First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

Tackling Michael Lewis


Michael Lewis

Here is an excerpt of an interview of Michael Lewis by Dave Weich (in 2006) for the Powell’s Books website. To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.

Since this interview was conducted, Lewis has published another bestseller, The Big Short.

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In his debut, Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis described in hilarious detail how he stumbled into a job on Wall Street with Salomon Brothers, and what he found among “the king of traders.”

“Salomon Brothers really did make me alive to the way markets worked and how important they were,” Lewis explains.

The evidence is everywhere in his work, alongside a well honed talent for engaging portraiture. Lewis doesn’t so much write about business as the people who change it.

In 2000′s The New New Thing, we met Jim Clark, the visionary founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. Six years later, the book remains among journalism’s most illuminating records of the dot-com boom.

2003′s Moneyball stands as perhaps the best (certainly the most important) baseball book since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

In Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Lewis discovered an ex-ballplayer who discarded the sport’s longstanding traditions and in doing so turned a franchise with one of the league’s lowest payrolls into an annual contender.

With Moneyball still riding bestseller lists, the syndicated columnist embarked on what he imagined to be a small project, an essay about his high school baseball coach (later published as Coach). That research put him back in touch with a childhood friend and set him off, unknowingly, on the path to his next book.

The reclusive son of a drug-addled single mom suddenly becomes one of the most valued football prospects in America — how? A year before the scouts came calling, young Michael Oher had virtually no formal education, no social skills, and no athletic experience.

In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis investigates changes in the pro game that transformed an anonymous position, offensive left tackle, into the NFL’s second highest paid job. Among the beneficiaries, he uncovers Big Mike, and a remarkable story of life-altering second chances. From the outskirts of Memphis, The Blind Side offers another engaging example of market forces at work.

I want to start by asking about a story in yesterday’s New York Times. Netflix announced they’re going to give a million dollars to the first person who can improve the site’s personal recommendation engine.

They’re offering a bounty to geeks.

There was a great quote in the article by the company’s chief executive, who says, “The beauty of the Netflix prize is that you can be a mathematician in Romania or a statistician in Taiwan, and you can be the winner.” And I’m thinking to myself: The beauty of the prize is that they don’t pay a nickel to any of the people who don’t win. They don’t pay health insurance. They’re not even required to hire the winner.

A really smart thing to do because they will get more than a million dollars of labor. They’re applying a tournament logic to the labor market. If you start thinking about it, you wonder why anyone has employees. That’s very odd. I bet it works, too.

Even if no one improves their system, they’ve already received plenty of publicity.

That’s right. Does every person who improves the system win?

No. The Times said the winner will be the first person to achieve “a ten percent improvement.” How exactly that ten percent is gauged, I don’t know.

It could get messy in the execution.

It’s easy to imagine a lawsuit on behalf of the person who improves the system by five or eight or nine percent.

I hadn’t seen that story. I’ll go dig it out.

I enjoyed reading in Next about the development of TiVo and its competitor, Replay. I’ve always wondered why the fast forward button on my DVR doesn’t skip straight over the commercials.

They embedded in the technology compromises between the old way and the new way. They stiffed their customers slightly in interest of the business model.

But the technology represented such a huge leap forward that it didn’t matter.

Right. It didn’t matter. And when I wrote that, TiVo had not yet won the war.

It’s funny. It’s so hard to tell in the moment which technology is going to succeed. I remember walking with Jim Clark into his Healtheon office after they had gone public — no, actually, it was the MyCFO office, what was going to be the successor to Healtheon — and TiVo was across the hall from him. He said, “I don’t see the point in that. I can’t see why anyone would want it.”

He dismissed it, so I thought, Well, there must be nothing there. But I went back and looked at it, and I thought, God, this seems fantastic. But even someone as prescient as Jim Clark said it wasn’t going to work. And it may not work, actually, as a business model — it’s still unclear whether TiVo will survive — but the technology is relentless, it’s inevitable, everybody will have it sooner or later.

Have you followed much of what’s going on with YouTube and iTunes? What do you think will happen to video and television programming?

People will be able to slice and dice it however they want.

In television, the established forces are always slow to respond, but everyone is now preparing for a day when there are no actual ads, when the ads are all embedded in the programming. There is huge pressure on people who are creating television programs to come up with clever ways to write the programs so viewers don’t know they’re watching an ad. That’s probably the end game there.

There will always be a market for good drama and good comedy. If people want to watch it, there are ways to get them to pay. I don’t think it’s the end of television. I do think it’s the end of the network model, though.

Regarding The Blind Side, how did writing a book with an old friend at the center of the story affect your relationship to the material?

I probably don’t know exactly, but this was a person I had not seen or heard from in twenty-five years, and I didn’t think of him as a friend the last time I saw him. We had been friends when we were about eight.
It was a little odd, but it saved me a lot of trouble trying to figure out his character because I’d seen it in action as a kid.

