One Keen Mind: Full Interview with Michael Lewis

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, funny, 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 I went to be an art history major, I had no particular ambition to be a writer, so I wasn't thinking “This is going to be useful for a literary career.” It has been, though, in a very specific way. When you have a really good art history education, as I got at Princeton, they teach you how complicated looking is, that you look at a painting and you think you've seen it. And then someone who's really looked at it and knows how to look at it explains to you what's really going on there, and you realize how much you missed. So just 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 taken from art history and applied to journalism. For example, the people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who tried to attribute the paintings of Italian masters – to determine which was a Leonardo and which was a Raphael and so on – figured out that if you wanted to indentify the specific hand of a 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 look at details where they might not be thinking anyone was watching. 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, very different. And you could start to identify the hand of a painter that way.

When I'm getting to know people, I consciously look for details that they are less self-conscious about, because they are invariably self-conscious when someone is going to write about them and they feel watched. People generally fee 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: Your books explore diverse subjects. How do you typically identify your book subjects? What compelling elements does a story have to contain for you to commit to writing that book?

Michael Lewis: I don't have a checklist going in to a book project, but after the fact I can look back and see the single most important thing was having a character I was interested in, who was in a situation I found compelling. That's what they all have in common. Now, they also tend to have people I'm interested in playing in environments I'm interested in and dealing with ideas I'm interested in. I don't have a systematic way of finding book subjects. What happens is something catches my eye. I think it's a small curiosity. I go explore the small curiosity, maybe just to explore it or maybe because I'm going to write a little piece about it. And then I realize what I have on my hands is a much bigger subject, that my interest fills the room rather than just my own little head. When I get that feeling, I start thinking, “Huh, maybe there's something longer to do here.” I'll spend months, even years sometimes, trying to figure out if it is indeed a book. I do have this idea that too many books get written. We and the forests of America would be a lot better off if a lot of books just weren't written – just mediocre, bad books. I don't want to add to the pile. I think a material has to rise to a certain level of excitement. It's a completely subjective feeling.

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 any 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 if we could fill an arena that would hold them, because I'm not going to waste my breath just addressing half of them. I want them all there at mid-morning when they're awake and alert and before they're hungry. And I would give them a talk about our responsibilities to our society, and this talk would go to great lengths to try to explain how many things we're taking for granted right now that we shouldn't take for granted. And that we don't have a culture unless we put our shoulders into it. That's what I would do.

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, an environment in which war isn't the norm. I mean, we've been in a war a long time but a vast majority of the population is not putting its life at risk in battle regularly. Just how good we got it and can have it if we have a richer appreciation of the way this society works. This is on my mind. I'm writing a series for Vanity Fair, a series of magazine pieces about the government, and it's amazing just how much it does as neglected and as hated as it is. I think this idea has crept into the American psyche that the federal government is this thing “out there” that's doing things to us, and people need to understand 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: Could you speak to the value and necessity of curiosity and listening?

Michael Lewis: When I think about the importance of curiosity, I think that curiosity is inextricably bound to happen to us. When I'm curious, I'm at my happiest. It's leaving yourself open to life and the world around you and new things. I don't have a big depressive streak, but like everyone, I have little moments. In those little moments, I'm not interested in anything. These two things – curiosity and happiness – to me, are impossible to separate. I think you can control up to a point how you are as a person. There are traits I want to encourage in my kids, the three most important being kindness and sensitivity to other people, curiosity, and a sense of gratitude. You can practice being curious. You can practice being grateful. While you may not feel it in the depths of your soul, it does help.

Julie Riddle: You coach your son's Little League team and you have the players do theatre improv exercises. What's that all about?

Michael Lewis: I try to do improve exercises every practice when we have time. It does several things. One, it's a great way to just loosen people up because it forces everybody to do something that makes them uncomfortable in front of other people, and they all realize it, so they become looser and funny. And they get to know each other quickly. Second, a lot of sports is improvisational. It's reacting and letting your mind go to a place where you're really in the flow of competing. You aren't scripting your behavior, but you're responding to very nuanced, peculiar situations with confidence. I like them to get the feeling of what that's like. And third, with twelve boys on a baseball team, you've got such a range of ability. You've got kids who are All World with kids who can't catch or throw. A pecking order quickly emerges if you don't do anything about it. You've got these kids who are good kind of lording over kids who aren't any good, and you've got kids who aren't very good feeling like second-class citizens. If you can find other things for them to do where the kids who aren't any good can be good or at least just as good, it breaks the class barriers that would naturally emerge on the team and there is a better sense of “team.” For all of those reasons it kind of works and it's fun.