The transcript from this week’s, MiB: Michael Lewis on Coaches and Risk, is below.
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This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week, one of my favorite guests, Michael Lewis. What can I say about him? His books are just required reading for anyone interested in finance or psychology of money and we speak about a lot of really interesting things. We talk about season two of his podcast, “Against the Rules.”
The first season was about referees. The second season of is about coaches. And this doesn’t just apply to sports, this is about referees in the real world, coaches in the real world, how — how things operate, how coaches affects students and children and everybody, essentially, including Michael Lewis who claims he would not have been a writer but for Coach Fitz in high school changed his life. Really just quite fascinating.
We also discussed his book, “The Fifth Risk” and how prescient it was about ignoring the importance of government in trying to create an entity that can respond to sudden and unexpected events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion about what went right and wrong in the prep for the is really quite fascinating.
Lewis isn’t some sort of a left wing Berkeley-based ideologue, he just cares about management and competency and organizational excellence and he’s frustrated when we don’t have that.
So, rather than me continue to talk, with no further ado, my interview with Michael Lewis.
ANNOUNCER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My special guest today needs no introduction. He is the author of “Liar’s Poker,” “Moneyball,” “The Big Short,” “The Blindside,” “Flash Boys,” The Undoing Project.” I’m going to stop there, just say Michael Lewis, welcome to Bloomberg.
MICHAEL LEWIS, AUTHOR: Well, thanks for having me back.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. This is our third or fourth one. That’s — we did one live and two in the studio. This will be the second one in the studio.
Last we spoke, you were just launching your first season of a new podcast called “Against the Rules.” What was that experience like? What did you learn being a podcaster?
LEWIS: So, it’s been that long?
LEWIS: Because that would have been — that would have been a little more than a year ago, right?
LEWIS: It has — it’s been — at this stage of my career, it’s amazing and delightful to find a whole new thing to do. This is — as sort of enriching as this thing has been.
So, this is what I found, one, the audience is huge and it’s indifferent in nature from a book audience. People listen to these things differently than they read. And it is a more emotional connection you have with the audience.
So, people will come up to me and say I really liked your book but it’s a cool kind of thing. And people come up and they like the podcast, it’s almost like they want to hug you. Then it’s — they feel like — I think there’s something about the human voice. They feel like they know you in a different way.
RITHOLTZ: A 100 percent and I was going to say something you had said to me that I’ve slowly come around to accepting, the book people read isn’t necessarily the book you wrote. And originally, I pushed back and now I’m kind of OK, I kind of see that. When you’re doing an interview, when it’s just having a conversation or discussing stuff in an audio format, people really think like they know you personally, it’s a very different connection between author and reader versus podcaster and listener.
LEWIS: So, there’s some overlap and the overlap, in nature my podcast is storytelling podcasting. It’s scripted and it’s laid out and structured in the same way along a piece of writing be laid out and structured.
But it — the form encourages the creator to move in certain directions. And in particular, they encourage the creator to move in emotional directions. It’s an emotional — it’s an emotional connection you have. People are more likely to laugh, they’re more likely to cry, than they are with the printed — the word on a page.
And they’re likely to, like, sit through a description of a collateralized then obligation. It’s harder — it’s harder to do that kind of thing, but the raw ingredients of a story, in some ways, work better in audio than they do on a printed page.
They’re both great. I don’t — I’m not living one for the other, it’s just been — I feel like almost like I spent my career as a — as a like a weightlifter with only using my legs. And now, someone has allowed me to lift with my arms and working all these other muscles that I just — I’ve never worked.
And it just feels — it feels both — it’s fun to do. It’s a way to get material — get to material I would have a hard time getting to in print and it will make the print stuff better. I mean, I just have no question about that now.
RITHOLTZ: So, the first season of against the rule was about referees in sports, in finance, in life. What brought you to that concept of referees and are you staying with a theme about now the new season is about coaches?
LEWIS: So, there is — there will a theme that runs through — I sort of laid out seven seasons in my head at some point. And seven — seven seasons …
RITHOLTZ: Yes (ph).
LEWIS: Seven seasons of seven episodes each. Now, whether those get done or not, well, we’ll see. But the idea in the beginning was to look at — to look at American life through characters in American life. In particular, roles that have been in flux where you’ve seen some movement in the status — the situation of the role.
So, the referee was an easy one to start with because you could kind of show that — I mean, even in sports, it was easy to show the way refs then gotten kind of better and better and better but people hated them more and more.
And it was — you could see that — and you could extend that from sports to other thing as — we see referees under attack for various reasons. And that character interested me because I did feel like — that the theme that will run through all the episodes was fairness would be kind of like inequality, unfairness, feelings that are very much alive right now in American life. And I’d be playing with that — those ideas through this character and the character — and we do a number of different stories about the character.
So, going to the second season, it was never going to be about referees, it’s going to be something else. And I had seven characters in my mind, it was a question of which came next. And I went to coaches — I went to coaches one because it preserved — it preserved an option that I thought maybe I’d want to have of keeping the entire of seven seasons inside of an arena, that every role is someone who’s actually been inside of an arena during a sporting event.
Now, in the second season, it’s not all sports coaches. In fact, it’s very seldom sports could — there’s only two or three of the episodes that have sports coaches in them. But the — the spirit of the thing still arises out of athletics.
RITHOLTZ: Yes, that was pretty obvious as soon as the — I started listening to the season two. It’s like, OK, so first referees, now coaches. I wonder when he’s going to start getting into the guy that tapes up your rankles and ticket seller. How much is it going to stay with sports?
