Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of many books, including Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, and The Fifth Risk. Both of his books about sports became movies nominated for Academy Awards, as did The Big Short, his book about the 2008 financial crisis. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.
His critically acclaimed podcast, Against The Rules, returned with season two on Tuesday, May 5.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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Tim Ferriss: Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael Lewis: Pleasure to be here.
Tim Ferriss: And I have a secret to confess. It’s not much of a secret, but it’s some backstory that makes me smile. And that is when I was just out of college, this is 2000 I had moved to the Bay Area for my first job, this entry-level, stuck in the middle of a fire exit desk job. I had volunteered at an organization called the Silicon Valley Association Of Startup Entrepreneurs, SVASE. I don’t know if it even exists anymore. And I finally got myself the ability to recruit speakers for an event, and I reached out to you, this was in 2000 through the Princeton Alumni Network and you very, very kindly declined. But it was so well delivered, it was so diplomatic, that it always stuck with me. And I’ve wanted to have a conversation for 20 years now, and so I thought I would just share that and thank you for being so kind to someone who really had very little to offer.
Michael Lewis: Well, well you were in the majority. I tend to kind of hide, and to the extent I can hide, I do hide. But I think probably with time I’ve become a little bit more abrupt in explaining to people that I just don’t want to do it. So I’m glad you caught me at a sweet-natured moment of my career.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I thought we could start very early in your career, although this may predate your writing career by a little bit. And to discuss one of your lesser-known pieces of writing, and this is a — let’s call it a book review of Johnny Tremain. Am I pronouncing that correctly? Can you please tell this story?
Michael Lewis: This is very funny you bring this up because just two days ago I called my mother and asked her if I could interview her for my podcast, and she said no. She’s got no interest in it. And I said, “I just want to ask you about what you remember about all the trouble I got into when I was kind of sixth grade through 10th grade.” And she said, “I don’t remember anything.” And I said, “Oh, come on, you remember me almost getting thrown out of school?” And she says, “Oh, is that the time when you copied the back of the book and handed it in as your own work?” She remembered that.
What had happened was, I must’ve been in the seventh grade, possibly eighth, and we were given the assignment of writing a book review of Johnny Tremain. And I remember taking it home and looking at the back of the book and thinking there’s an excellent review just here on the back of the book, summarizes it exactly as it is, saved me the trouble of reading it. And so I just copied it out and I handed it in. I swear to you, I know it’s going to be very hard for you to believe this, but I swear to you, I had no sense I was doing anything wrong. I thought I was doing something that was kind of efficient, that the teacher would be very happy to have such a cleanly written thing, that it saved me all kinds of trouble. So I had got in the front yard and played basketball and baseball and that nobody would mind.
And it comes back to me with A, I can still remember, in red. And then in red ink, “See me.” And I went to see the teacher and the teacher said, “Where’d you get this?” And I said, “I got it off the back of the book.” And he said, “That’s plagiarism.” I swear to you this is true, I said, “What’s plagiarism?” I had no native sense that this was some sort of theft, and he was so outraged he went to the principal. And the principal, the middle school principal, was so outraged he actually threw me out of the Isidore Newman School, K through 12 school, that my parents had gone to, my grandparents had gone to. I mean it was really shocking.
And only with the intervention of the headmaster was I allowed to stay in school and my punishment — this is actually where it gets even better — my punishment was to say to go home and write 300 times “I will not plagiarize,” copying something that the teacher had given me. So I suppose the punchline to it all is that piece of writing was the first thing I ever handed in that ever got any particular attention. I got through the eighth grade without anybody noticing that I could write one thing or another, and it wasn’t until I copied the back of a book and handed it in as my own that anybody really noticed that I could write.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about noticing your writing, evaluating your writing. If we flash forward to Princeton, undergrad, and your interactions maybe at the tail end of that period of time with your thesis advisors. So in the process of doing homework for this conversation, I found, and I don’t know if this is an exact transcription, you can’t always rely on the Internet, but that you asked him, “What do you think of the writing and the thesis?” This is for your senior thesis. And he said, “Never try to make a living at it.” Is that true, and if so, can you perhaps flesh that out a little bit for us?
Michael Lewis: It’s entirely true. As you know, as a Princetonian, the senior thesis is a really big deal.
Tim Ferriss: Huge deal.
Michael Lewis: And mostly not appreciated by anybody else who went to any other kind of college because they think of it, “Oh, it’s a paper.” It’s not a paper, it’s a book, and you’ve got to essentially write a book. It’s a short book, but it’s a 40,000 or 50,000-word book. And to this day I have a recurring nightmare that it’s May or April and I forgot I was supposed to write a senior thesis. Up to that point in my life, I had no particular sense of myself as a writer. I did not write for any school newspapers at any point in my career. I did not study literature. I wasn’t in the English department or the creative writing program, nothing like that. But when I started working on this thesis, I became fully absorbed. I mean, just passionate about it, and I really cared what I was saying and how I said it.
Tim Ferriss: What was the subject matter? Sorry to interrupt.
Michael Lewis: The subject matter, I was in the art history department at Princeton and the subject matter was the way the Italian sculptor, Donatello, had used classical sources. Which sounds arcane, but it’s actually getting at the question of what the Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance, thought it was doing. Because it was very early, creatively, in the Renaissance where they were starting to actually refer back to Greek and Roman precedent. A lot of things had been dug up and the artists were noticing it. And the question was: were they just admiring it technically or were they self-consciously recreating antiquity?
And Donatello was a really interesting way to do it, and there were interesting resources, new resources, available to study the question. There was a professor at Columbia who had just compiled, it was just on microfiche in Manhattan, something called The Census of Antique Works Known to Renaissance Artists. So you could sort of recreate what Donatello had seen, and then you could see how he had used it in his various works. Anyway, for me, I was absorbed. It was actually, from the point of view even of the art historians at Princeton, a pretty original project. And I handed it in and then I went to defend it. I remember going through the defense and waiting for the professor. His name was William Childs, William A.P. Childs IV. He was a classicist and he was a fabulous professor. I loved him.
But I kept waiting for him to say, “Michael, this thing is just beautifully written.” And he wouldn’t say it. And so finally I said, it was the biggest mistake. I said, “What’d you think of the writing?” And he said, “Put it this way, never try to make a living at it.” I was undeterred by that. I don’t know why, but he didn’t make me feel like, “Oh, I really shouldn’t be doing that.” But it was the first moment where I thought, “I now know what I’d like to do for a living, if I could.” I misconstrued it a bit. I thought what I wanted to be was an art historian and I wrote books about art history. He persuaded me that there would be no jobs in art history and I should go find something else to do with my life. And so that left me with, “Well, I’ll write books.” How do you do that? But that’s just as I’m walking out the door of Princeton, without any particular preparation for the career.
Tim Ferriss: When did you graduate?
Michael Lewis: 1982.
Tim Ferriss: 1982. All right, so we’re going to talk about 1989 in a little bit. But I wanted to ask you about your formation as a writer, or a thinker who puts prose down on paper at least, and how you developed the ability to write without studying it directly? I’ve read that your father was an expert storyteller, or at least an inveterate storyteller. I don’t know if that had any impact, so I don’t want to lead with the question. But how did you come to be able to express yourself clearly in writing?
Michael Lewis: This is reconstructing it after the fact, and God knows how true it is, but I’ll give you my best shot at it. The ingredients, I think, are I did grow up with a father who, he wasn’t a yarn spinner, but a wonderful storyteller, and a very sophisticated storyteller, and very, very, very smart. So he didn’t tell dumb stories; he told smart stories. And he’s funny, like really funny. So I grew up just, and we were very close, just listening to really good stories. And he was also, in his own way a superb writer, in that he’d sort of internalized E.B. White and Strunk, and the “omit needless words” part of that, and be as pithy as possible. And he would edit my school papers, so I began kind of internalizing his criticism. So I was “get to the point” kind of thing, which is a very useful thing to internalize.
But then what happened when I got out of Princeton, it shows you how accidental and haphazard careers can be. I had no idea of how to go about being a writer. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know anybody who knew any writers. There was no one in my family who could kind of provide guidance. It was really as crude as I walked into the bookstore, like some bookstore, and said, “Is there anything in here that tells you how to write for magazines?” And there was at the time, like a big, fat reference book, which listed the 8,000 then-magazines in America, along with the addresses and phone numbers of the editors of the magazines. And right when I got out of Princeton, I started to submit full-on pieces, magazine pieces, willy nilly, to journals and I would get responses. All the responses were “No.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the sense that I should go have lots of experiences in life and then I would have things to write about.
