Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, is the author of “The Innovators” and biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.
Let me confess that my natural inclination, when asked to write an essay on Michael Lewis, was to dredge up some of the tales of his misbehavior as a kid and reveal what a miscreant he actually is.
Lewis and I went to the same school when we were growing up in New Orleans. I am a few years older, and when I became a journalist and book-writer in New York, I was occasionally brought back to Newman and trotted around like a pony in a paddock in one of those misguided efforts that schools undertake to inspire younger students. Michael was not inspired. Instead, as he later often told me, he was annoyed.
Years later, I was the one to feel slightly annoyed (I’m ashamed to admit) when this bratty kid from my school began to soar past me repeatedly in the book-writing department, beginning with his huge bestseller “Liar’s Poker,” his first book. But just as I was relishing the prospect of bringing him back down to earth in this essay, it began to dawn on me that his childhood misdeeds were a walk-up to the moral values that are the underpinnings of his books. His father loves Mark Twain, and Michael became Huckleberry Finn, a moralist in disguise.
“The Undoing Project,” Michael’s new bestseller, explores the childhoods of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to provide insights into their work. They came of age as tough outsiders and fighters during the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. Michael’s upbringing was the opposite: He was the charmed and charming child of New Orleans gentry, and he never encountered a club or court that didn’t want to have him as a prince. “My New Orleans background is critical to allowing me to know I can fit in anywhere,” he told me over dinner as he was winding up his book tour. “I get to assume that I can belong. People can smell that I never had a sense of not belonging.”
This made life easier, but it could have also, had he not been Michael, infected him with the wrong values.
Early on, it looked like it might have. Beginning in the fifth grade, he became, as he puts it, “a pain in the ass.” He would sneak out late at night, meet up with a few friends, egg some neighborhood schools and houses, and steal the hood ornaments off cars. When his cache of almost 200 was discovered, his father, although a moral pillar of the town, knew there was not much to be done. He told Michael to bury them in the back yard. “My father is a great moralist who hides it behind irony and humor,” Michael says. “Like Mark Twain, he makes fun of things.”
His father had a different way of imparting a moral sense. A gentle and wry bow-tied lawyer and stalwart of countless civic boards, Tom Lewis wears his gentility lightly. He likes to sit in his study and recount tales with subtle lessons. “My father is a storyteller,” Michael says. “After dinner, he would impart narratives that made sense of our world.” From him Michael picked up the New Orleans trick of being a storyteller rather than a preacher, with the result that his tales have become the parables of our times.
Diana Lewis, Michael’s mother, is the more public powerhouse. Unfailingly generous, she has chaired and guided almost every education-reform and economic-opportunity organization in New Orleans, driving into any neighborhood to get involved hands-on. “My mother is the strongest-willed and most competitive person I know,” Michael says. “When I was a kid, she used to race me to the mailbox.”
It was inevitable that she would clash with Michael, the most willful of their three children. “For seven years you’ve made my life hell,” she told him at one point. When she first took Michael to Sunday school at age 7, he was creeped out by the teacher, had a visceral reaction against the whole concept, and sprinted out of the building and hid in the bushes until he was picked up to come home. Once again, his father was sanguine. “If he had that reaction,” he told Michael’s mother, “then don’t send him to Sunday school.”
By the sixth grade, Michael’s mother tried to get him to start seeing the school’s counselor, but that didn’t take hold, either. In fact, the following year the counselor’s husband, a middle-school English teacher, tried to get Michael suspended. He had assigned the class to write a report on the historical novel “Johnny Tremain.” Michael turned in a piece that was so good, the teacher asked how he had done it. Michael merrily admitted that he had copied his report directly from the back cover of the book. When ordered to write 100 times “I will not plagiarize,” Michael shot back that the task seemed to him another form of plagiarism. It took the intervention of the headmaster to protect him from being suspended.