But the other thing that stands out. Writing is a pretty solitary act. You can still speak with people and do research and interview people, but ultimately, it’s you sitting in front of the keyboard or a pen paper, how have you transitioned to sort of the ensemble approach? And I know that Pushkin industries who puts out your podcast, it was founded by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg who were two old buddies of yours.
LEWIS: Yes. And who now sit around the table during a table read when I have a rough draft and tell me what sucks about it. It’s — it’s one of the joys of the form that is not an individual sport. Like, writing books is basically an individual sport.
LEWIS: But this is — the other people who participate in this, the producers, the editors, Malcolm and Jacob have huge effects on the product on what- on how it all turns out and that’s been great. It took me a little while to get used to people telling me that I’m wrong or people — or people taking — it’s more of this, it’s like people taking stuff that I thought, wow, that’s great and sort of saying, that’s not really great. We can do — you can do this this way.
And it’s a — it is a new form. I have a lot to learn. So, that’s been — it’s been stretching. It’s been — it’s just like been a really great thing. And I like all the people, love all the people who I’m working with.
So, we have a little team and the team kind of gets each other now. We’ve now done it — I’ve just — I’m about to put to bed the last episode of the second season, so that’s our 14th episode. So, we’ve done this 14 times together. And they’re getting — I think they know me know and I know them.
And that’s a lovely feeling. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time. And it’s — you get it in businesses. I’m sure. I don’t have one.
You get it in sports. You miss — I miss — I’ve missed that feeling. So, that’s been just like another — another thing about it. It’s been all pleasure.
RITHOLTZ: My extra special guest is Michael Lewis. You know him from — I’m not even going to list the books, but I do want to talk about two of his recent books. One is “The Fifth Risk” which is about the transition team on and a bunch of other things with the current president. And also, his audio-only book, “The Coming Storm.”
Let’s stay with “The Fifth Risk.” So, that turned out to be a shockingly prescient depiction of all of the unfilled jobs in in this administration. And there are literally thousands of political appointees and very senior folks that just never ever got appointed to a position which is kind of shocking because that’s how you control the government, that’s how you affect your policies.
First of all, it was incredibly prescient depiction. But second, how did you ever find the story people really were not all that plugged into what was going on here?
LEWIS: You know, it was funny. It seemed to me kind of low-hanging fruit, but only to me. This is — so this is what happened. I woke up from surgery. I had hip surgery the day before Trump walked in to the White House. The day before he actually became present.
And I was laying in bed, all drugged up, and I had — you got to remember, I had on my mind what — the book I just finished which was “The Undoing Project.”
LEWIS: Which is all about the way people misperceive risk. And I’d always seen Trump as — watching his campaign, it just felt like he was a risk distorting machine. And I was — anyway, I had this thought, this — and it was in front of the White House, I thought I don’t know how he’s going to kill me, how is he going to kill me?
So, he’s going to do something — he’s going to do something that’s going to kill me. It was like an existential dread. And I thought how do I get this across to people that what they just put in there is unbelievably risky. And my first thought, this is relevant right now was — and I’ve got some way to actually doing it, was to creating in Times Square something I wanted to call the Trump Death Clock and it was going to scroll the number of deaths caused by Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the federal government.
So, I’m already framing in my head, the federal government is this management of — manager of existential risks. That seem kind of obvious. But the death clock, I got — I found someone who was willing to pay for it, I just couldn’t find an intellectually respectable ways to determine the death count, right?
It was going to look like the death clock and it — but it — and it was going to like scroll and you’d have pictures of people who died, who shouldn’t have died and all of that. That’s actually gone up. I don’t know if you’d notice it, but two days ago, someone put up something called the Trump Death Clock in Times Square and it’s — and it’s just measuring the number of people who’ve died from the coronavirus, who wouldn’t have died if we had different policies in place.
RITHOLTZ: It’s funny — it’s funny you bring that up because I have not been in Manhattan in 64 days since we’d been sheltering in place and my version of that death clock is this wonderful infographics from a website called “Information is Beautiful,” I’ll send you the link, and they — it’s global. They do have a couple of great info sources.
But they — every day, you get the updated version of number of new infections, number of deaths, and it’s state by state, country by country, and it’s both incredible and depressing at the same time because this really — I’m coming to that question but we might as well jump to it, how much of a avoidable error or hundred thousand American deaths?
LEWIS: A lot of it. So, his — to get back to the fifth risk picks up the beginning of this story, right? I mean, the — there’s meant to be a transition where — which is an exchange of knowledge and expertise.
RITHOLTZ: Pre-election, like a …
LEWIS: Pre-election. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: … the team has put together and you right that of all people, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is leading Donald Trump’s transition team.
LEWIS: Exactly. And by law, they’ve got to have this thing. And the federal government subsidizes it. And the Obama administration’s required to do it. And Obama knows the value of it because Bush did such a great job, apparently, handling the government. And there was this lots of stuff they did (ph) in the middle of a financial crisis.
A lot of stuff that needed to go from one group to the other. As naturally hostile as they might have been to each other, there was a general recognition that like 98 percent of the federal government is not an ideological, it’s a problem-solving and problem dealing with situations.
And you got this people who do — who do it, civil servants, but it’s run by political appointees. It’s run by 4,000 people you’re putting in charge of this operation. And so, Trump has, through Chris Christie, a team of hundreds and hundreds of people who are supposed to go into the federal government the day, that day after the election and learn how the nuclear arsenal works or learn that — one of the things on a top and this was how they — the Ebola crisis was — epidemic was dealt with.
