Face to Face
CHAPTER 1 Do You See Me?
“What we’re all striving for is authenticity, a spirit-to-spirit connection.”
In my early twenties, I fell into an entry-level law clerk position at Warner Brothers. The majority of my job consisted of delivering documents to important people around town. In other words, it was drudge work. However, I had an active mind and a penchant for creativity, and it wasn’t long before I figured out how to turn my boring job into an exciting opportunity. I had already figured out in school that I learned best when I connected with people. So, I thought, why not try that approach in “real life” and use it to help me figure out my career?
I was in the world of Hollywood now. How did this world work? Would I stay there? What would I do? How would I forge a path? I had tons of questions. Finding the answers turned out to be easier than you might suspect. As a law clerk, I spent my days bouncing between the offices of famous and powerful industry players. All I had to do was tell their assistants that the urgent papers I was delivering would be
invalid unless I handed them directly to the boss. Just like that, I was in. Soon enough, I was having conversations with writers, directors, producers, studio heads, agents, you name it—anyone who could help me better understand the mysteries of the movie business.
I set this goal for myself: I had to meet one new person in the industry every single day. It worked so well, and I learned so much, that I decided to extend my reach. I added a second goal: to meet at least one person every two weeks outside of Hollywood. Again, the experiences were better than I could have imagined. It wasn’t just that I was gaining information, I was engaging in meaningful exchanges that left me feeling inspired, uplifted, and curious to know even more.
Although I eventually gave up my specific goals for meeting people, I have never stopped having what I now call “curiosity conversations.” For the past forty years, I have been tracking down people about whom I am curious and asking if I can sit down with them for an hour. Sometimes this results in meetings with several new people a week. I have no other motive than to learn something from them that will broaden my mind and alter my understanding of the world. It’s also important to me that my conversation partner benefit as well, so I try to ask thought-provoking questions that might ignite insights for them as well. In addition, I am sure to bring some kind of gift or some knowledge they would find useful or interesting. When I met with George W. Bush, I gave him a baseball cap with the logo from my show Fri
day Night Lights, which was set in Texas. When I met with Dr. Dre, I came ready to tell him about the theme song to Exodus, thinking he would enjoy it because his own music contains beautiful and spectactular melodies.
Today, as a movie and television producer, I look for people who are experts in anything other than what I do, hoping to find what moves and inspires them. I love getting to know the heartbeat of people from all types of backgrounds—from spies and Nobel laureates to athletes and tech entrepreneurs. I’ve been honored to meet with artistic giants like Andy Warhol, Catherine Opie, Jeff Koons, and Mark Bradford (who generously created the Face to Face artwork for this book), as well as heads of state including Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, King Abdullah II lbn Al Hussein of Jordan, Mohammad bin Salman, and Benjamin Netanyahu. I’ve picked the brain of iconic investor Warren Buffett, Spanx creator Sara Blakely, renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, and so many others. A few years ago, I captured the best of these conversations in my book, A Curious Mind. Since then, I’ve enjoyed countless other conversations with interesting and accomplished strangers, some of whom I now call friends. I’ll quickly share a few of these here.
Not too long ago, I sat in my living room with rapper-activist Sonita Alizadeh. At seventeen, Sonita wrote and recorded a rap song protesting forced marriage after learning her family intended to sell her off as a child bride for nine thousand dollars. The song went viral, and she became a hero
to the many girls facing this oppressive life sentence. With lyrics like “I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime of silence,” the song became an anthem in her home country of Afghanistan.5
With long black hair and big, beaming eyes, she exudes a calm confidence considering all she has been through in her life. As a child, Sonita and her family fled Afghanistan to escape the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Instead, she had to scrub bathroom floors to support herself and her family while also managing to teach herself how to read and write. Listening to the radio as she cleaned, she became enamored by the music of Iranian rapper Yas as well as Eminem. In rap music she discovered an outlet for self-expression and began to write her own songs about child labor. Haunted by the memories of her many friends in Afghanistan who had disappeared one by one from the classroom to be sold off as child brides, she could no longer remain silent. Though it is illegal in Iran for women to sing or rap, and incredibly dangerous to speak out, she would hide her lyrics in her backpack. When she heard about a contest in the United States to write a song to get Afghan people to vote, she entered her song and won the one-thousand-dollar prize. She sent the money to her mother, who had moved back to Afghanistan.
