Lewis Tells Princeton University Graduates to Appreciate Their Good Luck

Author Michael Lewis addresses graduating seniors in the Princeton University Chapel. Photo Credit: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Author and journalist Michael Lewis urged graduating students at Princeton University to recognize that they have been fortunate, and to show appreciation for their good luck by helping the unlucky.

Lewis, a Princeton alumnus who just celebrated his 30th reunion, addressed graduating seniors at the school’s 265th Baccalaureate service at the University Chapel on Sunday. The interfaith service is one of the school’s oldest traditions.

An art history major at Princeton, Lewis did not write for any publications at the university, but loved working on his senior thesis and knew he wanted to write books. He went to graduate school because he was unsure of what to do after college, and didn’t know what to write about. With the help of the wife of an executive at an investment bank he met at a dinner party, who forced her husband to give him a job, he got hired at Salomon Brothers.

“I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers, but Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love,” he said. “When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness. They turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.”

He was not passionate about the work there, but it gave him plenty of subject matter for a book. He called his dad and told him he was going to quit the job that promised him millions to write a book for a $40,000 advance.

“There was a long pause on the other end of the line,” he said. His father recommended he rethink his decision, stay at Solomon Brothers for 10 years and make his fortune, then write books.

“I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again,” Lewis said. “I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.”

His first book,  “Liar’s Poker,” sold a million copies.

“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,” Lewis said. “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?”

Lewis said his case illustrates how success is always rationalized.

“People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people,” he said. “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.”

His first book, “Moneyball,” about the Oakland A’s team winning more games than all the other rich teams dealt with that very subject. The Oakland team had figured out that the rich teams didn’t really understand who the best baseball players were, and therefore the players were misvalued.

“The biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success,” Lewis said. “Players got given credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others: pitchers got paid for winning games, hitters got paid for knocking in runners on base. Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control.”

“You have to ask: if a professional athlete paid millions of dollars can be misvalued who can’t be?” he said. “If the supposedly pure meritocracy of professional sports can’t distinguish between lucky and good, who can?”

Lewis told graduating seniors not to be deceived by life’s outcomes.

“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them,” he said. “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.”

Lewis cited a psychology experiment where students were divided into teams of three students each. A leader was chosen at random and the group was given a plate of four cookies. Who would get the extra cookie?

“With incredible consistency, the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it,” Lewis said. “Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.”

The leader’s status was nothing but luck, but it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his, Lewis said.

“This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior, but it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University,” Lewis said.  “In a general sort of way, you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you 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. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.”

“All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them,” he said. “In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”