not pushing myself to be as true and raw as I can be when I am face to face with someone, then I’m not maximizing the moment for them or me. If I’m guarded and just skimming the surface with them, then I might as well not be there. If I’m hiding my authentic self by trying to impress or be something I’m not, then I am denying both of us the chance for a true soul to soul connection.

Listen actively!

Many of us are prone to stop listening to our conversation partner, and instead, wait for them to pause so we can start talking. But that approach won’t create a true connection. Let’s say you have a meeting. While it’s important to be prepared, it’s even more important to show up with the capacity for wonderment and openness, a beginner’s mind, really. Approaching some meetings with no endpoint in mind is what makes them conversations rather than rigid, agenda-driven interviews. When you enter a conversation with someone, you must pay attention to what they are saying if you want the exchange to go anywhere. Knowing their story and their soul is a far more effective, and joyful, way to get things done in the world.

Make the effort – or you’ll never know

Not all conversations are smooth, and sometimes your efforts to engage with someone can feel futile. The first time I met Eminem, he seemed defensive and was not keen to open up to me. The first hour or so of the conversation was painful. I projected as much positivity and enthusiasm into the meeting as I could, trying to create a bridge to Marshall Mathers (Eminem’s real name). But he’s a social introvert, which is true of a lot of gifted artists. At one point, Mathers had enough and got up to leave, so I stood up, looked him in the eyes and said, ”Come on.” Then he paused and said, “Can you animate?” For some reason, those are the words that came out of my mouth in the moment, and it could have easily backfired. Instead, Mathers sat down and told me his story, which ultimately became the movie 8 Mile.

There is no clear path or prescription to connecting with someone. It doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes it requires patience. Other times you just have to try and break down a wall, like I did with Marshall, and see what happens. Sure, you might ruin any chance of forming a connection. But, is that really worse than playing it safe and leaving with no connection made? When we remain too comfortable, we get stagnant. To me, being stagnant without growth is way riskier.

Digital friends don’t equal real friends

However great dating apps and social media can be, online interactions only carry so much weight. A person cannot develop trust, authenticity or intimacy by only communicating online or via text. If you know what you want is a meaningful relationship that goes beyond the surface, at some point, you have to get to know a person face to face. Only then can you read their eyes, body language, and vibe to get clues about their character, what they’re really thinking, and whether there is something special between you.

To purchase “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,” click here.

This Q&A was featured in the Oct. 20th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

SUSAN PASCAL

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