And so I was working at a fancy art dealership in New York right when I got out, but I was also the head soup ladler at the Bowery Mission and Young Men’s Home, for the homeless people when they came through to eat their lunch and dinner. And so I got to know the homeless population in New York for over a stretch, and I wrote a long piece about them and about how they weren’t just one thing. They were all these different characters. But I sent it, I can remember sending it off, and I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea, to the inflight magazines, like Delta and American. And I remember the Delta lady, whoever was editing the Delta inflight magazine, wrote back and said, “It’s really interesting what you did, but you do realize we’re trying to get people to go to New York? Not flee New York.” It didn’t fit.
I kept doing that, though. I kept sort of writing stuff and sending it in. And the first hit I got is what got me off the ground. It was kind of two years, a year and a half after I got out of Princeton, I noticed in the back of The Economist magazine, a little advertisement for the science and technology pages. It said write a 600-word article and if your article wins the competition, you’ll get a job at The Economist. And it might’ve just been an internship kind of job, but it was a job. And so at that point I was living in London and going to graduate school at the London School Of Economics, and I’d experienced the British medical system. And I realized that if I just went home to New Orleans and went to our fanciest hospital and asked them whatever the newest thing was, the British would think it was like 22nd-century stuff. It was so archaic in Britain.
So I did that. I found this breast cancer detection device in the Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans, wrote 600 words about it, sent it in, and got a call from a man whose name you might recognize. The name is Matt Ridley, a well-known author and also a Lord, Lord Matt Ridley. But at the time he was the Deputy Science Editor of The Economist and he tells me, “We’d like to have you come in for an interview.” And I came in for the interview and they said, “You’re on a shortlist of three finalists for the job.” And they started to ask me, “What’s your background in science and technology? It seems like you know a lot.” And I said, “Well, I never actually took any science.” I had to take a science class to get out of Princeton. And I took a class called Physics For Poets, and I took it pass/fail and I flunked it. And I flunked it because I played racquetball instead of going to the lab. But in any case, I had an F on my transcript at Princeton, and it was Physics For Poets.
And I was telling them this, I thought they would think this was a jolly tale. And they’re like jaws on the floor, and at the end of this they say, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I want to write.” And they said, “But you don’t know anything.” They said, “The other two finalists for this are studying for their doctorates in physics.” One was at Cambridge, one was at Oxford.
I remember Matt really said, it was great, he said, “You’re a fraud but you’re a very good fraud, and that’s a journalist.” And he said, “You sure fooled us with this piece.” And so he said, “We’re not going to give you this job because you don’t know anything, but I would encourage you to keep submitting things to The Economist.” And so for over a period about a year, I must’ve published 20 articles in The Economist, in the different sections. I’d go to them with ideas and they were a delight and they gave me my start. And from there, how I go from there to writing long-form narrative nonfiction is a different story. But that’s sort of the thing that gets me going.
Tim Ferriss: What was it about writing or publishing, what did that do for you? What did that feed or what feeling did that evoke that kept you going through all these rejections and inflight magazine letters and so on?
Michael Lewis: The truth is, and the truth to this day, is that what I realized when I was writing my Princeton thesis and continued to sense when I was writing these magazine articles that nobody wanted to publish, is that the thing itself gave me enormous pleasure. I mean subsequently, I’ve had people, my children and my wife who have been in the same room when I’ve had headphones on and trying to concentrate and write something. They said, “Do you realize that when you’re sitting there writing, you’re laughing the whole time? You’re laughing at your own jokes.” And in their view, it’s kind of pathetic, like you’re sitting there laughing at your own jokes, and there’s a point to that.
But the bigger point is I just took enormous pleasure in doing the thing, and so it never felt like, “Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this.” Because I was having so much fun doing it. It was just like, “I’ve just got to get better. I’ll keep doing this because this is just fun.” So the distinction between rejection and acceptance, and seeming failure and success, was a very blurry distinction to me because I was already getting pleasure out of the doing of it. I was already excited by it. I can remember when the first thing hit print, it was that little breast cancer detection piece. They did run it in the science and technology base. They fact-checked it 800 different ways because they wondered where the hell it came from. But they ran it and I can just remember going — and The Economist doesn’t even run bylines, so my name wasn’t even on it — but I just went, “Yeah.” I mean this is — I was just — yeah, this is right.
And once my name started going on things and it was things in The New Republic, or The oddly op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal started to invite me to write for them, all while I was still a student. It was throwing kerosene on a bonfire. It was already burning down the neighborhood because I was so excited by what I was doing already. It was sort of like I didn’t really need any encouragement, so getting the encouragement was just gravy.
Tim Ferriss: So if we flash forward then, I mean you’re writing, you’re publishing, I’m looking at a paragraph from brainpickings.org, which is run by Maria Popova, who I’m very fond of. And there was a piece on your writing process. She may have been quoting a different source, but I just want to read something quickly and then we can discuss. These are your words. “Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer over four years of freelancing was about 3,000 bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they’d promised they’d double the following year — to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.” Was that a hard decision or was it something you’d just been biding your time for?
Michael Lewis: You put it very well. It was something I’d been biding my time for. When I went into Salomon Brothers I knew that this was a temp gig. I’d be there for a few years, and I was there more out of curiosity about how this world worked than I was to advance a career. In fact, aside from the money, which I liked, I didn’t think really much about the career at Salomon Brothers because I knew my interests would only last for so long. And I was intensely interested in it as I was learning about it. But when I kind of figured it all out and got a sense of how it all worked and there weren’t any more questions I had that needed to be answered, I really started to get bored.
But the whole time I was there I was writing, and I got myself in trouble because I’d naturally tend to write kind of about what’s around me, and so I started to write things about this great boom that was happening on Wall Street, was really the beginning of what we still live with. This notion of 22 or 23-year-olds rolling on and making a fortune. The sums of money being made on Wall Street and the share of the economy it had occupied was expanding rapidly and no one quite understood why. So there was a natural market for me to sort of try to explain it. And so I mentioned The Wall Street Journal asked me to write op-eds for them. I wrote an op-ed arguing that investment bankers were overpaid and in the bottom of the op-ed it said “Michael Lewis is an Associate with Salomon Brothers in London.”
I tell you, I must have like a blind streak because my reaction was, “Wow, great piece.” Like when I saw it, I saw it when they sent me the galleys or whatever it was. I thought, “This is fabulous,” and I didn’t even think like, “What are the people at Salomon Brothers going to think?” Except maybe, “Wow, they’re going to be thinking it’s so cool that I wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal.” I got to work the next day and there was a fellow who ran all of Salomon Brothers International, delightful guy. He was the guy who had hired me in the first place. And he was ashen-faced, sitting at my desk with this little newspaper on his lap, and he said, “Michael.” I mean, it was really not in anger, it was more in sadness. He says, “Michael, you have no idea of the damage you’ve done.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “This thing is being picked up all over the United States and we’ve had a crisis meeting overnight, of the Salomon Brothers board, what to do about it.”
And they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have fired me because I had just flukily started to generate a whole lot of money for them. Like a whole lot of money. I was essentially a salesperson and I had, at that point, the second biggest money generating account in the entire firm and the person would speak only to me, even though I had only been there a year and a half. It was basically the most sophisticated hedge fund sort of manager in Europe, and he was doing all kinds — so they wouldn’t fire me because they didn’t want to lose him. So he said to me, my boss said, “What are we going to do about this?” And I said, “I don’t really want to do anything about this.” And he said, “Well, we need you to stop writing.” And I said, “I’m not going to stop writing. It’s what I love to do.”
And he had the bright idea. He said, “Could you write under a different name?” And I said, “No problem. I can do that.” And he said, “What name are you going to use?” And it actually just popped into my head, “I’ll use my mother’s maiden name.” So I wrote under the name Diana Bleeker for maybe the next nine months or year. Maybe not quite that long, but I wrote half a dozen pieces. They got better and better. I was getting better and better because I had better and better editing. So Michael Kinsley, who was then editing The New Republic, had walked into my life and he was giving me writing lessons, basically, in the way he edited the pieces. But the pieces Diana Bleeker was writing, I mean, I really felt off the leash because nobody could trace it back to me. I was almost describing the trading floor around me in pieces, and people were circulating —
It was really great. I was sitting in London at my desk doing my business and I would watch people xeroxing articles I’d written in The New Republic under Diana Bleeker and pass them out on the trading floor. And so I had a sense that like God, people are hungry for this. People were laughing. It was just working. Now the money part of it, what happened was I came home one night to my house in London, picked up a phone call and it was a man named Ned Chase, who happens to be Chevy Chase’s dad, who was a Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster. And he said, “I figured out who Diana Bleeker was and I got your number.” I never found out how he did that. “And we think you should write a book.” At that point, I thought, “I’m out. If someone will publish a book by me, I’m not hanging around in the Wall Street firm any longer.”
I did hang around an extra three months to get my bonus. But the minute I saw the money hit the bank account and I knew they couldn’t take it back, I left. And not because I disliked them; I loved a lot of the guys there. Mostly it was almost all guys. I really liked my bosses, generally. I just was bored with the work, and I had this other thing I loved to do. I had two conversations that in which people tried to say, “Oh, don’t do that. Don’t walk away from a sure fortune to go take a flyer on writing a book.”