Soon after, Sonita wrote a rap song called “Brides for Sale” to give voice to all the children facing forced marriage. She played the video for me, sharing in a soft yet serious voice that she was just ten years old when her own mother first considered selling her to a man.
In the video, Sonita speaks out against this practice dressed in a white wedding dress, her body adorned with painted-on bruises, and a bar code across her forehead. She pleads into the camera not to be sold. The video went viral with over a million views to date, and earned her a full scholarship to a music school in Utah.
With her deep and compassionate eyes, Sonita told me that she does not resent her mother for trying to sell her; she understands that this was how the older generation was raised. Instead of hanging on to the past, Sonita is looking forward, trying to change tradition and shift culture through community education. Although there is a lot of suffering in the world, she says, there is also a great deal of hope when you put your voice to work for the change you want to see. Sonita’s composure and emotional intelligence really struck me. She was still in high school yet spoke with the wisdom of someone far beyond her years. As I sat next to her on the couch listening to her story, I sensed a deep knowing in her.
After we finished our conversation, we made our way to the dining room to have a meal. She was staying at our home that evening, and Veronica and I thought it would be nice to spend time getting to know her as a family. After dessert, Sonita sprung up from the table to go throw a football around the yard with my son Patrick, just like any other teenager. Our time together opened my eyes to a long-standing tradition that subjects millions of girls to a devastating life of violence and servitude. I walked into that conversation having
no idea about the life experience of a girl in Afghanistan or Iran, and she gave me a bird’s-eye view not only into the factual elements of what life is like—being expected to submit to a lifetime of rape and forced labor—but most important, what it feels like to live in fear and have the courage to rise from oppression. She gave me a whole new understanding of human grace, resilience, and, most of all, hope.
Another memorable conversation I had was with award-winning journalist and “flow” expert Steven Kotler. It was inspired by my experiences of flow state over the years.
I was just starting to film my surf movie Blue Crush on the North Shore of Hawaii. Absorbing the surf culture up close, through the eyes of the locals, I found the sport to be irresistible. It was exhilarating to watch and mind-blowing to imagine that the incredibly intense waves of the North Shore are completely created by nature. I would watch surfers eagerly and fearlessly race into twenty- to fifty-foot waves, and come back exhilarated. I wanted to experience it but had never tried to surf before. So it was then, at age forty, that I decided to learn. I befriended a local named Brock who had surfed the biggest paddle-out wave in the world. He was stoic and cool without pretention, and known to be fearless in surfing, fighting, dirt biking, and anything he took on. We immediately had chemistry. He was a natural at teaching—he knew everything about surfing and water safety—and I’m a natural-born learner. We got to work.
He taught me the very basics of how to stand up on a
board as well as the physics of the ocean so I could pick the perfect wave. As my instructor and friend over the years, Brock saved my life many times when we’ve been out on the water. I often pushed the limits of my abilities because I felt safe with him.
As I became a better surfer, I started to experience flow state. Flow state in surfing is easier to understand when you think of these big-wave surfers like Brock, Laird Hamilton, Keala Kennelly, and Makua Rothman . . . think about any one of them navigating and waiting to intersect with a forty-foot towering wave with enough power to destroy a building, and then being able to mount their board with millisecond precision that has to all be intuited in a flow state to survive the wave. It’s literally impossible to measure all of the variables in that single moment. You have to be in flow state not to die.
When I would catch the right kind of wave, I became completely immersed in the moment as I stood up, super aware but no longer worrying about how to balance the board or where to position my feet. It was like slow-motion euphoria, and like nothing I had ever experienced. That fleeting fifteen seconds was so exhilarating and euphoric that I would fly to Indonesia or Hawaii to experience it as often as I could. I became increasingly curious: Could I transport the ingredients and format of flow state into other endeavors, like playing tennis or one-on-one curiosity conversations, which feel timeless when they’re good? Since I didn’t have the answers, I reached out to Steven.
We met for dinner at Giorgio’s, an intimate Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, right off the Pacific Coast Highway. Steven walked in, and I immediately liked him. He gave off a fresh, almost vibrating energy. He sat down and we ordered a bottle of red wine. Conversation came easily. Steven was highly alert, so much so that he barely blinked as we spoke. He defined flow as moments of total absorption, when we are fully energized, focused, and immersed in the process of our activity and achieving optimum performance. In these moments, everything else, including space and time, seems to disappear. He was describing exactly those rare moments I felt when surfing, and more recently on the tennis court.