And Trump fires everybody. Everybody. Christie …
RITHOLTZ: So, wait, they’re supposed to November 9th …
RITHOLTZ: Long before January 20th, they get like a four-month head start or a two-month head start.
LEWIS: Yes. And Trump had always been dismissive of this. He told Christie, at some point, when Christie is trying to explain to them how important this was, that Chris, you and I can take two hours away from the victory party and learn everything we need to know about the federal government.
He had no interest at all and he’s the guy who was supposed to be running it. So, when things happened, the big — I think the biggest thing they did, they missed — apropos of our current crisis, they missed the lessons learned from not just Ebola but the — the flu potential pandemic.
I can’t remember bird or a swine, I get them mixed up.
RITHOLTZ: Right. It was the previous coronavirus.
LEWIS: It was the — it was influenza and it was …
RITHOLTZ: It wasn’t the SARS one?
RITHOLTZ: Was it the swine flu? There’s so many of them to …
LEWIS: There’s so many. I’m sorry. It’s either the bird or the swine flu. I keep — one of them happened in the Bush administration and one of happened in Obama administration and it’s a — it actually is very telling and I can’t remember which is which because it never happened.
RITHOLTZ: It was dealt with.
LEWIS: It was dealt with. It was dealt with not perfectly in either case, but in each case, they learned that — and it got better and better and one of the things they learned in the Obama administration is it’s absolutely critical that there’d be someone in the White House who’s coordinating the entire federal response because you’ve got all these different agencies doing all these different things and agencies compete with each other, they’re power grabs, they — you need to check them.
So, you need to know if the Center for Disease Control says we have a good test for the coronavirus. You have someone there who say show me and I want to see it and I want to make sure that we have — we have no fallibility built into this. There’s — there are other places we can go if this doesn’t work.
Trump fired the people on the National Security Council who oversaw the federal government’s response to pandemic and the threat of pandemic. It’s one of the several things he did that had a huge effect early on to — and our ability to respond to it.
But as a result, I mean, I think what you got to do is compare our experience here with a experience of governments that have been more confident like South Korea or Germany or they’ve been — most — almost everybody. I mean, we are what? What percentage of the world’s population are we and what percentage of the world’s infections are we?
RITHOLTZ: So, we’re …
LEWIS: We’re like a quarter of the infection and we’re like five percent of that.
LEWIS: Yes. I mean, that’s crazy, especially since it took a little while to get here. So, I don’t — it’s been shocking how — shocking if you didn’t know, like if you did know how Trump had approached the federal government, it’s totally shocking how they responded.
But if you know, like, if you — if you’d done the work I did to do the book, you’d know — you’d think, well, that’s going to happen. I mean, I don’t know what the — I don’t know what the crisis is going to be, but whenever it comes, we’re not going to be ready for it.
RITHOLTZ: So, I know the immediate pushback that some people are going to make is that Michael Lewis lives in Berkeley. He’s in California. He’s a lefty.
But from everything I’ve read that you’ve written about this, you’re not talking politics and partisan policies, you’re talking organization and management. Am I getting that right?
LEWIS: Yes. It’s just like how do you do this intelligently? I mean, how partisan is a pandemic? It’s crazy. And let me — you know, it’s funny. I live in Berkeley. I’m actually not that much of a lefty.
I mean, I — if the people in Berkeley knew my politics, they’d me run me out of town. I’m — really, it’s much messier than that. I am not like this I identify as a lefty. Nowhere near. I’m not going to tell you who I voted for in my life. But it’s — I’m all over the map in my political feelings.
So, that — yes. Even if you label me a Berkeley lefty, this Berkeley lefty is asking, like, why can’t we have a smart management of a pandemic instead of this stupid one (ph). And why — the amazing thing about it, to me, is even now that he is refusing to accept the responsibility for managing the problems, that it is a problem that naturally demands a centralized response — it’s like a war.
You don’t want California raising their army and Alabama raising their army and deciding where to attack Japan independently. It’s — in a world — you need to coordinate the enterprise. And it’s even — it’s almost even more demanding of a centralized response than a war because everybody’s behavior affects the outcome.
If half the population says all right, this is no big deal, we’re going to go run around the streets and infect each other. And the other half of the population shuts down the economy, you get the worst of both worlds.
RITHOLTZ: Right. That’s right.
LEWIS: And that’s what’s happening.
RITHOLTZ: And I have to ask about “The Coming Storm” which is sort of based on the whole weather NOAA part of Fifth Risk, it seems.
LEWIS: So, it was — so, what it was — so, what I’ve always done is, almost always done, with the books, is I’ve tricked them out in magazines beforehand and not all of it — not all of it, the piece of it, like, sort of test run them in shorter form. And “The Coming Storm” was the magazine version of “The Fifth Risk.” It was a chapter in “The Fifth Risk.”
LEWIS: And it was a chapter about — so, I was wondering around, once I realized that Trump had not got the briefings, I — and I can go get the briefings for the first time and turn up in some poor person’s office who was wondering when someone was going to show up and have them explain to me how you manage the nuclear arsenal or how you predict the weather and these things have not happened, nobody’s been told in the Trump administration, it started — this is why I thought it was low-hanging fruit.
I thought, oh, my God, what a story. You can go anywhere. The risk that are being managed are specular risks.
