Michael Lewis on the Role of Luck

Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker and Moneyball are some of my favorite books I’ve read in the last few years. So it was with delight that I read Lewis’s commencement speech to the most recent graduating class at Princeton. The speech is worth reading in entirety, but the core of the message is: people don’t give enough credit to luck in their success. Lewis makes it clear via his life narrative, because shortly after he published Liar’s Poker:

I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. 

Lewis also talks about Moneyball and exploiting underlying data:

If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

If you graduated from Princeton (or any college, for that matter), then Lewis’s point should be lucid by now:

[Y]ou must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier.

Excellent.

On Being Michael Lewis

This is a superb profile of Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s PokerMoneyball, and The Big Short in this month’s New York Magazine.

This should immediately leave your jaw on the ground:

The reason, of course, is that he is Michael Lewis. Magazines these days aren’t willing to pay just anyone to go to Europe for 10,000-word semi-satirical finance pieces, especially at Lewis’s rate—$10 a word when he left Portfolio for Vanity Fair.

Good biographical information on Michael Lewis (I didn’t know the fact about his mother):

Even Lewis will admit that he has led something of a charmed life. He was born looking like something out of a Brooks Brothers catalog, grew up in a well-to-do, generations-old New Orleans family, and has aged in that way that Robert Redford has, in that he looks now basically the same but somehow more solid. “He’s a direct descendant of Lewis and Clark,” says Taylor. “That’s on his dad’s side. On his mother’s side, Thomas Jefferson. Or whoever it was that bought Louisiana from the French. His dad is a lawyer. His grandfather was the first Supreme Court justice of Louisiana. The whole family is very southern, the hospitality, the prim and proper, all of that.” He managed to get into Princeton despite being a far from stellar student in high school. “He had such bad grades,” says his mother, Diana Monroe Lewis, who is in fact a descendant of James Monroe. “But he always had the verbal skills,” she added. “He could talk his way out of any situation.”

As I read pretty much all that Michael Lewis publishes, I dare say that this piece about him is a must-read.