Steven went on to explain that “the zone” or “flow state” is one of the most desirable states of being on earth. It’s also one of the most elusive. Seekers have spent centuries trying to reproduce the experience in a consistent and reliable way, but few have succeeded. One exception is action-and-adventure athletes like surfers, skiiers, and climbers who regularly take on terrifying obstacles from towering cliffs to gravity-defying waves. I was curious: What do these athletes know that I don’t? What is their “inner game”? Steven told me that during a flow state, the brain produces a cascade of performance-enhancing chemicals, such as epinephrine and dopamine, which tighten focus and lower signal-to-noise ratios.6
After we finished our entrees, Steven shared that the reason he started to research flow was because he had been struck with Lyme disease. For three years, the disease had
completely disabled him, leaving him bedridden and in pain. The disease was also making him extremely paranoid. He would find himself hallucinating. His short- and long-term memory were gone, and he couldn’t read, write, or even recognize the color green. He said it was terrifying, that there’s nothing worse than watching yourself go crazy. He was thirty years old and thought about ending his life.
One day, a friend prodded Steven to go surfing in the hope that it would lift his spirits. The activity left him so physically exhausted that he could barely get out of bed for the next two weeks. But as soon as he felt better, Steven did it again. And then again. Each time he surfed, he entered into an altered state of consciousness. He explained that this flow state flushed all the stress hormones out of his system, and pumped his body full of performance enhancers. It reset his nervous system, and ultimately helped cure his Lyme disease.7
I was riveted.
For weeks following that evening at Giorgio’s, I spent my early morning time digesting YouTube videos, articles, interviews, and anything interesting I could find on flow. This led me to think about the overall concept of altered mind states, and I started reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, about the effect of psychedelics on our consciousness. I’ve never tried drugs, yet I’m curious about what he has to say about how they can positively affect our well-being. It’s not unusual for curiosity conversations to take me on these kinds of journeys of exploration, with each meeting whetting
my appetite to learn more. (And yes, I’m now reaching out to Pollan to see if he will meet with me for a conversation!)
Every curiosity conversation is different. I always prepare for them as best I can, but what I’ve found is that the key to a fulfilling interaction depends on much more than showing up with a list of questions. In fact, 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 these meetings with no end point in mind is what makes them conversations rather than rigid, agenda-driven interviews. When you enter into conversation with someone, you must pay attention to what they are saying if you want the exchange to go anywhere. And paying attention starts with the eyes.
The basic habit of looking other people in the eye is the starting point for why my curiosity conversations work and why they are so exciting. If curiosity is the engine that gets me in the room with another person and propels the conversation, eye contact is the ignition point. It is the first step in truly getting to know someone and creating a real connection.
In a curiosity conversation, looking at someone with calm, centered, interested eyes helps me focus, listen, formulate questions, and move the discussion forward. It also sends a message that is critical to the success of the conver
sation. It says I am present. When you show someone that you are paying attention to them with your eyes, you are also communicating that you sincerely want to get to know them. You are taking the time and energy to focus on them because they matter; their knowledge, thoughts, insights, experiences are of value. There is not one person on earth, regardless of their industry, status, or passions, who doesn’t crave that kind of validation, whether they admit it or not. In my experience, when you are able to give people that, they are more likely to talk openly and honestly about who they are and why they do the things they do. And often they will want to know about you, too.
We’ve all heard the truism that love isn’t a one-way street. In fact, no connection, even one made between strangers, is. Think about your own experiences at work or at home. If your daughter comes home and you tell her all about your day without asking anything about hers, the moment is likely to fall flat. The same is true if you are talking to someone who wants to tell you everything about their life but expresses no interest in yours.
A one-way soul grab never works. It has to be mutually fulfilling. The best curiosity conversations are the ones where both people are engaged, contributing, and learning from each other. We’re absorbed in each other’s eyes, listening, empathizing, and, sometimes, even reaching a place of vulnerability and trust. There is a give and take, which fosters intimacy.8
When that happens, there is (almost) nothing
like it. I often find myself thinking, “Wow, this is like being on the most fantastic date.” When I feel the chemistry of a real connection, I don’t want it to end.