The weather, I — so, I was in this position writing the book where will I go? And I had on my floor of my office, if you’re watching me in, there were manila folders for every department of the government an that each got fatter and fatter and fatter and at some point, one would make the argument to me, you really got to go there.
And I thought — and the way I chose where to was I want to go places where people don’t imagine there’s a problem. Like, everybody’s going to know there’s a problem in the Defense Department if the Defense Department is not well run. Or we — or Treasury. People kind of get Treasury.
But they don’t know what goes on in the Commerce Department. And in the Commerce Department, there’s this thing called the National Weather Service, among other things. The Commerce Department is really — what it really is is the department of data. So much of the data that we use a society resides there in one way or another.
And the weather data and climate data is part of that story. And so, I went to go ask, like what happens if nobody gives a rat’s ass about this data? And Wilbur Ross had been put in charge of the Commerce Department as much as said, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the data.
All I care about is trade which has nothing to do with the …
RITHOLTZ: Right. Wrong department.
LEWIS: Wrong department. So, the National Weather Service ends up being a really interesting case study in Trump management because what happens when you don’t — it isn’t that Trump is some libertarian. I mean, it’s — he just — maybe thinks the federal government shouldn’t exist in some way.
It’s not there in his head. Yes, there — when it’s convenient, he’ll say it because then he doesn’t have to manage it. Like, if it shouldn’t be doing things like managing a pandemic, then it’s not his fault it’s not managing a pandemic. But it’s — but he has no particular — he just doesn’t care about it. All he cares about is himself.
And so, what happens when you don’t care about it? Who shows up to run it? And when you don’t care about it and the only rule you have for who you’re going to put in the jobs is they have to demonstrate a total loyalty to you and not say anything bad about you.
Well, who shows up are people who’ve got narrow interest in these things. And he put in charge of the weather service or the operation that runs the weather service or tried to put in charge the guy who owned and ran AccuWeather. Now, AccuWeather has been hell bent for 25 years on essentially making it extremely difficult for the National Weather Service to communicate weather forecasts to American public because it gets in the way of AccuWeather’s profits. That’s how — what AccuWeather does.
And once you do that, I mean, this is a — this is a once you all of a sudden say, all right …
RITHOLTZ: Fox in the henhouse (ph).
LEWIS: Yes. Yes. And then everybody in that weather service knew this is an existential threat to the weather service. And the weather service is, in itself, a wonderful story. You go back 40 years, not even 40 years. The three-day forecast wasn’t any good, much less the 10-day forecast.
The progress has been made in weather prediction, it’s like one of those great very slow-moving stories, like — I don’t know. I grew up in New Orleans. When I was growing up in New Orleans, the way you found out whether a hurricane is about to hit, is you go (ph) outside. You know?
Was the frisbee still int eh yard when you throw it? But — and now, you can, like, evacuate entire cities and you have a really good sense of where it’s going and all of that weather service achievement and there’s a lot left to do.
RITHOLTZ: So, let me just stop you there a sec because there’s a part of the book that you just said something that triggered me. So, you said, I’m going to go meet with these various people and get the briefings that the incoming Trump administration didn’t get. Can anybody say, hey, I want to learn how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel rods or how do we maintain the safety of our nuclear weaponry, you can’t just walk into DOE and get that briefing? How did you arrange that? Because I would imagine a lot of that stuff is pretty classified.
LEWIS: Well, there are still people you had to tiptoe around. But I got two, four (ph) example. The guy who had just walked out of the Department of Energy and had been — he’s a Wall Street guy, named John McWilliams. Worked to Goldman, was a very successful private equity investor, has made his fortune, and wanted to kind of give something back.
And he was — he was asked by the Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, to come in and evaluate the risks inside of the Department of Energy. He became the Chief Risk Officer.
So, all this stuff, classified and unclassified, ended up kind of percolating up to him. And he — so, I could go see him and I went and sat down with him and it was true, he would have to say, I got to stop right there in this description of how we’re dealing with the South Koreans or the North Koreans and their missile program because we just had classified. But you get a long way before you got the classified.
LEWIS: You didn’t have to — but he has — and actually, when I was talking to him, he said, just assume the Chinese are listening to this.
LEWIS: Because I’m almost sure they’re listening to everything I’ve done since I’ve been here. It was amazing. He’s at in the backyard in the Long Island and the Chinese are there. But he could walk me through. If not, in the most granular detail where we got the places where there was, like, the issue of like is it classified. But he could walk me through broadly what this — what the problems were that he was most worried about.
And in a way that he — the thing was, I sat there listening with my jaw on the ground thinking, God, I hope someone’s there dealing with this stuff and he’s telling me no. Nobody’s there dealing with this stuff. And not only that, nobody’s talked to me that all you’d have to do — all they have to do is call me up and I could tell you everything I’m — I tell them everything I’m telling you.
And they — the fact that they didn’t want to know, I just couldn’t get past that. Because it was not ideological. It’s not ideological how you stop the North Koreans from being able able to deliver a missile to California. That’s not an ideological issue. Really, it isnt.
RITHOLTZ: At least, it never used to be, so it seemed to have become one.
LEWIS: Right. They’re all these — there was all this knowledge that just seemed essential if you’re going to manage the enterprise. And the difference (ph) to the knowledge was, in a way, it was gold for me, right, because it was — it gave me a way to justify my presences inside the federal government.
And I never would have thought, if you were to ask me are you going to write about a book about federal government, I mean, my, God, no. I mean, it’s — what a horrible subject.
But Trump electrified the material. All you had to do was totally ignore the federal government to make it interesting.