Michael’s attitude began to change when he met two coaches. The first was Jack Kenney, who ran a tennis camp. At breakfast there were boxes of cereal ranging from delicious Froot Loops to, as Michael later put it, “the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation.” At first, campers would run and elbow into the dining hall to make sure they scored the right boxes. Then Kenney gave them a lecture. “You don’t realize it, but you have a choice,” he said. “You can be a giver or you can be a taker. . . . You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” After that lecture, the campers no longer focused on the distinction between winners and losers and instead focused on the distinction between givers and takers. “There was not a shred of doubt that everyone felt happier for it,” according to Michael.
The second intervening angel was Newman’s baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald, who later became the subject of the little book “Coach,” Michael’s tribute to bravery and screed against overprotective parents. We biographers believe that every interesting life has a childhood inflection point. Michael’s came when Coach Fitz was forced, because of a rulebook technicality, to take out his star pitcher (who happened to be Sean Tuohy, later a hero of Michael’s “The Blind Side ”) and put in the younger, pudgier, far-less-fearsome Michael. It was the last inning, Newman was up by one, but the other team had runners on first and third with only one out. Fitz was, and is, known for his intensity. On the mound with his face right up to Michael’s, he glanced at the runner on third and said, “Pick him off.” Michael realized that this was a testing moment. “I am about to show the world, and myself, what I can do,” he thought. He picked off the runner, struck out the batter, and Newman won.
The headmaster, a soulful and loving man named Teddy Cotonio, had a knack for saving overly talented and charming kids. He called Michael in. “Fitz thinks the world of you,” he said. “You have guts and nerve. Don’t blow it.” Michael still gets excited, more than 40 years later, remembering the details of that instant. “From that moment I changed,” he recalls. “Fitz and Cotonio gave me a myth other than the myth I had been living.”
Being on third base, and being picked off of third base, became a moral metaphor, based on the famous saying about those who were born there and think they hit a triple. “I had many friends who found themselves on third base, and I realized how important it is to be mindful that we are there partly by luck,” he says. The appreciation of luck can appear to be a simple concept, but Michael has made it a subtle but profound basis for a moral outlook. It is the underlying message of his book “Moneyball.” “Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them,” he once told students at his alma mater, Princeton. “Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation.”
Michael once met a refugee whose entire life had been one tragedy after another. But because he made it through, he created a narrative for himself about how lucky he was. That made him preternaturally happy. Michael absorbed the key lesson: The happiest people are the ones who believe they are lucky, rather than entitled or owed their success. For that reason, Michael is one of the happiest people I know. “I get such pleasure out of knowing that I’m lucky,” he says. “It also allows me to assume that I will continue to be lucky. I am creating a narrative of my life, and it makes me braver and less fearful.”
That appreciation of being lucky has also led Michael to a sense of obligation. The only time he got in trouble again in high school after his transformative moment on the mound with Coach Fitz was when he and a couple of friends were walking in the French Quarter and saw some police officers brutalizing a drunk, smashing his head to the pavement. Michael and his friends intervened, which landed them in central lockup. He still tries to look out for the less lucky, the weak and the vulnerable. Every Wednesday, he volunteers to staff the front desk of his kids’ public school. “I feel that we have to be sensitive to the imbalance of life’s outcomes,” he says.
The phenomenon of Donald Trump, whose crassness is alien to Michael’s upbringing, has reinforced this basic premise of his morality. “The truly bad thing about Trump is that he’s exploiting for his own gain the envy that some people feel, playing on their resentments,” Michael tells me with a political intensity I have never before noticed in him. “He denigrates and preys on people who are unlucky and then reinforces the good fortunes of people who are already lucky.”
Both in his life and in his books, Michael honors his 10th-grade moral set point with such laid-back lightness that it is easy to miss. He has been a very, very lucky camper. What sets him apart is that he knows it. That not only makes him a happy camper, but it helps him guide the rest of us, with deceptively simple tales, a little closer to the grace that is birthed by gratitude.
Walter Isaacson, the chief executive of the Aspen Institute, is the author of “The Innovators” and biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.