Although eye contact was always key to my curiosity conversations, I wasn’t practicing it consciously or even aware that I was doing it in the beginning. It wasn’t something I thought about and certainly wasn’t an approach I’d adopted in my everyday encounters. It never even crossed my mind to do so. Until Ron Howard called me out.
After my delivery days with Warner Brothers were over, I went to work for a hot-tempered television VP named Edgar Scherick. Scherick offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse: “Whatever you can sell, you can make.” So, I sold a TV movie. It did really well and led to other well-received projects, including a prestigious series on the Ten Commandments. I used my success to leverage an exclusive contract with Paramount. That’s where I met Ron. Ron, who was an actor, wanted to direct movies, and I wanted to produce them. And so our partnership began. Together, we co-founded Imagine Entertainment, where we’ve been partners for the last thirty-five years and counting.
Even back in our twenties, Ron always had exceptional communication skills. One day, in his kind way, he shared an observation with me.
“Do you realize you seldom look other people in the eye when we’re meeting with them?” Ron asked.
It was 1980, and we were sitting in my office on the same Paramount lot where we met. We had just spent time with the writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who would later go on to write Night Shift, Splash, and other movies with us. I had been multitasking, as was my habit during meetings back then. I would read something or jot down a list of what I had to do that week while others were talking. I wasn’t thinking about it. It’s just what I did.
In 2019, I know that multitasking when people are trying to talk to you isn’t good. It’s not only disrespectful, but it sucks the air out of the room. At the time, however, I didn’t immediately grasp what Ron was trying to tell me.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Were you really listening to what Lowell and Babaloo were saying?”
“Of course,” I said. “I heard every word of it.”
“Maybe,” Ron said, “but you weren’t looking at them. If you don’t look at them when they’re talking, it hurts their feelings.”
“But I heard everything,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you don’t look people in the eye when they talk, they don’t feel respected.”
This struck me. I distinctly remembered being on the receiving end of this sort of behavior. At the outset of my career, I’d met one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood. He never looked me in the eye; instead, he looked right through me or right past me whenever I saw him or tried to talk to
him. It made me feel like a nobody because I could tell that he didn’t care one bit about what I had to say. We’ve all had that experience, of meeting someone at a party who looks over our shoulder while they talk to us. It never feels good. But it wasn’t until Ron pointed it out to me that I realized I might have sometimes been doing this myself! I couldn’t help but wonder if my actions were making people feel the way I had felt with that agent.
The influence of that tip-off from Ron can be seen in Night Shift, the first movie we made together. The hero of Night Shift is Bill Blazejowski, played by Michael Keaton. Bill is a young guy who, after being fired from a series of jobs, comes up with the idea to operate a prostitution ring while working the graveyard shift at the New York City morgue. Although this particular venture wasn’t one I’d undertaken, Bill’s story was inspired by my early struggles with keeping down a job. Drawing on the advice from Ron, I decided to give Bill an exaggerated trait—a severe inability to maintain eye contact. Every time a new hustle popped into his head, Bill’s eyes would bounce around wildly. It was clear that his mind was somewhere else, not focused on whomever he was with in that moment. He was a hustler who didn’t yet know that eye contact equals respect. It was an odd characteristic for a character in a comedy. But for me personally, it was a friendly reminder to correct my own behavior.
Ron’s feedback also had a direct impact on my interactions with others. From the moment he pointed out my lack
of eye contact, I resolved to always look at others during meetings. As soon as I did, something magical began to happen. The meetings no longer felt plainly transactional. I felt more in sync with people than I had in the past. I was able to gain insights that I wouldn’t have picked up if I had been looking away, like how much belief they had—or didn’t have—in a project. People could tell I was paying attention and they felt respected. As a result, they had more respect for me and more genuine interest in what I had to say. There was a new sense of reciprocity.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It’s the same thing that happens during my curiosity conversations. I naturally go into those conversations eager to learn from and about another person. That eagerness shows in my rapt gaze and the door to connection opens up from there. It hadn’t occurred to me to think about all of my face to face encounters this way. Now, of course, it seems like the simplest thing. Everyone wants to feel seen, heard, respected, and valued—not just the people I invite to sit down with me for a curiosity conversation. And the truth is, every person has the potential to teach us something new or show us a new way of looking at the world. All we have to do to unlock that potential is to acknowledge them through our eyes and invite them to connect.