Monday, June 4, 2012

Tumbling Dice

Roll 'em, cowboy
Always in a hurry,
I never stop to worry
Don’t you see the time flashin’ by?
Honey, got no money,
I’m all sixes and sevens and nines

Say now, baby,
I’m the rank outsider
You can be my partner in crime.

— Rolling Stones, “Tumbling Dice”

I must admit, O Dearly Beloved, that I have in the past viewed our national treasure and acclaimed fabulist Michael Lewis with a somewhat jaundiced eye. The man is undeniably talented, in his own way: blessed with a sure and steady voice and an unerring instinct for the always entertaining (if less reliably enlightening) story which illustrates the didactic point at issue. He is a master of illuminating larger social, cultural, and economic phenomena by presenting the personal history of one or more lonely misfits whose personal flaws, limitations, and talents throw into high relief the idiocy or blindness of the so-called “normal” people around them. And he can be very funny.

These qualities paper over a multitude of sins, in my book. And while I have been irritated in the past by Mr. Lewis’s periodically flip and lazy characterization of my industry in particular, and by a few misfires and lamentable howlers in general, I have to say the content or quality of his writing is not what has gotten my goat. The man is no Chesterton, to be sure—not even an A.J. Liebling. But honestly, Most Indulgent of All Readers, how many of us are?

No, what has bothered me most about Michael Lewis is the fact that he has been so obviously and incredibly lucky in his life and work. Not only to have stumbled, at the ripe and confused old age of 26, into a dinner meeting which led to a job offer at Salomon Brothers which most of his contemporaries would have killed for, but also to have been present at the origin of so many of the outrageous founding myths of New Modern Wall Street, which he ultimately released as Liar’s Poker, a book which launched not only his own writing career but also the careers of tens of thousands of future investment bankers, including—full disclosure—Yours Truly. To have followed this remarkable run with a series of happy happenstances apparently entirely out of his control which led to most if not all of his subsequent bestsellers. Even, to my disbelief, to the extent of picking up the story at the heart of The Blind Side by watching the silent, unexplained passage of the person who became the central character of the book, Michael Oher, in and out of the home of a childhood friend he visited in Memphis one Christmas holiday. I mean, this guy must have a four leaf clover stapled to his ass or something.

So I was heartened to learn that Mr. Lewis seems not only fully aware of his good fortune, but also eager to explain its importance to a few of our best and brightest:

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

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

This is true, modest, and wise. And it almost makes up for the vicious if humorous abuse Mr. Lewis has been heaping on me and my brethren ever since he turned Judas and sold us out for his thirty pieces.

I hope he had an attentive and receptive audience. From what I know about hotbeds of lucky privilege and talent like Princeton, I expect he did. Most of these graduating seniors are young enough to remember the enormous element of luck which contributed to their admission to such an institution in the first place,1 and the four years they spent with several thousand of the brightest and hardest working youngsters from around the world should have cemented the realization of their good fortune firmly in their brains. It is only later, when they are older, more forgetful, and more successful that they may begin to believe their own bullshit, and think the world owes them their privileges and success simply because they “earned” it. I hope, for some of them at least, that Mr. Lewis’s lesson sticks.

* * *

One final note. I am not a personal acquaintance or close friend of Mr. Lewis, so I claim no insight into the total shape or quality of his life. For all I know, his great professional success and public fame have come at the price of deep private tribulation and sorrow. I have no idea, and I therefore make no final judgment.

But I will say that I have heard enough second- and thirdhand reports about his life to know that he has made or at least recognized and grasped much of his luck. In person, Michael Lewis is a charming, gregarious, friendly man, who appears to have a bottomless interest in learning about the lives of the people he interacts with. He is a keen observer, and a good conversationalist, and he tells funny and interesting stories. These seem talents well-designed to support the career of a storyteller, and perfectly suited to drawing out the stories which each of his subjects carries around with him or her. There are plenty of smarter, more diligent, and more talented writers than he. And I am sure they miss hundreds of just the kind of stories that seem to fall into Michael Lewis’s lap simply because he listens well enough to hear them.

The moral of the story is this, youngsters: Be open to your luck, and alert to the opportunities life presents you. Just because your success depends in large part on good fortune, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your damnedest to chase it.

Good luck, and be careful out there.

1 In addition to hard work, brains, and talent, of course. A personal anecdote: I ferried one of the Dealmaker progeny about on college tours not so long ago. At a small nameless college on the banks of the Charles River, the Dean of Admissions made the following remarks [paraphrased]: “35,000 students apply to Harvard every year. Our first task is to determine whether they can do the work. We look at test scores and grades to do this. Approximately 23,000 of you can do the work. We have 1,800 slots to fill in our incoming Freshman class. You do the math.”

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