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I want to break out of my comfort zone by lunching with an interesting person Add to ...

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

Brian Grazer is a hugely successful Hollywood producer whose films and TV shows, including 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind and Arrested Development, have grossed billions. One of the things he attributes his success to is his “interesting people” meetings – biweekly dates with accomplished and intelligent individuals who work outside of the movie and television industry.

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These meetings have led both directly and indirectly to many successful projects (Grazer came up with the idea for Liar Liar after meeting with a trial lawyer). “I do everything I can to disrupt my comfort zone,” he said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, so much so that he actually has a staff member who sources stimulating personalities.

Science is on his side: When we spend time with people who have different careers/backgrounds/viewpoints from our own, our brains are forced to switch off autopilot and our typical thought patterns are disrupted. In this cerebral shakeup, seemingly disconnected thoughts coalesce and produce the proverbial lightbulb-over-your-head moment. So if a CEO is trying to solve a complex management problem, she might be better off chatting with the aspiring indie rocker who delivers her mail … wait, do I smell a Jamie Lee Curtis/Zac Efron vehicle?

I tend to spend most of my time with colleagues and people I have known since I wore braces. In search of breaking the comfort cycle and bringing on the eureka, I decided to pencil in an interesting person meeting of my own.

 

Walk a mile in another man’s art collection

 

Stephen Smart is my friend Greg’s dad – someone I have met at the odd Christmas party and bumped into at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Smart worked for 30 years as a family and aboriginal affairs lawyer at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt law firm in Toronto. During that time he took on the responsibility of overseeing his firm’s art collection, which is now one of the most revered corporate collections of contemporary Canadian art in the country.

He retired from law eight years ago and since then has started a second career as an art consultant, curator and, perhaps most notably, enthusiast. (When I say he’s enthusiastic about contemporary Canadian art, I mean it in the way that Cookie Monster is enthusiastic about Chips Ahoy! cookies).

I chose him as my interesting person because Bill Clinton wasn’t returning my calls and also because visual art has never been my thing. I can talk movies, fashion, books, music, design and royal baby bumps, but my understanding and appreciation of visual art has never evolved past “that does/doesn’t look good on your wall.”

Before we embarked on our lunch date, Smart suggested we take a quick tour of the Osler collection, most of which isn’t easy on the eyes in the traditional sense: the menacing bunny rabbits by John Scott (“the man responsible for injecting grit into the Toronto art scene,” I learned); the eerie sculptures by Evan Penny (“probably the most important sculptor Canada has produced”); the freshly relevant work of Robert Houle (the man who pushed native art past totem poles). One of my private tour guide’s favourite pieces was a series of white canvases, arranged to resemble a wave or a jazz riff. He called it minimalist. I didn’t get it, but I was beginning to appreciate his appreciation.

 

The art of understanding

 

Over lunch I asked what kind of advice Smart gives young collectors and we discussed what he views as the misguided notion that you should just buy what you like, as opposed to buying what is good. “But isn’t good subjective?” I asked. It is, he said, but if we never challenged what we liked, the world would be decorated in painted fruit bowls and flower vases. My somewhat simplified takeaway is that taste in art is something that evolves with understanding and exposure.

Our conversation wasn’t totally one-sided – I talked about the challenges of my own work and suggested that a Twitter feed might be a good way for Smart to spread the word about shows and artists he wants to highlight, of which there are many. “We really are in the golden age of Canadian art,” he said as we finished off the last of the pinot noir.

Reflecting on the afternoon, I was reminded of a quote from Susan Orlean, the magazine writer whose brilliant article about an orchid thief was turned into one of my favourite movies, Adaptation. “I suppose I do have one embarrassing passion,” writes Orlean, contemplating the obsession that her subject feels for orchids. “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.” This is not to say I don’t have my own passions, but spending time immersed in someone else’s was inspiring and fun and, yes, interesting. I felt engaged and creatively charged, and maybe even a little closer to eureka.

 

The next challenge

 

Devote time to mastering a useless skill. Learn to tie a knot with a cherry stem or speak elvish – the only rule is that it can’t be practical. Let us know how it goes at fb.me/globelifestream

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