Episode #306: Brian Koppelman – Follow Your Curiosity And Obsessions With Rigor

Brian Koppelman is a filmmaker, writer, podcaster, TV series creator, former music business executive and record producer. Brian is the co-writer of Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders, the producer for films including The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones, the director for films including Solitary Man and the documentary This Is What They Want for ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series, and the co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Showtime’s Billions.

Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal

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“Follow your curiosity and obsessions with great rigor.”

Show Notes:

  • Sustaining excellence:
    • Ability to focus on the work
    • Preparedness
    • Ability to collaborate
    • “Being responsible enough to show up on time is surprisingly effective and important”
    • “People that follow their curiosity, obsessions, and passions” — They truly love what they’re doing and work with incredible rigor.  If you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like a job.  It’s work that’s enriching you at the same time.
  • “What we’re really trying to do as leaders is get people to perform at their highest level and to do it together, because what we do is highly collaborative.”
  •  “I was the kind of person that would read a book and if I liked it, I would stay up all night reading it.  And I would learn the words from that book.  I would look them up.  I loved the way words sounded and I loved the idea of communicating with great efficiency and humor.”
  • “Where this passion really landed for me, it made sense to do this work.  Working with great rigor is a lot easier when you’re borderline obsessed with something and when you’re curious.”
  • “Curiosity keeps you diving deeper.”
  • “I was a frustrated and blocked writer and I was starting to feel that I had made mistakes.  But those two hours every morning… Writing. Made me feel alive.”
  • “And he (my boss) said to me, ‘Look, you know you’re a writer and that’s what you want to do.'”
  • “Dude.  You do have a half hour a day.”  You have to make time to do the work.
  • “We finished the screenplay.  We sent it out and it got rejected by every single agency in Hollywood.  I’m not exaggerating.”
    • “I  wrote down what every person said… And then it sold the next week, and every agency called us back trying to sign us.  Nothing was different on the page.  I read them all back what they had said and they would all lie back to me.  I had them written down on a big yellow legal pad.  I read them out loud on a speaker phone.  These guys all lied back to us. Nobody just said, ‘well I guess I was wrong,’ but then they all wanted to sign us.  It taught me a great lesson about gatekeepers in the world.  They don’t always know.”
    • “It means don’t blindly accept negative feedback from gatekeepers.”
  • Feedback — “We have friends/peers in place to give feedback to each other.”  John Hamburg (Meet The Fockers; I Love You, Man; Along Came Polly). “You want feedback, you need feedback. But you don’t want feedback from that jealous old friend who you know secretly doesn’t want you to be successful.”
  • “I don’t have people in my life who don’t want the best for me.  We root for each other… Hard.”
  • Comfort in your own skin:
    • “It’s a lifetime pursuit.  It’s so hard.”
    • “The battle is to accept who you are while not giving up on improving yourself.  To continue to try to become the perfected version of you which you can never be.  And to accept your own frailties and faults.”
    • “One simple place this comes from is to avoid lying.  My wife and I don’t lie to each other.  We’ve never lied to each other. When you have that to start, it helps with the rest because you’re not fronting.”
    • “I do morning pages every day, I meditate, I take long walks and think.”
    • “When you do all of those things and you live with intention, you start to become more comfortable with who you are.”
    • “But each time you stretch and grow and you’re rewarded, it encourages you to stretch and grow.”
  • “Never Fake The Funk” — “It’s about pretending.  It’s about lying to yourself.  Don’t pretend, don’t lie to yourself.  It’s really easy to get swept along by other peoples conception of who you are. And by other people’s ideas of what success is.  Defining success for yourself is crucial.”
  • “Any interaction I have, I view as an opportunity for growth. For me and the other person.”
  • Feedback is fuel… Hearing that you’ve helped someone is the fuel that drives this machine
  • Having successful parents and the expectations that come from that…
    • “My dad was very good at showing me what it took to be successful.”
    • “For some reason, my dad would always point out, ‘there’s nothing worse than the son of a rich kid.'”
    • “I never wanted to be looked at as just the son of somebody and just skate.  I wanted my parents and sisters to be proud of me.  I wanted my kids to be proud of me.”
    • “I learned at a young age how to talk to powerful people.  To find a way to make them laugh, to not be intimidated by them.  Because I grew up around those people, I knew exactly what they’re like.  That’s a gigantic advantage that I had because my father took me to meetings.  I watched people sell to him, and I watched him sell to others, so I learned what worked.”
    • “My dad was a workaholic, but he really cared about us.  He never missed a ballgame.  He would go to New York City, work a full day, come home to Long Island, watch me play a decent third base, and then drive back to the city for a meeting.  I never wondered ‘Is my Dad going to show up for the game, my dad always showed up for the game.”
    • “I would never eat dinner until my dad got home.  If he was going to be home at 9:00, I would wait up, my dad would come home and we would talk about his day and about business.  And just hearing the stories enabled me now to be able to understand aspects of business.”
  • “Whenever my son asked me to play catch, I would say yes.”
  • “I always walked my daughter to school.  Those little things, kids knowing that, it gives you a kind of closeness. It’s having the connection…”
    • “You don’t have to start over, you’re in the flow.  You always have this time.”
  • Tell your kids, “You did well because you worked hard.”  Don’t say, “You did well because you’re smart.”  Compliment the work ethic.
  • Writing Billions on spec… You write it for free, you don’t have a deal in place.
    • “We wrote it for us.”
    • Showrunner = Responsible for everything you see on the television show.  Writing it, overseeing shooting of it, the editing, the design, all of it.  Leading 150 people on the show.
  • How to make hiring decisions?
    • “No assholes”
    • “We really check references”
    • The work has to be excellent
    • “We hire keys to run departments and trust the keys to hire their departments.  Hiring the keys is a lot of time and effort, a lot of meetings.”
    • “I want to know that they’re really going to kill for it.  I want to know that they’re a good person.  That they’ll get along with everyone.  We’re all there lifting everyone else up.  So you need to know that everyone is there for the same reason.  ‘I love this show and I want it to be great.'”
    • How they hired Damian Lewis — “We had three long meetings.  We each checked with people who had worked with each other.  We knew people loved working with him.  We knew he showed up prepared.”
  • How to be creative and innovative… A collaborative process:
    • Recognize people when they do great
    • “The truth is ‘hire people that are smarter than you.  You never pay a bad price when you hire people that are better than you.'”
    • “Part of not fronting, of not faking the funk, is admitting when you don’t know the answer.”
    •  “Let’s get the best idea.  Let’s source the best idea that we can.”
  • Career advice:
    • “Do the work.”
    • “Think about the story you want to tell and start telling it.”
  • At thanksgiving, why should you not talk about your new creative endeavor:
    • “It’s a lot easier to say I don’t have the time than to say I’m scared to do it.”
    • “Say what your dream is too soon and someone will shoot it down.  Train yourself not to do that.”
  • Create a whole family (extended family) group chat
  • Use the “Get To Know You Document
  • Why joining The Learning Leader Circle is a good idea

“The truth is hire people that are smarter than you.  You never pay a bad price when you hire people that are better than you.’

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