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RITHOLTZ: You described the power of coach to change your life. And in the second episode of the series, you say, in this case, mine. Tell us Coach Fitz changed your life.
LEWIS: Yes. So, my — Coach Fitz was my high school baseball coach and he was — when he arrived at the Newman School in New Orleans, Louisiana, he was the most terrifying thing any of us had ever seen. He was 6’4″, he’d been — he has been a catcher in the Oakland A’s system, big-time college basketball and baseball player, and he was from the Bobby Knight school of coaching.
But he — but with a twist. Unlike Bobby Knight, there was never any doubt that he cared about you. That it was coming from a place where he was just trying to fix you. Not just make you a better baseball player, but like make you a better man.
And he’s — when I collided with him, I was just trouble. I was like — I was, what, I was 13 years old, 14 years old, I guess I was 13. And he was — my idea of a day of hard work was going out and ripping hood over the mitts (ph) and keep covers off cars.
I mean, I was like a little vandal. I didn’t go — I didn’t care about school, I was kind of like indifferent to the world around me and he just — first, he jolted me with — by scaring the hell out of me. And it’s sort of like this is a guy who I don’t want to displease.
But second, he sort of then — he created a series — the best way to put it is he created a series of dramas that not just for me but for everybody who was — who every played for him. And in these dramas, you were — you were doomed to fail, you were doomed to be incredibly uncomfortable. You were doomed to experience real fear, but you were destined to overcome it all.
You were going to learn how to deal with your fear, learn how to bounce back from failure, learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, learn how to compete in a really difficult situation. And there are lots of little anecdotes and stories but these dramas in the — and he starts — what he actually starts to do is build new identities for kids. And the identity is, I was somewhat — I’m a — I can win. I can fight. I’m not afraid. Then I’m — I can be a hero.
And he starts kids on kind of a new track, how they think about themselves. And he did it over and over and over and over and the punchline all of this.
And what got me interested in telling the story the first place was some years ago, I got a call from someone who played for a basketball forum. And they were raising the money to rename the school gym from millions of dollars and the money was being thrown at this guy.
The school let him do it without a whole lot of help from the school but parents of former players and former players were saying, man, this guy changed my life. This guy did all the hard work in raising my child.
And at the same time, the very same time, the parents of his then current players were trying to get them fired because they thought he was too hard on their kids. And I thought this is the moment and the culture. That this thing that I went through, that wasn’t abusive, it was just really difficult.
Somehow, kids aren’t allowed to go through anymore, aren’t being allowed to go through anymore. And I think, we’re going to pay a big price for this.
But the bottom line was, this guy, I think it’s — I maintained it to this day that if I had never had this experience with this coach, I never would have become a writer.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. I was astonished when you said that because you seem like such a natural writer. So, Coach Fitz takes you from Michael Lewis, the whole again, to I love this story, one out, bottom of the ninth, man first and third, the best pitcher gets pulled and in come second stringer, Mike Lewis, tell us what the coach says you that seems like a lifetime turning point? That moment in in your baseball career.
LEWIS: So, this is what he — there are lots of other people in the podcast with me who said — telling a similar sort of story. It’s sort of like …
RITHOLTZ: About Coach Fitz?
LEWIS: Where he — how he uses the sport to create — to start to create a new identity. So, I just joined the team. I was 13. It was the summer team. I was the younger pitcher. So, it wasn’t my turn to pitch. I was sitting on the bench watching us play like — it’s one of those games where you felt like all the grown-ups in the world were in the stands screaming and drinking.
And it got very intense and for complicated reasons he had to pull the pitcher and it was the bottom of the last inning, runners on first and third, one out, and it was just — I was so over my head. I’ve been — I just restarted my baseball career six months before. I just learned the curveball. He comes and he grabs me off the bench and he pulls me out of the mound, and he says, I’m kind of glad we’re doing this because there’s no one I’d rather have in this situation.
And in retrospect, it’s funny but at that time I thought I believe him. Like he won’t — he thinks I can do this. And he kind of looks over at the guy — first, he hands me the ball and he said shove this up their ass. And then he looks over at the guy that they’re basing us and he goes and then pick his ass off. And so — and it’s exactly what happened, I picked the guy off third base. I struck out next guys. We won and afterwards, he says, this is who you are, this moment is who you are.
It was so different than anything I’d ever been but it was such a good feeling coming from this — it’s like God talking to you. Zeus was talking to you. And he says, this is who you are.
So, all of a sudden, you start to be this. You start to tell yourself the story. This is who I am. And to be this — but to be this person, I have to be a different person. I have to work. I have to care. I have to try. I have to suffer. I have to be brave. It’s like one thing after another.
And so, all those qualities started to come out of him. It’s almost like — then we — I argue this in the podcast, they’re really great coaches, have given you a piece of themselves then they’re taking some little piece of their character and they’re putting it inside of you.
And anybody can call themselves a coach but that — the role is a very funny role. As I say, it’s like a rubber suit, it starts to shrink and expands to fit the character of the person who’s wearing it and the man makes the clothes. And when you have a character who was as powerful as that character, you can have the enormous influence on the person.
RITHOLTZ: To say the very least. So, let’s talk about a very different coach. I am very late to the game of tennis. I started in my, I don’t know, early 50s. So, I am not playing all that long and one of the few books I purchased that I found to be of help is “The Inner Game of Tennis.” Tell us a little bit about the author of that book and his completely different approach to coaching than Coach Fitz.
