JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: How much do the most successful in our society deserve the fortune cookies that have come their way? And how much of it is about luck and accident, things we choose not to see or credit?
That was the theme of a speech to the graduating class at Princeton University given earlier this month by Michael Lewis, himself a graduate of Princeton, class of 1982. Lewis went on to become, briefly, a Wall Street derivatives trader, and then a best-selling author of numerous books, from “Liars Poker” to “The Blind Side” to “Moneyball.”
Here’s a brief excerpt from his talk.
MICHAEL LEWIS, Author: 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’s a reason for this. The world doesn’t want to acknowledge it either.
Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that you have had success, you have also had luck. And with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky. I make this point because, along with this speech, it’s something that you’re very likely to forget.
JEFFREY BROWN: The speech generated wide interest, especially online. It was the most-read story on Dow Jones Financial News last week and generated thousands of comments on Facebook and mentions on Twitter.
MICHAEL LEWIS, a contributor to “Vanity Fair,” joins us now from the journalism school at U.C. Berkeley.
Michael, beside hoping to come up with a memorable graduation speech, why did you feel the need to remind this audience, young people graduating from a top university, that some part of their success is due to luck?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, you know, I — when you’re asked to give one of these speeches, your first goal is really not to embarrass yourself.
So that’s where I started. And then I just started thinking about, you know, where they sit and how they think about their lives. And I listened to this very speech 30 years ago at Princeton. And I don’t remember a word of it. So, I thought, tell them something that speaks from my heart and also and speak — and tell them something they might not expect to hear.
And I think that — you know, I think if you’re sitting — coming out of an Ivy League school today, you’re encouraged to believe that you’re very special, that you have passed through all these very fine filters our society has created, and you got this road ahead of you that’s deserved and earned.
And I just — I do think it’s very easy for people sitting in those seats to forget that they’re lucky, that there’s a huge amount of chance in life, and accident plays a very big role in life. And they ought to dwell on that a minute. They ought to dwell on just how fortunate they are.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, do you see it — do you take it further, that they’re fortunate and, therefore, they develop a sense of — well, almost of entitlement?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, I can’t speak of — you know, it’s not — it’s not fair to accuse the poor graduates of Princeton of any kind of general sentiment like that.
But I do think that there has been kind of sapped out of the culture an idea that used to be pretty robust. And it’s the idea of noblesse oblige. It’s the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected from.
And it’s an idea that it’s — you know, it’s the heart of the Princeton education. When you get there, they tell you, the motto is, in the nation’s service. But it’s easy and convenient to forget. So it wasn’t that hard to settle on a topic for a speech, just because, in addition, I was — the assignment in part was to start with my own life experiences.
And when I look at my own life, I think, oh, that but for a turn here or a turn there, things could have turned out very differently.
JEFFREY BROWN: We didn’t play this part, but you actually tell a nice story of yourself about — you’re an art history major coming out of Princeton, and you happened to sit at a dinner right next to the wife of a very powerful person on Wall Street, who basically gets her husband to give you a job. And the rest — the rest is history.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, but the mere fact that I’m even a writer, that’s an accident in a lot of ways, and that I got an opportunity to write.
And then I got this wonderful material tossed in my lap when I started my writing career. There was a huge amount of chance involved in all of it, and nobody honestly looking at my path could attribute it all to skill, talent, and hard work. There is baked into this an awful lot of luck.
And when you realize that, you think, well, it’s not — how do you respond to that? And I think the way to respond to that is with this — with a kind of — an updated sentiment of noblesse oblige, that you were the one that chance visited — paid this visit upon.
There are others who didn’t have that kind of luck. You owe them something. Think about that. Think about the responsibility of being lucky almost is what I was saying.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but I wonder how far you push that idea of the obligation? I mean, one thing that’s been noted widely — and I think you have talked about it — is a lot of Ivy League graduates going on into the financial world, onto Wall Street, a very high percentage over a number of years.
When you say noblesse oblige and a kind of responsibility and obligation, how do you define that? What exactly do you ask of young people who have had a certain amount of luck thrown at them?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, you can float the idea and the sentiment, and you can keep it alive.
It’s very hard to put your finger on exactly what they should be doing. But you could — I would push it even further. I would say that, look, that the successful in our society owe so much of their success to things outside of themselves. They owe it to the society, that they’re born into this affluent and peaceful society that was not of their making, that they should acknowledge that obligation.
And I think you see a lot of — a lot of fight-back on that subject. And you see it — you mean, you see it in the tax code. You see it in the way private equity managers manage to construe their income as capital gains, so they don’t have to pay taxes on it. You see it in CEO pay.
You see it in — you see it in the way Wall Street people pay themselves. So I think that — that even to — even to put the question into the minds of young people of what they owe is maybe a novel concept, because there are an awful lot of people who sit on top of the society who don’t feel that way.
Having said that, you know, I do think that one of the things that distinguishes our country from, say, Greece, is that we do have this notion that you give back. If you look at Greek culture and why — and why the place over there is crumbling right now, part of the problem is the elites feel they owe the place nothing. They don’t pay taxes. They don’t — they have no real organic relationship with the rest of the place, and they certainly don’t have a sense of noblesse oblige.
It’s sort of winner take all. And that’s something I think we need to really fight hard to avoid here, because when we get to that point, I do think the society starts to crumble. So this was on my mind when I wrote this talk. And I confess I’m a little surprised you’re interested, because, to me, it just seems obvious.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, OK, maybe obvious, but maybe we thought of interest to a wider audience.
So, Michael Lewis, thanks so much for that.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s much more online. You can watch the full speech by Michael Lewis, as well as another recent address to high school students that’s also generating discussion. Plus, you can weigh in with your own views on our home page.