One was my bosses, who took me into a room, and this tells you just how innocent an age it was. I mean, these days you’d be in a room with lawyers, and you’d be told you sign this nondisclosure agreement and you’re not writing anything about anything. They didn’t care about it. They were worried about my sanity. They were actually worried about my career. They couldn’t believe that I was going to walk away from this really cushy situation and go and do that other thing. So they were trying to help me. I just said, “I’ve got this feeling, I’ve got to do this.” And my father, my father said, “You really could just wait. You really could just collect some millions of dollars and then write your books.”
But the problem was I was what, 27 at the time, I looked ahead of me and I looked at people who were 35 or 37 and they seemed ancient, and they seemed completely stuck. Like they made so much money and their lives had adapted to the making of money, they depended on the making of money. And I just thought, “There’s no way I’d spend a lot of time here and still even want to do this. I’d be trapped and I don’t want to do that.” So I ignored all that advice and just went and did it, and it worked out. That was Liar’s Poker.
Tim Ferriss: Liar’s Poker, at least I’ve read, was intended to be a cautionary tale of sorts. It’s not how everybody took it. I mean, it’s a very exciting book —
Michael Lewis: The thing is, it’s like a funny book. It was a funny story.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a very, very funny book.
Michael Lewis: And it’s also an incredible story because you’re seeing this transformation of this industry and the effect on all these young people. But I thought of it — I had only one kind of moralistic thought in mind when I wrote it, because I really just thought, my models that I had in my head when I wrote it were Education Of Henry Adams and Rousseau’s Confessions. The model was: just tell the world what happened exactly as you remember it and that’s enough. You don’t need to layer on an interpretation of what happened. What happens, good enough.
And the extent I wanted to push the reader in any direction, it was just really young readers, like people in college, that I hoped would read it and would say, “Yeah, I now know what this is. Yeah, there’s money there. But a lot of it’s kind of silly and I have these other things I want to do with my life and I’m going to go do them. So I’m not going to be seduced by Goldman Sachs when I’m walking — or have Goldman Sachs prey on my anxiety about my future when I’m walking out of my college. I’m going to go do what I’m meant to do.” And I felt that way because I had watched classmates at Princeton just naturally drift into the arms of the investment banks because they felt they couldn’t resist the money and they were anxious about not being successes.
Now, of course, then what happens is the book comes out and the book makes it seem, because it was, as business goes, incredibly colorful and entertaining and lucrative. And I had just, I mean, dozens of letters a day from young readers saying, “Dear Mr. Lewis, I really loved your how-to book about Wall Street, about how to make money on Wall Street, and I’m hoping that there are some tips that you didn’t put in there that you can let me know, so I have an edge.” And it just fueled the desire of young people to want to do it more, and I didn’t see that coming. And that’s something — I don’t know, anybody who writes books, I think, learns that you write a book, but the reader reads a book, and the reader may read a book that’s entirely different from what you thought you wrote — and you can’t really do that much about it.
Tim Ferriss: How do you think about, if you do, ambition? And this may not be a good question, but it seems like, from what I’ve read, the overt ambition that people wear on their shirt sleeves in certainly many parts of Wall Street, you find off-putting or maybe in bad taste, but you certainly don’t shy away from ambitious projects, right? How do you personally think about ambition? And I don’t want to put words in your mouth —
Michael Lewis: No, no. It’s an interesting way to frame the question. How do I think about ambition? Well, I could tell you I thought it was so comical that I was going to be in this ambitious moneymaking world. The week before I went to Salomon brothers, I went into Paul Stuart because I saw this men’s store because I saw it through their window; I saw they had red suspenders with little gold dollar signs on them, and I thought this is a way to make fun of the whole thing, and nobody thought it was funny. It was like, “You can’t wear that shit around here. You can’t wear that shit until you are a big enough deal to wear that shit. You can’t.” I’ve always thought — I’ve always been enormously ambitious in a way; I’ve always wanted my life to be great, like really great.
I mean at this very moment, every evening I tell my children “We’re going to win the pandemic.” I’m competitive, very competitive, and I love competitive sports; I love winning, I don’t particularly like losing, but I guess, number one, I don’t accept money as an accurate measure or any kind of real measure of whether you’re winning and losing.
So money doesn’t have that hold on me. Fame, a bit more. I mean, I would say — a lust for attention and fame is probably closer to a vice of mine than a vice for money and fortune. But even that I find I get tired of, and it just doesn’t interest me that much, so I don’t think I’m a maximizer, in that I’m not trying to get a lot of a thing, it’s more if I’m trying to maximize anything — it’s a feeling. And it’s a feeling that like — that was a kick-ass book, or that I could look at something and just say, “That is a great piece of work.” That feeling is what I am kind of always gunning for, and it’s a pretty private feeling, and I think over time, I mean you must’ve found this too, that the response that I have to external validation has become muted and numbed.
When I got a glowing review for Liar’s Poker and it went to the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list, it was like dancing all over my kitchen, I mean I was just happy as a clam. I couldn’t believe, I mean it was like I just won the Super Bowl, and now I don’t read the reviews, I sometimes forget whether a book is on The New York Times Best Sellers list or not. I mean, I’m not paying as much attention to it, and it doesn’t gratify me in the same way, but the gratification I get from looking at something that I think I’ve done that’s really good is at least as great as it was back then. So I think I’m tapping into that, I think I’m tapping into the pleasure I got when I was just all by myself in a room laughing at my own jokes. It’s sort of like maximizing self-satisfaction, which is maybe not the most attractive trait, that my ambition is to maximize my self-satisfaction, but maybe that’s my ambition.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s jump into the process associated with maximizing the self-satisfaction. You mentioned laughing at your own jokes. I have read that you sometimes write late at night, say midnight, you put on a headset and play the same soundtrack of, say, 20 songs over and over again. Is that something that you still do?
Michael Lewis: Yes. In fact, I did it yesterday. Kids screwed up my natural writing rhythm. My natural rhythm would be to kind of start about four in the afternoon and write till three in the morning, and sleep until noon. But you can’t do that with kids, so I’m not as likely to be found late at night at my desk, though it happens sometimes. But whenever I’m writing, I have headphones on and I have a soundtrack I write to and the soundtrack changes; it changes book to book and it’s got to the point where both my wife and my kids will recommend songs for the soundtrack for whatever the next project is. And I’ll build a soundtrack out of — intentionally, and the music is, you know, it’s all over the map, it tends to be very up, but it tends to be music that I just stop hearing.
And I noticed something really funny, just the last couple of weeks. Because I’m working on something now, the second season of my podcast, where I have a different relation to music. The podcast is about coaching, and the last episode, which I have still not written, it’s the only episode I haven’t written, is me getting coached in something I’m incredibly uncomfortable doing — and it’s singing.
I’ve been doing voice lessons for an hour every day for the last three months, and there’s a song I sing, and I’m not going to tell you which one it is — that I’m going to have to sing that I’ve been practicing, that happens to be on my soundtrack and now I realized I have to remove it because it kicks my brain into a different space. All of a sudden I hear it and it’s like Pavlovian, I’ve got to belt out the tune, I’ve got to worry about hitting a high note, and it screws up my writing. And so I’ve just been hitting skip, because I’ve been reluctant to change — but I have to just — going to have to remove it. So the music puts me — the purpose of it is to shut out the possibility of interruption, that I can’t hear knocks on the door, phones, people dropping packages on the front porch, anything. I’m just in my own space and I kind of ceased to hear the sound.
Tim Ferriss: Could you — there’s part of me that really hopes to God that that song is “A Whole New World” on the Aladdin soundtrack, but I don’t know why. I can’t wait for that episode.
Michael Lewis: You wouldn’t rather it be “Let It Go” from Frozen?
Tim Ferriss: I’ll take “Let It Go”; I will also take “Let It Go.”
Do you remember the soundtracks that you used for specific books? I mean, if we were to pick or could you give an example of some of the component tracks from any book that you have worked on?
Michael Lewis: You know what’s funny, is I bet if you just asked me that way, the answer is no. I could make stuff up, but if a song comes on that I wrote, say, The Blind Side to, I’ll remember that was on the soundtrack for The Blind Side. So I don’t have a — I mean, it’s almost the point of them is that I’m not really listening to them. So there are songs that I would have listened to a thousand times and I don’t know the words because I’m not really paying attention to them. I’m paying attention to something else; it’s a device for shutting out other interruption and for creating kind of an emotion, a feeling. So the answer is I don’t — but I tell you what, I have saved — in olden times there was a thing called a CD that you had to have to play music; and in those olden times I would save the CD and just toss it in a folder and put it away in a keepsake drawer. So I have the old soundtracks.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy. Well, that could be a tremendous bonus if you want to get anyone to any website of your choosing, if you were to dig those up. The soundtrack to Moneyball? Oh, my God, my favorite.
