Genius and Curiosity, the Power of Conversation to Discover and Appreciate Reality

Malcolm Gladwell and Brian Grazer

What is real and what is the product of our mental storytelling? We discover the gap between our perception of work, life, and events and the real story (or a more real one) when we engage curiosity. Why is that so? How can we find out?

Beyond the obvious, which is we see the world based on internal filters and environment, there is an element of us trying to protect ourselves from the information. Because maybe once we come into contact with it —or with the someone who has a different version of the story— we need to change in some respects. When we come out on the other side of change we call it transformation, but going through it can be painful.

The process of change unearths aspects of us we may not know or be ready to acknowledge. We may find we are utterly different from what we expected —it's true of others as we get to know them better, would it not be true of ourselves?

This is why conversation is such a powerful discovery tool. Through it, we can learn to appreciate different points of view about a situation, for example. We can learn about how certain events unfolded based on the recollections of other people who were there. In turn, these narratives are based on their vantage point, role, skills, and experience.

A conversation of genius and curiosity

Whenever we think about conversation today, our mind probably goes to interviews. Skilled interviewers have this knack of asking good questions to elicit information from guests. Many of us who work as strategists and experience designers are also researches, we focus on learning how to phrase questions to uncover usable data about a company, product, and/or service, for example.

Practice can teach us to ask better questions, and it is more effective when we are curious about the answers. Which makes hard questions worth pursuing without trying to “fill in” either verbally or in our mind. To discover new information, rather than having a sort of conversation with ourselves, we need to join the one we are holding with others in real time.

Easier said than done.

A conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Brian Grazer is a good example. The narrative device is using the names of people the two have met to talk about the stories each discovered in order to write about them in their most recent books.

Brian Grazer had just written A Curious Mind with Charles Fishman. In the book, the Hollywood producer reveals how he got started meeting with people from diverse backgrounds to have open-ended conversations about their lives and work. The theme being that curiosity is secret to a bigger life

Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what happens when ordinary people confront giants. We are quite familiar with the theme of underdogs and misfits winning the day from history and psychology.

Because their conversation is about how they met the people they write about and what they learned from and about them, Gladwell and Grazer's hour-long conversation is a good prompter for those of us who want to understand how to relate to others. 

Whether we seek to discover new information, or learn about someone, even when that someone is a member of our own family we think we already know, there are many pointers in the video below. My take aways include:

  • how people may be utterly different from how we perceive them, especially when the media is involved —in the story Brian Grazer tells about Michael Jackson and his gloves
  • how dyslexia may be overcome in part by having others believe in our abilities and why grandparents may be our best hope —Gladwell's research into older stories led him to attribute dyslexia being more of a non issue also because of the education system not being a factor in labeling children
  • the tremendous value of learning to see people for who they really are without preconceived notions of who they should be —Brian Grazer again in the story about his grandmother
  • how once we gain some experience, we are able to look back and appreciate people and events in our lives because we are more distant from our biases of who is important afterwards —Gladwell's learned about who his grandmother really was, while he “he saw none of it” growing up

The experience of having the conversation is likely one of the most satisfying we can have in our lives. Which is why it's puzzling how we try to minimize them in our hurried days, especially at work where they can help us make sense of problems and uncover opportunities.

Conversations are an important aspect of our social lives. Conversations are most meaningful when they reverse our understanding of the world. Which is why they are such powerful discovery tools.

But only when we join them in real time.

Our memory is selective

We are often under the spell of our own narrative fallacy. We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, that is to reduce the dimension of things. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “the fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over-interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.”

It's hard to avoid interpretation because our brain functions —our Operating System— often work outside our awareness. As scientific research on the stronghold habits have on us shows, how they overcome our willpower, even when we are convinced we have changed something we are operating at “App level,” we have not really impacted the Operating System (our brain).

Habits run us, and so does our personal narrative as it renders in the background. Which has an impact on how we construct our reality. Our job, then becomes to reconstruct and distinguish between the story we tell ourselves and the real thing (or as close to real as possible).

This is why conversations with different people is valuable in understanding how a business operates, in addition to direct observation of what people do vs. what they say.

Ability to talk about issues and opportunities underscores the importance of collaboration. Grazer says that meeting his long-time business partner Ron Howard has helped him make better choices. We should all be that lucky in business —and in our lives.

The Black Swan is what we leave out of simplification, the randomness. Which can come back to blind-side us, or worse create havoc later because we saw none of it at the time we were making our decisions. 

In addition to learning to make better decisions, we should appreciate the power of conversation as a discovery tool, use it smartly to suspend judgement and not try to fit data points into a neat narrative at least long enough to have enough information to make sense of things.

We want to be told stories, but we should become more aware of our very own “reality distortion field” (an expression often used in conjunction with Steve Job's highly persuasive skills).


Watch the full hour-long conversation between author Malcolm Gladwell and producer Brian Grazer below.





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