More to the point, I’d have never written the story otherwise. I stumbled into it well before Michael Oher became a hot football prospect. I saw the humble beginnings. When I first met Michael at Sean’s house, Sean was telling me about writing letters to Division 2 coaches that he’d known in his playing days at Ole Miss; he thought he could get Michael into college as a basketball player. He didn’t have a future as a basketball player, but Sean could maybe get him an education; these coaches would take care of him.

Sean was oblivious at that point to Michael’s value. If I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes — and I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t known him — I don’t think I would have believed their motives were as pure as I think they are.

It’s funny because their motives became slightly impure once he became valuable. It would have been slightly embarrassing if Michael hadn’t gone to Ole Miss, for example. They did become conflicted, and they know it. But he was in their lives before they thought he had value; that’s not why they made him part of the family.

It was important also that I had some sense of what Sean’s heart was like. It’s all helpful. When you write characters fresh, like Jim Clark, someone I’d never laid eyes on until I walked into his office two years before I wrote The New New Thing, there’s a limit to how well you can get to know them. And you have to work much harder to get to know them. Think of your own life. Think back to people you knew when you were little kids. You develop a feel for a person’s character when you’re a kid that’s very hard to duplicate later on, especially when you’re functioning as a journalist, inspecting them. You saw them when they didn’t think they were being watched. That was a huge advantage.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tony Schwartz on “Six Ways Leaders Can Fuel Excellence At Anything”

Tony Schwartz

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tony Schwartz for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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In August, I posted a blog titled Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything. Over the subsequent three months it has become one of HBR’s most widely read blogs ever.

The notion that we can be excellent at anything prompted passionate debate. On the one hand, it’s empowering and inspiring to believe that excellence is within our reach in any area to which we devote ourselves with sufficient diligence — something the researcher Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Just think of how many movies — often based on true stories — tell the story of inspiring teachers, coaches and mentors helping undervalued kids become extraordinary performers: The Blind Side, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Bad News Bears, and Dangerous Minds, among many others.

At the same time, it’s daunting to consider that when we ourselves fall short of excellence, it’s not that we lack talent but rather we haven’t put in the right kind of effort.

There is precious little scientific evidence to suggest that genes are our destiny — and more and more evidence of neuroplasticity — the capacity to influence the way our genes express themselves. So what, then, can leaders do to most effectively inspire and nurture excellence in those they lead? Here are six keys:

1. Ban words like “talented,” “gifted,” and “special” from your vocabulary. Well meaning as these words may be, they tend to give people credit for something they did nothing to earn, while also suggesting that others don’t have equal potential. Consider replacing these words with ones like “effective,” “determined,” “accomplished,” “skilled,” “persevering,” and “masterful,” all of which give due credit to effort.

2. Regularly, genuinely, and specifically acknowledge and appreciate people’s successes. Believe deeply in their potential, enthusiastically encourage their passions, and don’t be overly fazed by their failures. There may be nothing more motivating to the people you lead than to notice what they’re doing well, and to express your appreciation with detail and specificity. Likewise, there may be no single more powerful act than to handwrite and mail someone a personal note of appreciation.

3. Provide constant feedback. Annual or semi-annual reviews are vastly insufficient and often worthless. Most people don’t improve their skills over time, in large part because they don’t get consistent, specific feedback. That’s different than judgment or criticism. As often as possible, resist pointing out people’s deficits, and focus instead on where you can help them improve or take it to the next level in any given area.

4. Create and protect periods of uninterrupted focus. Don’t demand instant responses from your people all day long. Interruptions fracture their attention, and absorbed focus is a prerequisite to high quality work, especially on the most challenging tasks. Stop measuring your people by how many hours they work, and assess them instead based on the value they produce.

5. Encourage and model intermittent renewal throughout the day. Great performers, the research shows, work intensely for periods no longer than 90 minutes and then stop to recover and refuel. Create a “renewal room” so people have a place to truly chill out. Nothing better fuels productivity in the afternoons than a 20-30 minute nap between 12 and 2 p.m,
and encouraging people to exercise at midday runs a close second.

6. Tie the pursuit of excellence to a larger mission. Excellence requires enormous effort. You need to give your people a compelling reason to push beyond their comfort zones. What most of us hunger for is evidence that what we’re doing truly matter and serves something beyond the bottom line. CEOs such as Alan Mullally at Ford, John Chambers at Cisco, and Steve Jobs at Apple have done a great job rallying their people around a higher mission. Start by defining what you truly stand for, share with others what gets you up in the morning as often as you can, and encourage people to go through the same exercise for themselves.

*     *     *
Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project. He is the author of the June, 2010 HBR article, The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less, and co-author, with Catherine McCarthy, of the 2007 HBR article, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. He  is also the author of the new book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance (Free Press, 2010).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Important Lessons from The Blind Side

Saturday night, I watched the movie The Blind Side. (OK – I’m behind the curve on this one).  Sandra Bullock won the Oscar, it was a huge hit at the box office, and it is based on a book by Michael Lewis (which I have also not read, though I have read other books by Lewis:  Moneyball; The Big Short).  It is based on the true story of the Tuohy family, and their adopted family member, Michael Oher, who graduated from high school, went to Ole Miss, and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL.  It is an inspiring story.

