The Secret to a Bigger Life
I decided I didn't want to look the way I looked. When I was twenty-two years old, I changed my diet and developed an exercise routine—a discipline, really. I jumped rope every day, two hundred jumps a minute, thirty minutes a day, seven day a week. Six thousand jumps a day for twelve years. Gradually my body changed, the love handles faded away.
I didn't drive myself to be buff. And I don't look like a movie star. But I also don't really look like what you might imagine a movie producer looks like. I have my own slightly offbeat style. I wear sneakers to work, I gel my hair so it stands straight up, I have a big smile.
And today, I'm still exercising four or five times a week, usually first thing in the morning, often getting up before six to make sure I have time. (I don't jump rope anymore, because I eventually ruptured both my Achilles tendons.) I'm sixty-three years old, and in the last four decades, I've never slipped back into being soft.
I took a resolution and turned it into a habit, into part of how I live each day.
I did the same thing with curiosity.
Very gradually, starting with that first law clerk's job at Warner Bros., I consciously made curiosity a part of my routine.
I already explained that first step, insisting on meeting everyone whose legal contracts I delivered. I took two things from my success with that. First, people—even famous and powerful people—are happy to talk, especially about themselves and their work; and second, it helps to have even a small pretext to talk to them.
That's what my "I have to hand these papers over in person" line was, a pretext—it worked for me, it worked for the assistants, it even worked for the people I was visiting. "Oh, he needs to see me in person, sure."
A few months after I started at Warner Bros., a senior vice president of the studio was fired. I remember watching them peel his name off the office door.
His office was spacious, it had windows, it had two secretaries, and most important, it was right next to the executive suite—what I called the "royal" offices—where the president of Warner Bros. worked, as did the chairman, and the vice chairman. I asked my boss, Peter Knecht, if I could use that vice president's office while it was empty.
"Sure," Knecht said. "I'll arrange it."
The new office changed everything. Just like when you wear the right clothes for the occasion—when you wear a suit, you feel more confident and grown up—going to work in that real office changed my perspective. All of a sudden I felt like I had my own piece of real estate, my own franchise.
This was a great time to be in show business in Hollywood, the late sixties and seventies, and the "royal suite" was occupied by three of the most important and creative people of the era—Frank Wells, the president of Warner Bros., who went on to head Disney; Ted Ashley, who wasn't ever a household name, but who as chairman of Warner Bros. really brought energy and success back to the studio; and John Calley, the vice chairman of Warner Bros., who was a legendary producer, something of a Hollywood intellectual, a creative force, and unquestionably an eccentric character.
I was just a law clerk, but I had an office, my own secretaries, and I even had one of those old-fashioned speaker-box intercoms on my desk. Just outside my door worked three of the most powerful men in Hollywood. I had created a situation where I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
I was baffled by the entertainment business, and it seemed as if even many of the people in the entertainment business were baffled by it. It was hard to understand how movies and TV shows got made. It was definitely not a linear process. People seemed to be navigating in a fog, without instruments.
But I was fascinated and captivated by it. I became like an anthropologist entering a new world, with a new language, new rituals, new priorities. It was a completely immersive environment, and it ignited my curiosity. I was determined to study it, to understand it, to master it.
It was John Calley who really showed me what being in the entertainment business was all about, and he also showed me what it could be like. Calley was a huge figure and an important creative force in the movies in the 1960s and 1970s. Under his aegis, Warner Bros. flourished, producing movies like The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President's Men, The Towering Inferno, Dirty Harry, and Blazing Saddles.
When I was working just down the hall from him, Calley was forty-four or forty-five years old, at the height of his power, and already a legend—intelligent, eccentric, Machiavellian. Warner Bros. in those days was making a movie a month, and Calley was always thinking a hundred moves ahead. A handful of people loved him, a slightly larger group admired him, and a lot of people feared him.
I think what he found appealing about me was my innocence, my utter naïvet$#233;. I wasn't working any angles. I was so new, I didn't even know where the angles were.
Calley would say, "Grazer, come sit in my office." He'd put me on the couch, and I'd watch him work.
The whole thing was a revelation. My own father was a lawyer, a sole practitioner, and he struggled to be successful. I was headed to law school—a life of manila file folders, stacks of briefs, thick casebooks, working away at a Naugahyde-topped desk.
Calley worked out of a huge office that was beautiful and elegant. It was set up like a living room. He had no desk. He had a couple of sofas, and he worked all day sitting on the sofa.
He didn't do any writing or typing, he didn't carry piles of work home from the office each day. He talked. He sat in this elegant living room, on the couch, and talked all day. In fact, the contracts I delivered were just the final act, formalizing all the talk. Sitting there on Calley's sofa, it was clear that the business part of show business was all about conversation.
And watching Calley work, I realized something: creative thoughts didn't have to follow a straight narrative line. You could pursue your interests, your passions, you could chase any quirky idea that came from some odd corner of your experience or your brain. Here was a world where good ideas had real value—and no one cared whether the idea was connected to yesterday's idea or whether it was related to the previous ten minutes of conversation. If it was an interesting idea, no one cared where it came from at all.
It was an epiphany. That's how my brain worked—lots of ideas, just not organized like the periodic table.
For years, I struggled in school. I wasn't that good at sitting quietly, tucked into a little desk, following a bell schedule and filling out worksheets. That binary way of learning—either you know the answer or you don't—didn't fit my brain and didn't appeal to me. I've always felt like ideas come from all corners of my brain, and I felt that way even as a kid.
I did well in college, but only because by then I had figured out some tricks to succeeding in that environment. But the huge classes and impersonal homework assignments didn't excite me. I didn't learn that much. I was headed to law school because I had gotten in, and because I wasn't quite sure what else to do. I did at least have some idea of what it meant to be a lawyer—although, frankly, it seemed a lot like a life sentence to yet more homework assignments, assuming I passed the bar exam.
Calley, on the other hand, was one of the hippest guys in the world. He knew movie stars, he socialized with movie stars. He was highly literate—he read all the time. He sat on his couch, with ideas and decisions winging through his office all day long without rules or rigidity. Watching him was intoxicating. I thought, I want to live in this man's world. Who needs a life of brown accordion files? I want to work on a sofa, follow my curiosity, and make movies.
Sitting there in his office, I could clearly understand that the movie business was built on ideas—a steady stream of captivating ideas, new ideas every day. And it was suddenly clear to me that curiosity was the way to uncover ideas, it was the way to spark them.
I knew I was curious—the way you might know you are funny or shy. Curiosity was a quality of my personality. But until that year, I didn't connect curiosity to success in the world. In school, for instance, I had never associated being curious with getting good grades. But at Warner Bros., I discovered the value of curiosity—and I began what I consider my curiosity journey, following it in a systematic way.