LEWIS: So, this is the episode that follows the Coach Fitzgerald episode which will be released next, next week. So, there’s been this movement in coaching and I kind of wonder where it come from and the movement has a couple aspects to it.
One is the thing that’s being coached more than anything else is the state of mind in which you’re doing whatever you’re doing. So, it’s sort of mental coaching and it’s everywhere.
You see it in — with chief executives, you see it with Wall Street traders, you see it on various forms of life coaching and there’s people who call themselves performance coaches and they’re all over the economy.
RITHOLTZ: It’s the Tony Robbins’ vindication (ph) of America.
LEWIS: Yes. But it’s really the Tim Gallwey vindication (ph). It’s the guy …
RITHOLTZ: What’s that?
LEWIS: “The Inner Game of Tennis” is really the beginning of all this. I mean, you talk to some big-time coaches like Pete Carroll or Steve Kerr and they will tell you their inspiration is that book and that guy.
And the — and the — yes. And the idea is your words like you can’t really manipulate players or the people you’re trying to coach as simply as you think you can just by telling them to do things, just by criticism and praise.
In fact, criticism and praise are both often counterproductive. They’re — they — what you’re trying to do is get the player into state of mind when they’re almost unselfconscious in what they’re doing. And to focus –or put it in another way, to move their focus on the things that are very helpful to focus on and away from things that aren’t helpful to focus on.
Someone who’s going out to pitch in a pressure situation, the last thing you want to be thinking is, please, God, don’t let me walk in or please, God, throw a strike. You want to be thinking is push off the rubber, really push when you — you’re thinking about physical things that actually control the outcome not the outcome itself.
I will tell you a funny story. So, Tim Gallwey who writes this book, he was just a tennis pro, right? How many tennis pros in the world had started a revolution? He’s a tennis pro in the early ’70s who starts teaching in this different way. Not telling people where to hold their racket, just showing them strokes and saying, just watch me and then just do it.
And his book is published and he thinks it’s a tennis book. It’s like, it will sell 20,000 copies. It sounds like it ends up selling two million copies and people are grabbing who aren’t interested in tennis but teaching other things.
He gets a call from the Houston Philharmonic and he knows nothing about music, like doesn’t even know the notes, never played anything. He’s not a musical guy. But he goes down to see these people and the guy who’s the conductor of the symphony is kind of skeptical and he kind of — and after they listened to Gallwey’s talk about “The Inner Game of Tennis” says, OK, pick someone here to coach.
And Gallwey says, any volunteers, and he says, the tuba player raises his hand and he goes like, this is really bad. Like I don’t even know which end of the tuba you blow on. And so, the tuba player gets up and Gallwey says to him, which — what worries you, like what’s the problem?
And the guy says, sometimes the notes are not coming out quite as full as I like them to and I’m straining to hear it and it’s very hard to hear it because the tuba — where they come out is so far away from my ear. And Gallwey says, well, like what do you notice in your body when things aren’t working, and the guy says, my tongue gets dry and almost — and starts to — it almost gets swollen.
And so, Gallwey says, forget about the notes, don’t listen to the note. He says, just focus on your tongue, just keep the tongue moist. Don’t worry about anything but keeping the tongue moist. So, the guy — Gallwey says the picks up the tuba and goes, boom, boom, boom, boom, and he says, I couldn’t tell any difference, I didn’t know why I did that, I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad.
But the guys does this and the entire orchestra stands up and gives them a standing ovation and he said — and it was like focusing on the right thing as opposed to the outcome …
RITHOLTZ: Process over outcome.
LEWIS: True. Process over outcome. And there are lots of different ways to say it and there are lots of different ways to teach it. But it creates some movement inside of coaching and it creates a different kind of opportunity.
It means you don’t need to know anything about the thing you’re coaching. You just need to know about states of mind that lead to good performance. And so, there’s a guy in that episode, he’s 29 years old. He a direct descendent of Tim Gallwey and he’s coaching — at any given day, you would find him with New York Giants football players, New York Mets baseball players, New York City firefighters, Goldman Sachs traders.
My daughter, 17-year-old softball player, I hired him just to see what — how that work out. But he’s able to move from one space to the next and you talk to the people who work with him and actually, I saw it. The effects are actually kind of great that you just — it gets people in a kind of relaxed frame of mind to perform under pressure.
RITHOLTZ: My special guest this week is Michael Lewis and he has been writing almost a weekly series of columns at Bloomberg Opinion about things that are going on with the coronavirus and they’ve been kind of fascinating like most Michael Lewis’ topics. You find the corner of this that other people are either overlooking or haven’t dove as deeply into it and then you reveal something interesting.
The first one you wrote noticed, gee, we really don’t have a lot of data about the effects of social distancing and what it means for the spread of the coronavirus. What made you start doing these weekly columns?
LEWIS: Well, it was the ineptitude of the response I think was the first thing. Also, the size of the problem. But it was — I was just struck that we live in this society that has led the world in exploring the importance of data.
We coined the phrase data scientist. We revolutionized sports by using data and analytics in new and different ways. Every business in America has been swept up in this data revolution.
We face this existential threat and we lack data because we’re not collecting enough of it. It’s the most amazing thing. So, the initial failure of the Center for Disease Control’s test and then the seeming lack of enthusiasm and interest in the Trump administration in rapidly figuring out that problem and testing more got me interested in the first place.
And then the question became like — I mean, I still think this is an opportunity and I still may try to do this with the pieces. I think you could take some of the best like baseball stats geeks, the guys who are in front of offices now, guys who are running teams.