Michael Lewis: Yeah, but it’s like Johnny Cash, it would make no sense.
Tim Ferriss: Right, right. You mentioned coaches. I want to talk about — and we’ll see if we can get into specifics, maybe, maybe not, but you mentioned Michael — was it Kinsley, is that right? The editor?
Michael Lewis: The editor of The New Republic.
Tim Ferriss: What made him a good editor or what did you learn from him? And can you remember anything that he helped tighten or improve?
Michael Lewis: So Michael Kinsley had a gift for creating writers, there are dozens of people who were young writers then who he had profound influence on and careers that he just launched. I mean, and it’s an odd assortment, and I was one of those people. So I think what happens with writers who come up in a conventional way, like through creative writing programs or by writing for their circle of friends, is they get treated too politely, their work gets treated too politely and so they don’t hear a really withering critique of their work. And Michael Kinsley could not help himself. He delivered the most withering critiques of your work — the kind of throat-clearing, phony first paragraph, which was totally unnecessary. It would come back, there’d be just a big X through it. “Why’d you even write that? Start here.”
It would be — I can’t remember. I had learned a word that was just a completely obscure word, and I even remember the word, but I don’t know how to pronounce it. It’s chthonian — it starts C-H and I think it means “of the underworld.” And I remember working it into the piece and a big circle around it saying “You fucking phony. What’d you do? Go into the thesaurus?” It was just making merciless fun of me.
And even my byline, at the very beginning, I thought it sounded good for it to be Michael M. Lewis — my middle name is Monroe; I thought a middle initial kind of fancied it up. And he put a big circle around it and he said, “Don’t do that. Don’t be one of those people; you’re not Michael M. Louis. You’re Michael Louis.” And he just — he was all the preposterous things that you naturally tend to do when you’re putting words on paper, he identified all of them as vices and stopped you from them. And that was — in addition, he was unbelievably gifted at seeing what a good story was. So you just started to learn what was interesting and what wasn’t just talking to him, just by how he responded to what you said.
And so it was a kind of feedback that everybody should get, but that most people are too tender and sensitive to deliver. It’s a funny thing, I think that this happens in speech too. I think that there’s lots of inefficiency in human conversation, that people do all kinds of things they really shouldn’t do and that other people make fun of them for doing.
People are endlessly telling stories about what some other person said, making fun of them, and it shouldn’t be that way. We should be very efficient conversationalists because we do it all the time, but we aren’t because we don’t get feedback because people are too polite. And I think people are too polite with other people’s writing, and with Michael Kinsley, his great gift, in addition to being kind of genius, was he just couldn’t be polite, he was just so blunt. I mean, I’m now Michael Lewis on my books instead of Michael M. Lewis because of Michael Kinsley.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s — I remember in one of my freshman — it wasn’t freshman. It was a seminar though, at Princeton, and not to imply that it in any way holds a candle to McPhee, but took this seminar with John McPhee and I remember when he returned the papers, our initial writing assignments, to the 12 students in the class, he effectively had to preface it by saying, “I don’t want you to be shocked” — and I’m paraphrasing here — “You’re all decent writers or good writers. So take this as constructive feedback,” and I got back my two pages, it was really short, and there was more red ink than the black ink I’d used to type it up. And there’s a just an incredible piece — or it’s — I think a series of interviews in The Paris Review on the art of non-fiction where he talks about — describing things as pea soup and it’s just like a big circle that kind of points out the obvious; And so the benefit of impolite feedback has just been so tremendous in my life as well.
Michael Lewis: And people — it’s nice just to have people not tiptoe around the problem because once it’s said, you know. You know that that little middle initial in my byline, that there was a little phoniness there and I just hoped nobody would notice, they’d just take me as more important. And well, that’s interesting that you were in McPhee’s writing class, because I was a big McPhee fan when I was at Princeton, but it never even occurred to me; I just assumed I could never even get into that class, so I didn’t apply. It was because that was a hard class to get into.
Tim Ferriss: It was. I mean, I will say that I — and I mean, it’s certainly been advantageous to me, I suppose. When I feel like I don’t have any chance of getting into something, it removes the performance anxiety, if that makes any sense.
Michael Lewis: It makes total sense!
Tim Ferriss: And therefore, I was just completely unattached to outcomes because I assumed that I would get rejected. And The Literature of Fact, I still have my notes from undergrad, all my binders full of notes from two classes, The Literature of Fact and High Tech Entrepreneurship with a professor named Ed Zschau. I still have my notes from those two classes, They’ve traveled with me for 20 years. I mean now, there’s Draft No. 4 and other books that describe McPhee’s methods, so I refer to them less, but it was a real gift.
Michael Lewis: Yeah, no — a part of me is glad I didn’t take that class because I think he might’ve persuaded me that I wasn’t a writer, that I don’t think I was ready for it, that I had to find my own way. Because he was an intimidating figure and he was so good at what he did, but I wished, with McPhee, I wished he spent more time writing about people. Because he did it so well, that book he did on Bill Bradley was an incredible piece of work.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, A Sense of Where You Are, great book.
Michael Lewis: But anyway, so —
Tim Ferriss: He does spend a lot of time writing about oranges and rocks and canoes and all manner of other non-human objects.
Michael Lewis: Yeah, no, it’s an impressive — he pulls it off, but he’s so good, he was so good about people. I wish there was more of it. Anyway —
Tim Ferriss: I have a question for you about, maybe this isn’t the right word, but productive laziness. I was looking at an article that talked about a speaking gig from 2017, Qualtrics. You might know where this is going, but the quote that stuck out to me was attributed to you, “People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives.” And I don’t know if that prompts any memories, but is that something you can elaborate on?
Michael Lewis: Sure. That wasn’t a quote from me; it was a quote from one of my characters, Amos Tversky. He’s one of the main characters in The Undoing Project and he — but it resonated with me. What he meant was that people don’t back away from their work, and especially the need to always seem busy or be busy stops people from finding things that are really worth doing and sifting the ones that are worth doing from the ones that aren’t worth doing. So it resonates with me because I am not a person who always has to be doing something.
And in fact, my natural state is probably inert, in that I can really just lay around and screw off and procrastinate with the best of them, and it’s partly because of how I grew up, I mean I grew up in New Orleans and there was not a whole lot of value attached to either ambition or career achievement.
You were who you were because of how you were and who your family was and what neighborhood you grew up in, where you went to school, you were always so well defined by your environment, that trying to change it by doing stuff didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. And you know, my father used to tell me, and I believed this until I was about 20, that on our family coat of arms, there was a motto in Latin and the motto was “Do as little as possible, and that unwillingly, for it is better to receive a slight reprimand than to perform an arduous task.” And he would just say that like, “Just keep that in mind, we live by these words.” And so that’s kind of where I was coming from, just generally, and I found this thing that didn’t feel like work, so it didn’t feel like an attempt at achievement. Not that achievement was bad, it just — that’s not why I was doing it.
But having said that, I do find that being able to back away and get myself in a state of mind in which I can say, “It’s okay if I never write anything else, it’s okay if I never write another book. It’s okay if I don’t do anything for six months.” And I can afford that now, and it’s a luxury to be able to afford it.
But I think a lot of people who can afford it don’t actually take advantage of the luxury, because I think that doing that, putting yourself in a state of mind where, all right, I’ve got to make an argument about why I need to write another book, because I don’t have to changes your relationship to potential stories and potential material. It requires the material to rise to the level of interest, where you feel obliged to engage with it. So you’re not doing it just because you’ve got to write another book. You’re doing it because, how can I not write this and it serves my own — sloth and indolence serve as a kind of filter, and the filter is, “No, I don’t have to do that, so I’m not going to do that. I don’t particularly want to do that. I’m just not going to do that.”
And even if you tell me that, “Oh, it’s got big bestseller written all over it,” I’m not interested because it just — it keeps me off that path and I think it’s been very useful because it does two things at once. One, as I see it, it raises the level of the bar that the material has to jump over to get to me. So the material is going to have to be really good if I’m going to engage with it and two, it stops me from doing the same thing over and over again just to be successful.
It enables me to — almost encourages me to move around and do surprising things, and I think readers and audiences really appreciate and will engage with the writer who’s willing to take risks that yeah, they like their writers, some of their writers to just keep doing the same things over and over again, but they’ll follow you if you take a brave risk. And since I’m not doing it — I’m not trying to create the next surefire bestseller, I’m led to other and sometimes unlikely material and so the books end up being about a lot of different things.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the questions or thresholds that indicate the material has risen above the necessary hurdles? I found one question, I don’t know if this is you or not, so feel free to confirm or deny, but: “Would I be sad if this story didn’t get told?”
