Michael Lewis, the featured speaker for Whitworth's fall President's Leadership Forum, is the author of a slew of New York Times best-selling books including The Blind Side, Moneyball, The Big Short and, most recently, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. While he's a sharp observer of politics, finance and American culture, I found Lewis to also be humble, humorous, insightful and inspiring when I interviewed him for Whitworth Today.
Julie Riddle: You majored in art history at Princeton University. How has that influenced your work as a writer?
Michael Lewis: When you have a really good art history education, you learn how complicated looking is. You look at a painting and you think you've seen it, and then someone who knows how to look at it explains to you what's really going on, and you realize how much you missed. The appreciation of how much there is to see if you look really well informs everything I do.
Also, there are little things I've applied to journalism. For example, the people who tried to attribute paintings to particular Italian masters figured out that to identify the hand of a specific painter, it was far more useful to look at the parts of the painting that the painter was less self-conscious about. So, if you were looking at a painting of the Virgin Mary, you didn't look at her face or her eyes, you looked at her fingernails. You would find that while two paintings had the same face and looked like they were painted by the same person, the fingernails were very different. And you could start to identify the hand of a painter that way.
When I'm getting to know people, I look for details that they are less self-conscious about, because they are invariably self-conscious when someone is going to write about them. People generally feel watched, especially in their public presentation. But you can often pick up things about them by looking in the places they're not thinking about.
Julie Riddle: If you could speak to an audience on any current issues, who would your audience be, what issues would you choose, and why?
Michael Lewis: Ha! That question presumes I think anything I say is going to have influence on anybody, which does not strike me as true. Just merely answering the question is a form of pomposity, but I will answer it. I would address all of the American people, and I would give them a talk about our responsibilities to our society and would go to great lengths to try to explain how many things we're taking for granted that we shouldn't take for granted. And that we don't have a culture unless we put our shoulders into it.
Julie Riddle: What do we take for granted?
Michael Lewis: Clean air and clean water, food to eat, a decent climate to live in, an elastic social safety net that makes life bearable for a lot of unlucky people, a more-or-less peaceful environment. This idea has crept into the American psyche that the federal government is this thing "out there" that's doing things to us, and that's not what it is. It is us. We've got to make it good. We can't always be hating on it.
Julie Riddle: You coach your son's Little League team and you have the players do theatre improv exercises. What's that about?
Michael Lewis: It's a great way to loosen the kids up because it forces everybody to do something that makes them uncomfortable in front of other people. And they get to know each other quickly. Second, a lot of sports is improvisational – you're responding to nuanced, peculiar situations with confidence. I want them to get the feeling of what that's like. And third, with 12 boys on a baseball team, you've got a range of ability and a pecking order quickly emerges. If you can find other things for them to do where the kids who aren't any good at baseball can be at least just as good, it breaks the class barriers that would naturally emerge and there is a better sense of "team."
Web extra: Read the full interview.