Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie: How Michael Lewis Got So Lucky

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, Liar’s Poker and a few other books, recently gave a speech at Princeton on, among other things, the role of luck in his success. Reading the full text of the speech, available here, or watching it is well worth the 13 minutes:


Long story short: unlike so many, Lewis actually recognizes and acknowledges the role that luck has played in his career. The most striking example is a dinner he attended while in graduate school, at which he sat next to the wife of an executive at Salomon Brothers; she later demanded that Lewis get a job at the bank.

Can anyone replicate that success? Yes and no. Luck Within this little story are three important aspects of luck worth noting:

1. Luck is random, but certain people can give you jobs more than others, and hanging out where they hang out increases your chance of a “lucky” encounter. Even though he’s scant on the details of the dinner, Lewis put himself in the way of luck. He went to a fancy dinner and apparently schmoozed the hell out of some banker’s wife. Our movements are not entirely random… in fact, they’re unbelievably predictable.

2. Having fewer commitments allows you to seize lucky moments.

Michael Lewis was able to take the $40,000 advance for the same reason that young Ivy League drop-outs are able to found startups: no one is depending on them for support. When you’re not supporting anyone, quitting your job and moving halfway across the country isn’t a big deal. (I dont’ know the details, but since Lewis was young enough to feel obligated to get his dad’s approval, it’s very likely that he still had a safety blanket in the form of his parents.)

Being responsible for others makes you much less capable of packing up on a whim, the very kind of risk-taking that forms the seeds of what can become legendary luck. (Note: I never said any of this was fair.)

3. A 0-0 record is an undefeated record. 

For a job with no strict technical requirements, a recent Ivy League graduate is probably the safest hire in the world. For a date, most people would rather choose a 24-year-old over a 33-year-old. It’s infinitely easier to get excited about a new album by a 19-year-old rookie than a 54-year-old master you’ve never heard of.*

The list goes on, but the main point remains the same: the allure of the young isn’t that they’re untested, it’s that they haven’t experienced any major failures. 

Being thought of as a blank slate is far sexier than most people realize, since you can capitalize on people’s desire to discover “the next big thing.” Tip: if you have no experience, just subtly claim that you’re the next big thing. Because you never really know.

*In case you’re wondering why anyone might consider a 54-year-old musician a failure, it’s because of the subconscious nagging question you’d have: “If he’s really a master, why haven’t I heard of him?” Because we rationalize that the status quo is good, and we base our opinions on social proof—even when we don’t realize we’re doing so.

(For more on this, follow the discussion on Hacker News.)

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