Michael Lewis: Yeah, it’s funny, that is one and it’s a really good question because there’s no clear cut rule that I follow except feeling, and there are a couple of feelings that I associate with the desire to write a book. One is a feeling that if I don’t do it, it won’t properly get done because I have some privileged access to the story. And there are lots of different ways you can have privileged access to the story, but the sense that yeah, this book really should be written and someone needs to do it, and that someone is clearly me. And so the second and related feeling is I have an obligation to the material. It isn’t the material that has an obligation to me as a writer, it’s I have an obligation to this material.
And once I have that feeling, I have a motive, I have a motive. And whether I’m fooling myself or not, it’s a motive that’s a deeper and more inspiring motive than “Oh, I’ve got to make a living.” Or “Oh, I’ve got to get a book on the bestseller list.” Or you know, “I’ve got to have something to tell my friends when they ask me, ‘What are you doing?'” It’s a motive that — it’s the highest motive; it’s “I have an obligation, I have a duty.” And so I’ve had that feeling with every book I’ve written and how it gets to that point? I mean they take their different paths to that point, but it obviously — it’s some feeling in myself that this is an important story.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give an example of the feeling of duty or obligation to the material? You mentioned The Undoing Project, you could give an example from any of your books, but what concretely, what might that look like? The obligation or duty to the material?
Michael Lewis: Well, we really could take any book, but let’s take — let’s take Moneyball, just to mix things up. So Moneyball starts not as a book; Moneyball starts as a question that, in the end, isn’t even a good question. And the question was: “How pissed off is the left fielder of the Oakland A’s when the right fielder drops the fly ball because the right fielder is now making four times as much money as the left fielder?” I was wondering about the effects, sort of the class dynamics on a professional baseball team now that salaries had blown up and there were some people getting paid huge sums of money, and there was huge inequality inside of a baseball team, and that caused me to watch the games, watching the money, not just watching the games.
And then I saw the inequality that was interesting was — not between the players, because they didn’t seem to be resentful of each other at all, it was between the teams. And that this poor team in my backyard, the Oakland A’s, and they had to play against teams that had four or five times the sums of money to spend on players, and how were they winning more games than those teams? And then it becomes a magazine piece in my mind because I go to see Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, and he says, “Huh, you know, you’re asking me the single most important question in my life. And no one has asked me that.” He says, “That tells you something about sports journalism.” He says, “Nobody’s asked me how we’re thinking about distributing the money over the players and how we’re making these sort of investments in assets and how we’re thinking a lot like Wall Street traders.”
And he started filling my ear and I thought, this is really interesting, really interesting, but it’s a magazine piece. It’s like a magazine piece about how a general manager thinks, and I started to spend time with him and where it rose to the level of not magazine piece, but this is a long story worthy of a book, was when I began to realize that what the Oakland A’s were doing was looking for value in people. That the people that sometimes even themselves did not appreciate and the market certainly didn’t appreciate, and that was why these people could be acquired cheaply. The people happen to be baseball players, but they really could be anything. And the moment, it was really a moment, and sometimes there are these moments, the moment when I thought, “Oh, my God, this is a book” was when I was interviewing the players after games. I would see them pick a player after every — I’d say, “Scott Hatteberg, I’ll meet you after the game at your locker.” And he’d say, “Okay, I’ll give you 20 minutes then.”
Then Barry Zito — I was moving around the clubhouse and I was watching the players come out of the showers and I saw — it was the first time I really noticed them naked, and they were so appalling; they were so unpleasant to look at, they were fat, they were misshapen in various ways. They did not look like professional athletes; you would never guess they were professional athletes — but I say this to the front office of the A’s, the next day I said, “You know, I was just — the bodies of your guys. It’s so, it’s awful.” And Paul DePodesta, who was the number two said, “That’s kind of the point.” He says, “We go looking for people who the market doesn’t appreciate.” And one of the things that blinds the market to the value of a baseball player is the physical appearance of the player. An ugly player is likely to be cheaper than a handsome player. A guy who looks like a professional athlete is likely to be valued. People are going to see his value. What blinds the market is they don’t look right, so we’re looking for players who don’t look right. And I thought, at that moment, the reason it’s worthy of a book, and the reason I have an obligation to the story, is this isn’t about baseball anymore. This is a universal truth about the way markets value people.
That you have this market, it just happens to be baseball, where of all markets on the planet you would think would value people properly. They’ve been doing the same job for a hundred years. They’ve got statistics attached to every move they make on a field. They’ve got millions of people watching them on the job, most of who think they know exactly what a good baseball player is and what isn’t. If those people can be so misvalued, that baseball team is running circles around other baseball teams by picking up the ones who look wrong, then who can’t be? It became a very universal story about the mistakes we make when we look at another person. And at that point, I thought it was gold. I just thought, “This is just the most magnificent — “
It’s a truth I know in my life — I’ve watched people be misvalued my whole life. I’ve watched people get paid way more than they deserve. I’ve got people getting paid way less than they deserve. I’ve seen people in teams go entirely unappreciated who were extremely important to the team and people who took all the credit, and they actually weren’t that important. And I’ve seen this through my whole life, and now I’m seeing it expressed in this very interesting little microcosm. And I have an obligation to explain that to the world.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to ask about something that popped up at least once, maybe more than once, when I was preparing for this, and that is the comment that, “Michael is one of the happiest people I know.” And —
Michael Lewis: Who said that?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s see here. It was the author of a Washington Post piece.
Michael Lewis: I bet it was Walter Isaacson.
Tim Ferriss: You know what? It might’ve been Walter Isaacson.
Michael Lewis: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I’d be curious if you agree with that, and if you do, is that something you deduced your way into being, that is a happy person or it’s hard wired from genetics and upbringing and family-oriented New Orleans? How would you comment on that statement?
Michael Lewis: So there are two answers. One is, I really have always been a conspicuous, really happy person, even in even the gloomy years of my life when I was in middle school and causing trouble. And I can remember the headmaster at the Newman School who prevented me from getting thrown out of the school, a couple of years later, I was in his office again because I had insulted the English teacher. I’d actually planned my insult. I thought it was such a clever thing to say. She was notoriously unpleasant to students, and she said something kind of sharp to me. And I said, “Dr. Francis, are you always so pleasant to be with, or is this just an especially good day for you?”
And she just pointed to the door, like, “Go to headmaster. Here’s a note. You go.” And when I repeated what I’d done — I was only like in the ninth grade at this point, so I was 13 or 14. The headmaster, you could see he was like cracking up. He knew he was supposed to punish me, but he just started laughing because he had the same feelings about the English teacher. He said, “Michael Lewis, I’ve been watching you around this place for like 10 years and you’re like one of the happiest people I have ever met, but you can’t be doing this shit.” And he said, “We have to agree. We’ve got to control it in various ways. The spirit is high in you, but we’ve got to control it.”
And when he said that, “You’re like one of the happiest people I’ve ever met,” it hadn’t occurred to me, because I think when you’re happy, you know it when you’re unhappy. I think you don’t know it so much when you’re — but when you’re happy you just take it for granted. But from that moment on, I didn’t take it for granted. I thought, “He’s right, that I am basically really happy even when things aren’t going so great.” And I like that. I liked that self-definition, so I sought to preserve it.
Now, as I’ve gotten older, I would say starting in my mid to late 20s, I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves. There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. They’re the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. The smart person, they delivered the clever put down there. There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you, that you are in the way you craft your narrative, kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.”
And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is. And it also, there is this — I don’t know if you notice this in your life, but lots of intelligent people when they start a conversation with you, if they’re trying to be sensitive, like, “How are you doing? How are you doing? I know you’re in the middle of finishing a book, or your kid just got punished at school, or I saw you had a fight with your wife,” or whatever it is, “I know that something must be wrong.” A lot of people open conversations by giving you an opportunity to complain, and they don’t even do that with me anymore. So we don’t even start there. All my friends, they wouldn’t even bother because they know I’m not going to go there. And it’s terrific. It’s just terrific. It starts every conversation off on a delightful, cheery foot. So it is partly hardwired and partly self-conscious. Partly a kind of a personality trait and partly a trait that I’ve just tried to really encourage in myself.
Tim Ferriss: Let me dig into the friend exchange because there might be something I can emulate here. So if they’ve been trained not to give you the floor to complain by giving these very common prompts, what type of question would they open with? Like, “Is it a good or a great day, Michael?” Or do they ask — no, this is something that I would like to practice. Not that I’m bitching and moaning all the time. I would like to think I’m not. But how do you guys start your conversations?
Michael Lewis: Something entirely differently like, “Let’s go have an adventure,” or, “What’s the last great idea you — ” When I think about my friends who were just in my life here in Berkeley, it’s like, “All right, what’s the cool idea you’re working on?” Or they start. It’s just the conversation instantly launches into something substantive. It’s not about how I’m feeling, because how I’m feeling is never interesting. So it’s a great way to take how I’m feeling off the table. Now there may come a time in my life where I would like to talk about how I’m feeling, and I’m sure they’ll be open to it, but we’re not just naturally drifting into that. We’re drifting into something like just what happened that day.
