If you own a TV or have ever been to the movies, chances are excellent you've seen a Brian Grazer production. From Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind to Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development, he's produced some of the most iconic movies and shows of the last 30 years.
Together his films have grossed an eye-popping $13 billion, making Grazer a very rich man. But he wasn't always on the fast track to success. In fact, he was a dyslexic kid who struggled in school and started out as a lowly clerk at Warner Brothers.
How did he make this incredible climb, and does he have any advice for those starting out on the lowest rungs of the career ladder but dreaming of making it to the very top?
In a recent, wide-ranging Q&A on the blog of entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss Grazer shares the secret that helped him rise from the proverbial mailroom to the pinnacle of a cut-throat industry. It's a trick he recommends to any ambitious twentysomething just starting their career.
"Put the pen to the pad, kid."
The story of how Grazer came by this piece of advice illustrates his native hustle, but he insists it also contain a bit of wisdom that anyone can put to use. It all starts in the summer of 1974 when Grazer was running around town as a gopher, getting celebrities and executives to sign legal documents for Warner Brothers.
"I spontaneously stretched the truth a little on the job. When I would deliver documents, I would tell the front office or assistants that the papers were 'absolutely invalid' unless I personally handed them to the signers themselves. My system worked, and I was able to meet with the biggest stars at the time, like Warren Beatty, as well as the biggest directors and agents," Grazer relates.
Clearly the guy has chutzpah. One day he used his usual ruse to meet entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, who wasn't impressed by the scrappy kid ferrying around papers.
"As soon as I got off the elevator, before I could even say a word, he picked up a yellow legal pad and a #2 pencil and said, 'Put the pen to the pad -- they have greater value together than as separate parts. Now get out of here, kid!'" Grazer remembers.
Wasserman's comment is true enough but also pretty cryptic. What sense did Grazer make of the mysterious remark?
"What Lew was saying to me was that I had to create my own IP (intellectual property) and that the next time I walked in the door, I'd better have something to offer. I had no money -- I couldn't buy a script -- so what he was saying was that I had to create something of my own. His advice is what inspired me to write Splash," Grazer interprets.
This could seem like just a juicy little bit of Hollywood-specific lore, but Grazer insists Wasserman was actually on to something that's true in no matter what industry you're in.
Never show up empty handed.
In the entertainment industry ideas come in the specific form of story pitches, but every niche runs on its own kind of ideas. In Silicon Valley it might be an idea for the next great startup. In a corporate role, it might be a way to streamline a process or market a product. Chefs build their careers on new recipes. Artists on sparks of inspiration. Whatever role you're in, the way you get ahead is essentially the same -- ideas.
The underlying lesson Grazer took from Lew was the importance of being brave enough to have ideas, even if you're totally new and not sure they're going to work.
"No matter who you are meeting with or what job you are in or interviewing for, always bring something of value. Research the person or the industry you're in or the product you're working on, and develop an original point of view and/or a fresh idea. No matter how afraid you might be, you will stand out if you have something to say," Grazer advises.
"Whether they like your idea or comment or not, you'll stand out. The bigger risk is to not make any impression at all," he adds. And while spewing ideas as the new guy might sound scary or arrogant, Grazer believes having something to say should actually make you more confident than showing up empty-handed.
Having ideas right from the start might sound like a small thing, but Grazer says it's way less common -- and way more impressive -- than most young people understand.
"Start there and you will be way ahead of most of your peers," he concludes.