The movie is filled with valuable lessons, about compassion, and the challenge of rising above horrific circumstances, about the difference that one person (in this case, one family) can make in a human life.  But here are two specific lessons that are pretty hard to escape.

Lesson #1:  look for the bright spots, the shared wisdom – and build from there. In the movie, this giant of a man was not getting the hang of his job in football.  So, Ms. Tuohy interrupts the coach, walks right out on the field, and does a little personal coaching (I tried to find the video, and could not.  You can find the script here):

Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) provides a little on-the-field coaching.

Michael, do you remember when we first met, we went to that horrible part of town to buy those dreadful clothes?  And I was a little bit scared and you told me not to worry about, because you had my back. Do you remember that?

Yes, ma’am.

And if anyone tried to get to me, you would have stopped them, alright?  And when you and SJ were
in that car wreck, what did you do to that airbag?

- I stopped it.
- You stopped it.

You stopped it.  This team is your family, Michael.
You have to protect them from those guys.

Okay? Listen.

Okay.
Tony here is your quarterback, alright?
You protect his blind side.  When you look at him,
you think of me.  How you had my back.
How you have his.

Okay? Alright. Tony, go back.
Alright.

Oomaloompah here is your tailback.
When you look at him, you think of SJ, how you never let anyone or anything to hurt him.
You understand me?
Alright. Go back.

- You got it?
- What about Collins and Mr. Tuohy?

Fine. They can be on the team too.

Are you gonna protect the family, Michael?

Yes, ma’am.

Good boy. Now, go have some fun.

(Ms. Tuohy to the coach):  Yelling at him doesn’t work, Bert.  Doesn’t trust men.

She reminded Michael of what he knew, (he tested 98 percent in protective instincts), and applied it to football.

Lesson #2: one on one beats one on many for life instruction, teaching, coaching…

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to improving education in this country.  But in the story of Michael Oher, not only was he brought into a remarkable family, but he also had the good fortune of being brought into into a wealthy, remarkable family.  A family that had the means to buy him a bed of his own (his first in his life), a pick-up truck, and… a private tutor!  And that private tutor (Miss Sue – the first Democrat the Tuohy family had ever met  — that was a funny detail) gave Michael all of her time and expertise, and helped him raise his grades high enough to get into Ole Miss.

{And, before Miss Sue, there was a terrific teacher (played by Kim Dickens in the movie) who saw the potential in Michael.  How many of us owe our success to a teacher who saw the possibilities, and helped us along the way?}

We can’t afford a teacher-student ratio of one-to-one in this country.  But the lower we get that ratio, the better the education will be.  And the same is true in business – the more individual coaching we can provide, the better people get at their jobs.

I think these are two pretty important lessons.

Monday, November 8, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , | 1 Comment

Michael Lewis Labels the Villain – Mass Delusion

DEEP THROAT

Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House– the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.
(from the movie All the President’s Men)

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I sat enthralled last night in front of my television as 60 Minutes devoted one half of its program to Michael Lewis and his account of the financial meltdown in his new book, The Big Short.  You can read a review of the book here by Felix Salmon.  He calls it “the single best piece of financial journalism ever written.”  It is definitely on my reading list.

At one key moment, he said that the people behind the meltdown were not criminals, but simply wrong, blind. deluded…  (Maybe his new book on Wall Street should have the same title as his best-selling book, now an Oscar winning movie, The Blind Side).

Here’s one summary of his appearance on 60 Minutes from the Huffington Post (with video embedded if you missed the segment).

It may be tempting to think Wall Street is full of criminals who got off easy during the financial crisis.
But bestselling author Michael Lewis cautions against such an easy conclusion.
“I think the story is much more interesting than that,” he said during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “I think it’s a story of mass delusion.”

And here is some of what I thought about it all as I pondered the segment with Michael Lewis.

I have frequently written about the absolute necessity of work ethic on this blog. From books like Outliers and Talent is Overrated, and a host of other sources, we learn that success requires a really focused, long-term work ethic (remember the 10,000 hour rule).  But according to Lewis, the people on Wall Street were not slackers.  They worked long hours, and they were constantly seeking the next big deal.

But, working hard does not guarantee wisdom or rightness.  And this entire superstructure kept getting shakier and shakier – it was a “delusion.”

And here is the other lesson I learned. The capacity to accept delusion as real is a human failing.  How many businesses do precisely this?  I’m not sure that these were “not very bright guys” (the quote from All the President’s Men).  But they so focused on what they wanted to be true, what they wanted to work, that they were blind to/oblivious to the warnings that should have been seen and heard and acknowledged.

How many companies fail to see the warnings in their own industry, and fail to make the changes needed? Too many.

The essence of good leadership is to lead your people along the right path and not lead your people down the wrong path.  There were a lot of people going down the wrong path, and it has cost us all a great deal.

Monday, March 15, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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