It just starts on a different footing. And I’m usually pretty bored with people who want to talk about how they’re feeling. I hate to say that. It’s strategic, right? By taking it off the table for me, I’m taking it off the table for them, too. I mean, if they want to talk about how they’re feeling, they can talk to someone else, but unless it’s really important, there’s other things I’d rather talk about. So if it’s always a sunny day, the weather ceases to be interesting.
Tim Ferriss: There’s so many questions that I could follow up with and would love to.
Michael Lewis: I’m sure there are a million shrinks out there who think, “If I could only get my hands on him, I would scratch below the surface and I’d find the agony!” But I swear to God, they could scratch for a million years and they would not find anything but joy and the light.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there goes my plan also for the next 30 minutes to just give you a confession of all of my deepest insecurities. But for round two, perhaps. You were talking a bit about friends, and you mentioned a name earlier, and I might get the pronunciation wrong here, but Amos Tversky?
Michael Lewis: Amos Tversky.
Tim Ferriss: Tversky. And The Undoing Project. So we have Amos and Daniel Kahneman. Danny Kahneman. And maybe you could provide just a bit of context, for people who don’t know, who they are and what the book was about. But my question is, if that informed how you think about friendship or change how you approach your friendships in any way?
Michael Lewis: Let’s start by explaining who these guys are. So Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky could plausibly be credited with creating the whole Moneyball phenomenon, and I didn’t realize this until after I had written Moneyball, that they were the psychologists who collaborated on, essentially, a lifelong project for both of them, exploring the various ways that human beings — irrational is a word they would have not have liked to use, but the mistakes that people make when they’re making judgments under conditions of uncertainty. That even when you create a situation where there is a statistically correct answer, that people make, systematically make, the same mistakes. They misvalue risks in all kinds of ways, and they explored the ways they misvalue risks.
Now what attracted me to this story was, one, there was a body of knowledge that I thought was incredibly important and then had explained why the market for baseball players, for example, was so inefficient that the Oakland A’s could mop up inside of it. Explain why Danny and Amos, in their own way, explain why players who did not look like baseball players would be misvalued, and players who looked a lot like baseball players might be overvalued. They explain why vivid traits like foot speed or power would be overvalued and subtle traits that were hard to see would be undervalued.
So, their work was interesting, but what captivated me, and we created that sense of obligation, “I’ve got to write this book,” was the essential love affair, platonic love affair, between the two men. They were opposites in many ways. Danny was this gloomy pessimist, and Amos was this very up optimist. Amos actually had a line that he would say sometimes to Danny that pessimism was stupid because “When you’re pessimistic, you live it twice: once when you’re worrying about the bad thing happening and the second time when it actually happens. Why do that?” So the book explores their relationship and their dynamic and explores the power of collaboration, like two people — it was intriguing to me that two people could produce work that was so, one, breathtakingly important and, two, completely different than what either one of them would have done on their own. So that’s the backdrop to the book. What was your other question?
Tim Ferriss: My question was if the process of writing that book, getting to know —
Michael Lewis: Oh, it changed my attitude towards friendship? Oh, well that’s funny. So their friendship was very fraught. It was like a tempestuous love affair. And on Amos’ death bed, Amos said to Danny, “No human being has caused me more agony, more misery on the planet than you.” And Danny said, even though Amos was dying, Danny said right back to him, “I feel the same way about you.”
Their relationship they had is not a relationship I’ve ever had with another person. That my own friendships tend to be a lot more stable. I mean, incredibly stable, actually. I have close friends from when I was 12 and 13 years old who are still some of my closest friends in the world, and there aren’t a lot of ups and downs in them and throwing of plates. It just doesn’t happen. So I don’t think I’m wired in a way that would tolerate that kind of friendship, and to some extent, Amos wasn’t. It drove Amos crazy. I saw a lot of myself in Amos, just temperamentally, and what happened with Amos was he discovered that Danny was the golden goose, that the ideas that they hatched together were so valuable that he could tolerate the drama of the relationship with Danny. But otherwise, he had very limited tolerance for drama in his friendships. And I do, too. It’s not that I don’t engage with my friends’ problems or engage with their ups and downs, but we tend not to have ups and downs between us.
So I can’t say that the book actually has informed any particular friendship of mine. What it has done is make me appreciate the few friendships I have where the interaction is leading me to a much better place as a writer. I have a few people who I talk to about stuff I’m working on, and it ends up so much better because of it. And it makes me appreciate that it’s like, these books that I write, I’m never really just doing them myself, that it’s not just me, that it’s this very complicated collaboration between me and friends I talk to about it and me and my subject matter. The subjects I write about are often co-conspirators in this stuff. They give me ideas, sometimes without knowing it. So knowing about the relationship between Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman has informed me about the way the creative process works.
Tim Ferriss: With that small group of friends you share work with, what types of prompts or questions do you offer them in the sense that — how do you phrase your requests?
Michael Lewis: So Jacob Weisberg is one of them, who is the founder of Pushkin Industries, the podcast company, but we go all the way back to being joint disciples of Michael Kinsley at The New Republic.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no kidding. Didn’t know that.
Michael Lewis: Jacob can point to Michael as the person who shaped him as a writer. But with Jacob, I’ll just say, “Here’s this idea I have, what do you think?” And I’ll lay it out in five or 10 minutes on a hiking trail or over the phone. And what he does, and his great gift is not just say, “I like it,” or, “I don’t like it,” he does this thing — all the friends I consult are this way. They’re all improvisational. They all obey the rules of improv comedy in conversation, that their first step is never, “No, that’s stupid. I have a smart thing to say that puts this thing you just said in its place.” Their first step is to try to take what I’ve said and build on it or find what’s good in it.
And Danny Kahneman had this wonderful line, and it’s one of my favorite lines of the book, when he is with his graduate students in a seminar. He’s the professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the students at Hebrew University are famously caustic, kind of one-upping each other all the time, always trying to seem like the smart kid in the room. And he says to the students at his first seminar, he says, “When someone in this room says something, don’t ask if it’s true, ask what might it be true of. What value might there be in that thing that was said? Don’t try to show me how smart you are by showing how stupid everybody else is. Show me how smart you are by showing me how smart everybody else is.”
And my closest friend collaborators, the people who just listen to me, the sounding boards, are often showing me how smart I am, and they’re taking something that I said and they go, “Ah, and yes,” and it leads me some other place. So that’s the way the conversation usually sounds. And I’ll go, “Oh, my God, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” or, “I was thinking of it that way, I’m glad you find it interesting.” But that’s the nature of it. Have you ever done and tried to do improv comedy?
Tim Ferriss: I have. And it was many years ago in San Francisco, and it was surprisingly difficult.
Michael Lewis: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: I found it surprisingly difficult.
Michael Lewis: Me too. I found it surprisingly difficult. Exactly. But it felt like a muscle that you could exercise, and I think everybody should exercise it because it is amazing what happens if you listen to people in a generous way and you are looking for the thing they’re saying that’s useful. Where that leads you is often just magical. And when you’re watching really good improv comedians, what they do seems like magic, and sometimes I feel like, with my friends, that they introduced that magic into my mind.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about — you mentioned Pushkin, the name, so you have a critically acclaimed Pushkin produced podcast, Against the Rules. And you have a new season, which I’ll leave it to you to describe, but maybe we could use, as an entry point, an episode which I was able to listen to in advance. This is episode three, Inner Coach. And my question is, what was it like having a long conversation with Timothy Gallwey? And maybe, who is Timothy Gallwey, for those who don’t know? And then, what was it like having a long conversation with him? Because I only heard snippets, which were fantastic, but I’ll let you take it from there.
Michael Lewis: So the episode, so this is the second season of Against the Rules. And the first season was about referees and the role of referees in American life. The second season is about coaches and the role of coaches in American life. And the general idea of the podcast, that it was cooked up with Jacob Weisberg, is to take various authority figures in our lives, authority figures whose status/role/use has changed in some way and to explore why that change is happening and what it means. So the episode you’re talking about is about this whole idea of the inner game of things, the whole notion that when you coach something, what you really should be coaching is states of mind.
And Tim Gallwey is really the founding father of this idea. He was a tennis pro at an upper-middle-class tennis club in California, who notices that, in an accidental way, that when he doesn’t give instruction, people are learning more rapidly how to play tennis than when he does give instruction, than when he doesn’t tell them where to put their racket or when to hit the ball or where to hit the ball. That they’re kind of getting it quicker just by emulating him, just by watching him, and to the extent he’s giving them instruction, he’s telling them to focus on their core strength or their breath or something away from the end result.