LEWIS: And throw them into this problem because like where do you — what’s the data you want right now. There’s a lot of data that would really help us with this.
One is like — one is the data in who’s got — how many people have the disease and how it spreads. I mean, this is knowable. We don’t know it but it’s knowable.
RITHOLTZ: You mentioned in one of the columns that we haven’t really explored why churches and synagogues seem to be focal points, is it something about singing as opposed to working with a family member who has it that you don’t get yet a church or synagogue seems to be a giant hotspot.
LEWIS: Yes. I mean, places where people are in each other’s presence and breathing heavily for long periods of time seems to be a big, big problem whereas you don’t really — it doesn’t — I mean, it’s all anecdotal, right? This is such so troubling (ph).
LEWIS: It shouldn’t be anecdotal. I don’t get the sense that anybody’s getting it by — from a jogger who’s passing by or from a surface of a table or — I mean, I don’t know that’s true but we should know this already and we don’t.
RITHOLTZ: Let me ask you a question. When you go shopping and — or if your food delivered from the supermarket, are you wiping everything down with either Clorox wipes or something like that or is it just get thrown right into the fridge and freezer?
LEWIS: It’s thrown right into the fridge and freezer.
LEWIS: Yes. Yes. But I would not go to a restaurant right now if they reopen. I don’t want to go to a restaurant before there’s a vaccine.
RITHOLTZ: How about if there’s a treatment but not a vaccine?
LEWIS: All right. I’ll go to a restaurant.
RITHOLTZ: Have you been following this about the llama antibodies much smaller than human antibodies that seem to lock on to the spike projections of the outer part of the coronavirus? I think Pfizer is testing that with their German partner.
LEWIS: And the downside is you get a very long neck and you start spitting in everything but you won’t get the coronavirus.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a fair tradeoff.
LEWIS: Yes. Totally fair. So, there are — so the data — you asked me why I got interested, I got interested because it seemed like we figure out how to value baseball players but we haven’t figured out how to measure — how to — how the coronavirus works and we — and there’s social data like the movement of people. It’s being collected.
LEWIS: It’s being analyzed. It’s just — but it — I get the sense it’s being done in the kind of very crude ways that say baseball stats were looked at in the early ’70s. And I think there’s just like just one thread of the columns. I’m very interested in the whole data story.
RITHOLTZ: So, before we leave data, the Google Apple project to trace people who were moving about through their mobile phones, that seems to be pretty detailed data set although we don’t really know of that data who has it. We could just tell how much people are moving around the country.
LEWIS: So, all — I haven’t actually written about this yet but there’s also the Facebook data that’s being essentially laundered through epidemiology departments and universities.
So, Facebook just comments (ph) can’t give their data to the government. There’s pretty that privacy issues. But they can give it to academics who can anonymize it and give it in a different package to policymakers.
And I do know that they’ve been able to determine that they just increase — increases in human movement — I mean, this is kind of mind blowing but increases in human movement. So, let’s say Gavin Newsom in California says, OK, it’s OK to go to the beach, and then all of a sudden, you see an uptick and actually, how many yards people are moving every day.
There’s a direct correlation between that and deaths from coronavirus.
LEWIS: Yes, a couple of weeks later. They’ve already figured that out.
LEWIS: And they’re thinking about how many steps there are in there. You can imagine a world where everybody’s moving around a lot more but they’re just in their cars and they never get out of their cars and it would have no effect at all.
But actually, movement is a pretty good proxy for spread of disease. And so, that data is going to be usable if they get their minds around it in all kinds of interesting ways. They’ll be able to see the effect of the policy on movement and you know the effect of movement on the spread of the disease.
So, that — I think we’re headed in a direction where data is going to be our solution. Sure that the vaccines are true. They offer the most hope.
RITHOLTZ: What do you think about these anti-lockdown protests that we’ve seen in places like Wisconsin and Michigan?
LEWIS: I think they’re horrible and it’s sort of like if you — it’s not just yourself you’re affecting when you wonder — when you decide to get together with lots of other people. You’re making more likely I get this thing.
LEWIS: And …
RITHOLTZ: Although a lot of them have gotten it from what we read since those events.
LEWIS: It’s symptomatic of a bigger problem and this circles back to the podcast. We are an uncoached team right now. We’re a team — we’re a team — we’re a team where everybody wants the ball to shoot. We’re a team where they’re just not playing together.
It’s a really — it’s just — and it’s a moment where we really need to act as a team that play — and play together. So, we need to have a strategy and everybody buy into the strategy.
RITHOLTZ: That is going to be the tunnel of this. We are an uncoached team. If somebody is to write a book about this era, and I have to imagine whether you see dozens of them, who should write that? Is that a Michael Lewis book or is that somebody else’s book?
LEWIS: I think I have an idea but I’m not ready to talk about it.
RITHOLTZ: I’m glad to hear that because anytime you get an idea, other interesting things come about. All right. Season one was referee, Season two is coaching. What is Season three going to be about?
LEWIS: I don’t want to say it because I’m not quite sure whether I’m going to keep it in the arena or leave the arena.
RITHOLTZ: Right. But if you do seven, you’re going to keep — the original concept was everything sports related within that.
LEWIS: And everything — it’s sort of that the roles are all roles you find inside of a stadium, inside of an arena of ambition. But it may — I may break that rule and just — and it just may be — there may be other roles that I decide I want to explore. I have not figured out what the third season is yet.