And when he sees this, when he sees the effect of this sort of instruction, he starts to build a program of instruction around it, and he ends up writing a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, which is a very famous book now. It’s sold millions of copies. But when it was published in, whatever, 1972, 1973 by Random House, they told them it was going to sell 20,000 copies because that’s what tennis books sold. And it turned out that it applied, and he discovers that the stuff he’s doing applies to coaching anything, that if you can redirect a person’s attention away from things that can cause them to freeze up or tense up, and towards things that let them flow as they’re doing the thing, that it has amazing effects.
And right after he publishes his book, he’s invited to the Houston Philharmonic. The Houston Symphony brings him in with the idea of exploring whether the principles in The Inner Game of Tennis might be used to make musicians play better. And the conductor is very skeptical of this, but everybody’s interested in his book. And so he gives a little talk about his book, and they give him a little polite round of applause. And then the conductor says, “Anybody want to be coached by Tim?” And Tim doesn’t know anything about music. I mean, just nothing. He’s kind of got a tin ear. He can hardly name the instruments.
But the tuba player raises his hand, and he asked the tuba player some questions like, “What are you doing when you’re playing the tuba?” And the guy says, “I’m trying to hear the sound so I know that I’ve hit the note, that I’ve –” and there was a particular note he had trouble hitting, and he said, “It’s hard to hear the sound, and I’m straining.” To himself, he says, “That’s like the tennis player who’s thinking too much about when the ball hits the racket or where the racket is when he’s bringing it back.” So he says to the tuba player, he says, “What’s going on in your body when it tends to go well?” And the tuba player says, “It’s my tongue. When my tongue is moist, that the note tends to be cleaner.”
And so Gallwey says, “Okay, first, play something,” and he plays something. And then, he says, “All right, now we’re going to focus just on your tongue. I don’t want you to think about the notes you’re playing, just think about the tongue and keeping it moist.” And so the guy then belts out his tuba song again, and the whole orchestra stands up and gives him a standing ovation. And Gallwey said it was funny because he couldn’t hear the difference. He said it was just like, “It’s all tuba. I couldn’t tell whether it was good tuba or bad tuba.” But the musicians could completely hear the difference.
So I spent a few hours with Tim Gallwey talking to him about this beginning of an approach to coaching things, the inner game of stuff where you’re almost explicitly avoiding criticism or praise, anything that makes the performer feel self-conscious and directing their attention to something else, and then just explore the spread of this in all kinds of odd directions. And in this particular episode, one of the things I do is take someone who is young but pretty accomplished as a, they’re now called performance coaches, a performance coach, and I hire him to coach my then-17-year-old daughter to play softball. She’s a softball player, but she’s got, as she says, “I’m in my head a lot,” and she’s playing at a very high level. And he just starts working with her. And so I get to watch the process in real-time.
Tim Ferriss: And her softball coach sounds, to me at least, like the verbal equivalent of the written feedback from Michael Kinsley.
Michael Lewis: So this is exactly right. So this is exactly right. To the extent that podcasts, it really is seven different stories all kind of — it’s like a symphony. It’s seven different instruments on the same theme, but I come to the conclusion that I think maybe Gallwey isn’t completely right, that there is a role for more than one kind of coaching. But it is true that my daughter has a female, big-time softball coach. She’s playing for one of the best teams in the country, and we wire up her coach and what comes out of the coach’s mouth is, “You suck. If you suck, you’ll be on the bench.” Explicit instructions, kind of the opposite of — but the curious thing is, my daughter says, “I got a lot out of working with the performance coach and the inner game stuff, but I also get a lot out of this other kind of coach, too. That this other kind of coach has gotten me caring more, and now what I need to do is get through that voice that’s in my head, that she’s put in my head to push me, and start to ignore it. Ignore it when I’m at the plate facing a 70-mile-an-hour fastball. I’ve got to be in a different headspace.” So watching her wrestle, trying to fuse these two was very interesting. I found the forum, it’s essentially long-form radio storytelling, a really intriguing forum. It’s been a fun experiment that has, in funny ways, come back and informed my writing, and you reach, as you know, a different audience than you reach with a piece of prose when you produce one of these podcasts.
Tim Ferriss: It is incredible and disheartening in some ways to look at the, well, I guess in my case, I’ll speak just for myself, that your books have been blockbusters. My books have done decently well, but the reach with the podcast at a point is, it’s just incredible to see what can be imparted to how many people on a weekly basis. For that reason, there’s part of me that was wondering, as you were just talking, have we lost Michael to the dark side? Has he stepped into the void of audio, where the allure of the written word will just lose its luster? Maybe that’s not even something that you’re thinking about, I don’t know.
Michael Lewis: I think of it as literary cross-training. I’ll be a better prose writer because I’m working out these other muscles, and I’m still writing books. I’m still going to write books and maybe fewer long-form magazine stuff, and that’s partly because there’s just fewer places to do it. The books, for sure, are going to happen just like they’ve always happened. Being made more sensitive to sound, the sound of the words on the page, the different ways you might read a particular sentence, is a really healthy exercise. So it’s just an addition rather than a substitute. If something has to give, if I’m doing less of something and maybe slightly fewer long-form magazine pieces and slightly fewer film scripts, which I was also always doing, which is another way to exercise muscle and cross-train as a writer.
I think it’s really useful for writers to write different forms. I think that it would probably be good for me to make myself try to write poems every now and then, and it would probably be good for me to try to force myself to write some fiction every now and then. Good for the thing I do best, which is the long-form, book-length kind of storytelling, nonfiction storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with doing new stuff, and it’s the other side of it. Again, it’s not a substitute, it’s just in addition, is it’s really a different experience playing a team sport than playing an individual sport. Writing a book is an individual sport. You’re basically on your own. You have coaches, you have fans, but you’re out there pole vaulting on your own.
Making a podcast, the kind of podcast I make, it really is more like a basketball team. I have an incredibly gifted editor and producers, and Malcolm Gladwell sits in on my table reads and Jacob Weisberg. I’ve got ingenious people giving me feedback at every level of the process, and that’s fun. It’s fun because it’s educational. They’re not rude, but they’re pretty blunt with how they feel about things and pretty withholding of praise. So I’m getting like the straightest criticism I ever get, and it’s cool. It’s fun to do.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like fun. I’m mostly, although I have a very good team in support, I do not have as much of a table read like component as you do. So there is a level of jealousy that I have.
Michael Lewis: It’s just different, right? Because your form is different from this form.
Tim Ferriss: It is.
Michael Lewis: Your form is a conversational form. The form we’re playing with is, it’s more like, on the page, it looks like a film script. There are all these different voices and sound effects and this stuff coming together, and there’s no straight conversation. There’s a part of me that would like to take, say, the two hours I spent with Tim Gallwey and just release it, because a lot of it was really interesting, but he had a narrow role to play in that particular story.
Tim Ferriss: Suffice it to say, if you need an outlet for these longer-form interviews with people like Gallwey, there may be an avenue.
Michael Lewis: Yeah, no. Well, that’s interesting. It’s interesting to know, because we’ve got two years of this stuff, and I’ve interviewed at length. There’ve been some really interesting interviews that I used little snippets from, and there are some interviews where we didn’t use any of it and where I thought the interview was fabulous, but it just didn’t serve the piece.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. I may be option C.
Michael Lewis: No, option B. So we’ll figure that out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so we can bookmark that.
Michael Lewis: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: I have just a handful of additional questions for you, and I can let you get back to your day.
The question of exercise, it seems like you exercise regularly. I would love to just hear you speak to how you exercise, when you exercise, if it is, in fact, an important element of your days or weeks.
Michael Lewis: My wife and children make fun of how much I exercise, and it is one of those addictions I’ve encouraged in myself, cause it seems to me it’s a magic pill, right? It’s the closest thing there is to a magic pill, it not only makes me feel just better all the time, but it makes me think better. So exercise for me is, I’m usually working while I’m exercising. All kinds of ideas are popping in my head, and so it’s useful.
So what I do, pandemic exercise is a little different from non-pandemic exercise, but in a non-pandemic world, I try to do something different every day. Never do the same two things back-to-back, and the portfolio of activities is long bike rides, really long bike rides or Peloton rides. I have a Peloton in my house. Long hikes. I used to run, but I stopped running four or five years ago, because my joints didn’t like it.
Swimming. I suck at it. When I jump in the pool, I drown. My body goes to the bottom of the pool, and I’ve always been able to keep myself afloat, but it’s never been something I’m good at. I have this incredibly gifted female swimming coach who screams at me for an hour as I go back and forth in the pool, and she keeps pushing me to do crazy things — like we swam Alcatraz!
Tim Ferriss: That seems aggressive for somebody who is not good at swimming!