RITHOLTZ: And I have to ask about the book “Coach” you wrote about Coach Fitz. That’s a deeply personal book. You referenced yourself in “Liar’s Poker” but I don’t think I’ve read anything of yours that looks as deeply personal as “Coach” appears to be.
LEWIS: Well and the podcast. So, that — this is right and there’s nothing — I don’t think I’ve ever written any quite like that just because I’m generally not my material. This usually is generally something else but this was just odd moment where I was useful.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk about podcasts and streaming video, what are you watching during lockdown and what are you listening to?
LEWIS: I have been working so hard on the podcast and I’ve been watching very little. But the one thing I have been watching is “Fauda.”
RITHOLTZ: So stressful.
LEWIS: it is stressful but it’s unbelievably good.
RITHOLTZ: It’s great. Yes.
LEWIS: So, “Fauda” is the only thing I’ve been watching regularly.
RITHOLTZ: In fact, I think I learned in one of your columns, I don’t remember if this was you or somebody else, that “Fauda” was originally written for an Israeli audience and its watch throughout the Arab world, which is sort of surprising when you consider the subject is Israeli intelligence officers going after terrorists.
LEWIS: It’s the “Narcos” story all over again. “Narcos” was written for an American audience and it’s all over the South — all over the Latin and South America.
RITHOLTZ: So, I think I asked you this last time and I don’t recall much of an answer. I asked who your mentors were and I don’t remember you saying Coach Fitz. But now I have to re-ask the question and it says who are your mentors?
LEWIS: Well, you have — your mentor is at different stages of your life.
LEWIS: He’s probably the most important — certainly the most important because he caught me at that stage. My father has always been a mentor to me and still is.
Tom Wolf was a mentor to me when I’m at very early stages of my writing career. My editor, Star Lawrence at Norton, has been a really important mentor to me. Those are the –I would say those are the main ones.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a good list. Favorite books, what are some of your all-time favorite books and what are you reading now if anything?
LEWIS: I just started in on Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. “Wolf Hall” was the first novel and I never got around to it. I just started to read that. I just finished the single best pandemic novel. It’s called “The gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles and it’s the novel that I read in a pandemic because it’s about a Russian aristocrat who’s locked up inside of a hotel for 50 years. He can’t leave. And it’s — this — it’s this wonderful exploration of the mind adapting to a smaller space.
Anyway, so, I love that book. I’m reading novels. I’m not — I haven’t been reading any non-fiction.
RITHOLTZ: Give us the third one.
LEWIS: Well, I can’t read more than one a time. So, the — I’ll give — I’m going to give you one — I’ll give you one that I read a while ago but it’s sort of like — it should have been — it should have occupied the place in the American curriculum and “The Catcher in the Rye” does. It’s called, “Red Sky at Morning” and …
RITHOLTZ: It’s familiar.
LEWIS: Pick that up and you won’t be — you will be happy.
RITHOLTZ: Fantastic. And our final two questions, what advice would you give a recent college graduate who is thinking about writing as a career?
LEWIS: It’s really simple and that is make sure that you actually want to write rather than be a writer. There are always people who want to be writers but they actually don’t want to write and if you don’t actually love it, you’re not going to be good at it. It’s going to be miserable and you’re going to spend all your life posing and pretending to have written and it’s just that — it’s a horrible, horrible path.
And it’s something about the — because nobody can really call you on it for a long time.
LEWIS: You’re going to spend your whole life pretending to be a writer without actually writing. So, just write. Then the second part is what you write about, right, because when you’re coming out of college, you really don’t have that much in the way of material. Go do stuff and it’s just interesting because maybe you can write about that. So, don’t just be a writer. Write and be something else.
RITHOLTZ: Worked for Hemingway, right?
LEWIS: And then — and the two will go — eventually, the two will work find each other.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what do you know about the world of writing and investing and risk today that you wish you knew 30 years or so when you — ago when you first getting started?
LEWIS: So, when I was first getting started, it’s Salomon Brothers when I first getting started as a writer.
RITHOLTZ: Well, I love the story about you writing at Sallie and having them call you into the office and you had — someone figured it out. Was it Chevy Chase’s dad figured out …
LEWIS: That was writing under a pseudonym and Chevy Chase’s dad was an editor at Simon & Schuster. This I want to put in my head that I could write a book.
RITHOLTZ: So, at that era, what do you know today you wished you knew back then about the writing process?
LEWIS: I don’t think I would — I like the way I learned about the writing process. I wouldn’t want to put a lot of stuff in my head when I’m starting out that I didn’t have to sort of burn the knowledge. I think I was blessed that I didn’t have any writers in my life, that I didn’t know any writers, that I didn’t know anybody who knew any writers. I’m sort of making it up as I went along.
I would hate to going out in a more knowing way. I made a lot of dumb mistakes but I like those mistakes, right? I don’t rewind the tape and say, I wish I’d known that. It would have been worse. Anything I would have known would have made me worse.
RITHOLTZ: That was conversation with Michael Lewis. Always a delight. We decided to release this as a special bonus podcasts for Memorial Day weekend. I hope you found it interesting.
For all the usual things apply, if you enjoy this conversation, well, be sure and look up or down an inch on Apple iTunes and you could see any of the other 300 plus conversations we’ve had since we began recording this or check out your favorite podcast source, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher wherever you find our podcasts are sold.
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I would be remiss if I did not thank my crack staff that puts these conversations together each week, Michael Boyle is my producer/booker, Charlie Vollmer is our audio engineer, Michael Batnick is my head of research, Atika Valbrun is our project manager, I am Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.