I’m really not a swimmer. I play tennis. I used to play a lot of basketball. That’s something also I gave up, just because the basketball games were starting to look like scenes from war, where every day you went out, there’s going to be a casualty. It was just a question, who in the unit was going to go down? It was like a hamstring or a knee or, and I just thought, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
So the cost of the injury got too high. So tennis is the last competitive sport I think I really played. Basketball, I do go one-on-one with my 13-year-old son, which is great. I can play half-court. So I do all those things. I’ll do at least 45 minutes of intense cardio a day, but usually substantially more than that and some weight and stuff like that. I have a trainer who I meet with two or three times a week who makes me move my body in ways that I don’t normally move my body. Oh, and the last thing is, once a week, non-pandemic, I’ll do a Bikram yoga class, again, just to stay flexible.
So yes, I do a lot of stuff, and I wish I had a 25-year-old body, and I could still do the stuff I really used to do. I used to love long runs, and I used to love basketball. That was the best, but I can’t do it anymore.
Tim Ferriss: It seems like you’re still putting in due mileage in the best way possible.
Michael Lewis: I feel, I don’t know about you, but I feel if I go a day without working out in some way, I feel rotten. I just feel like crap. So my body is forcing me to do it, and I’m glad that my body’s forcing me to do it. But it’s, it does. I assume that’s the way you’re supposed to live, that you’re supposed to be, especially since a lot of the rest of my life is sedentary. I’m at a desk. It’s funny how when you bump up against people who don’t do it and how weird they think it is, but for me it’s just like therapy, and I sort out all kinds of literary problems.
If I have a problem with anything I’m writing, if I just go for a bike ride or go walk up a mountain, the problem is resolved by the end of it. It just resolves itself. So it’s central to my existence. Also, I would say, I have this in common with almost, I would say, all my close friends. All my close friends are people who can hop on a bike and go 40 or 50 miles and just like doing it, or go for 20-mile hikes, and they all do it. So I guess it does sit in the middle of my life, and it’s replaced, sports was the middle of my life until I was 19 years old. Growing up, I was identified as an athlete, and I played lots of sports, and those eventually you’re no longer able to play, but this is the next best thing.
Tim Ferriss: So just a few more questions, and if these lead us to dead ends, then I’ll take full responsibility.
Michael Lewis: All right.
Tim Ferriss: The first is, what books outside of your own have you gifted the most to other people? Are there any books that you have given more than once as gifts?
Michael Lewis: Oh, yes. In fact, it’s funny, because I’ve just sent a couple of friends a pair of novels, and one of the novels I’ve sent to a dozen people, and it will seem like a random choice to you, but it’s one of these books that, it’s just a miracle of a book. It’s called The Long Ships, and it’s by a Scandinavian historian. It’s a novel by a Scandinavian historian who only wrote one novel. I think his name is Frans Bengtsson, and he was a Viking historian, and he packed everything he knew about the Vikings into this wonderful comic novel. At the end of it, you feel like you were a Viking for 400 pages. It’s a piece of history that he just brings to life in this story.
I hand that out all the time, partly because it is just an incredible pleasurable reading experience, and partly just to illustrate a point that you never know where great books are going to come from. There are lots of examples of people, even very late in life, a book just pops out of them, and it was their one book. The other book, my pandemic reading gift I’ve been giving to people, because it’s a perfect pandemic novel, is Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and it’s about a Russian aristocrat who, during the Revolution, he’s the kind of guy who was supposed to be shot, but because of certain qualities, he isn’t shot. Instead, they lock him up in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, and he doesn’t leave for the next 50 years.
So you were stuck inside this place, and it’s Eloise for Grownups, and just beautifully done, but it makes you, in this moment, it makes you see the possibilities of resourcefulness in a confined space. There are a bunch of books that I give to people, but those are the two that I’ve just recently, in the last week, sent to people.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to check out The Long Ships, was it?
Michael Lewis: Yup.
Tim Ferriss: Do any nonfiction books come to mind, or do you gift mostly fiction?
Michael Lewis: Mostly fiction. Mostly fiction. Memoir. There are memoirs that I’ve given more than once to people. Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, essentially comic memoirs. Just really funny books. They’re books that I just found moving in all kinds of ways that are odd books that I’ll go grab and send to people.
There’s a book, I’ve never seen anybody talk about it or write about it, but when I read it, I thought, in a funny way, it was helpful for Liar’s Poker. It was a book called The Innocent Anthropologist. Do you know this book?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t.
Michael Lewis: All right. Nigel Barley is the author, and Nigel Barley was a graduate student doing his PhD in anthropology at Cambridge. He’s got the knotty problem of what he’s going to write his thesis about. He goes in to meet with his advisor and what normally people were doing, and this would have been in the mid-’70s, where they were finding tribes that had not been described. People in remote parts of the world who had not been visited by an anthropologist. You go do your anthropological PhD about this tribe, but the advisor says, “There are none left. There’s nobody left to write about. That old trick of finding some tribe, and going in, and doing their anthropology. It’s not going to work,” but then the advisor says, “I take that back. There’s one, but they’re so boring, nobody wants to write about them. It’s a tribe called the Dowayo People in Northern Cameroon.
He goes and lives with the Dowayo people. He’s told that the only things they do, there’s some mating ritual, and they drink beer all the time. Other than that, they don’t do anything. That’s why he should not write his thesis. Instead, he writes this wonderful travel book, memoir, anthropological study of these incredibly interesting people in Northern Cameroon who have disguised how interesting they are by seeming only to drink beer and mate. They shielded themselves from anthropological inquiry. This book, I’m very responsive to people who can make me laugh on the page, and that was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Every now and then, and when I can find it, I give that away. Because again, it’s a surprising book.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).You have mentioned a number of quotes from, say, Amos and others that are very sticky in the course of this conversation. If you could put a message, a quote, a question, anything at all on a billboard, metaphorically speaking, that would reach billions of people. Does anything come to mind, noncommercial, that you might put on a billboard, saying a mantra, something you remind yourself of? Anything at all?
Michael Lewis: It’s going to sound trite, whatever I say, and let me just say that I live in the world’s capital of bumper stickers. In Berkeley, California, there are more bumper stickers per automobile than anywhere else in the world. It’s been scientifically proven, and you can walk down the street, and it’s mostly political stuff, but it’s people getting their point across in bumper stickers. I have never had a bumper sticker on my car, because there’s not one thing I’ve ever wanted to say over and over forever. I’m not a bumper sticker or quote guy. However, if you say I’ve got to put it up on a billboard, I would take the mantra of my high school baseball coach, one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, who is actually the subject of one of the podcast episodes. He would just say it routinely, and it became part of you. He would say, “Don’t be good, be great.”
He’d say it to you as he handed you the ball to go out to pitch a game. He’d say it to you when you were working out, and having that in mind, it’s the kind of thing I try to keep in mind when I’m working on something. Good is not okay. It’s like, if you’re going to do it, be great. Push yourself. It’s hard, and don’t just stop when it’s good enough. So that’s what I would stick on a billboard. It’s one of those things that’s in the billboard of my mind. Don’t be good, be great.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. That’s Billy Fitzgerald?
Michael Lewis: Billy Fitzgerald.
Tim Ferriss: Episode two. I have loved my sneak peek of this new season of Against the Rules. I encourage everybody to check it out. You’ve done a wonderful job. The whole team has done a great job on it. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you might find your podcasts. You can find more information at atrpodcast.com, as in, Against the Rules. Atrpodcast.com. Michael, are there any other websites or any other resources, social media handles, anything that you would like to mention if people want to learn more about what you’re up to, or wave hello through the ether of the Internet?
Michael Lewis: I wish I could say yes, but I don’t do social media. So the answer is no. I feel so inadequate. No, I have no way to be found, except through my work. Look to your boot soles. That’s the wit line, right? There’s not much of me on the Internet.
Tim Ferriss: What a gift to you and to yourself and your family, I think. It’s a rarity. I remember when I asked Laird Hamilton, this big wave surfer, once, I said, “Where can people find you?” and he said “The Pacific Ocean.”
So you’re in rarefied company. So you’ve got people typing in www.pacificocean.com looking for Laird Hamilton. Where is he? You said he was going to be here.
Well, Michael, this has been such a pleasure, and I really appreciate you carving out the time. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
Michael Lewis: So have I, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: Of course, and to everybody listening, everything we discussed, including, of course, Against the Rules, atrpodcast.com, all of the books, everything can be found in the show notes as per usual, @tim.blog/podcast. Until next time, thanks for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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2 Replies to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Michael Lewis — Inside the Mind of the Iconic Writer (#427)”
I swear I would follow your podcast just for the sponsors alone. Seriously cool products I would never know about otherwise. Can’t think of a better win-win. Can’t believe you thought about doing away with sponsors, silly.
You say this is the top place to get in touch, so here I am! I love your work/play/life/everything and I have one quick question (if that’s ok)!
Knowing what you know now (and having just read say the 4 hour work week, hypothetically of course), would you still have gone to Princeton?
The time sounds formative yet runs counter to the way of living that you now embody.
Thank you Tim, speak soon!