I’m a big fan of Michael Lewis. He’s the guy behind “Moneyball“, “The Blind Side“, “Liar’s Poker“, and “The Big Short“, among others. If you haven’t read any of his stuff I highly recommend that you do so.
A few years ago I was browsing through a brochure of the upcoming events at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Prominent among the list was an interview/conversation with Michael Lewis. I told my wife we HAD to go. She was very dubious, as she’s not especially interested in either sports or financial markets, and that pretty much eliminates anything Michael Lewis has every written. However, I persisted and she relented.
It was fantastic.
Michael Lewis was on stage for about 2 hours. He spent the first 90 minutes getting interviewed. One of the first questions the interview asked was why Michael Lewis wrote in two fields that appeared to be comely different – sports and finance.
Michael explained that although the sports and economics appear to be very different fields, they are in fact connected by one fundamental idea – inefficient markets.
Michael is fascinated by markets that don’t function properly. “Moneyball” was about inefficiencies in the market for baseball talent. Some statistics (like batting average) were priced too highly by the market and some attributes (like bases on balls) were priced too low by the market.
By finding and exploiting these inefficiencies Billy Beane was able to position the Oakland A’s to field a competitive team every year despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
“The Big Short” was about inefficiencies in the housing market. Risk was not being priced correctly. Lenders made too many loans to people who couldn’t pay back the loans and didn’t charge a high enough interest rate to compensate for the high risk. These lenders went bankrupt in the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.
But here’s the crazy thing – Michael Lewis was an art history major in college. How did an art history major at Princeton end up writing about markets and becoming a successful financial journalist?
Help from his dad
Michael made it very clear that he knew, even at the time, that majoring in Art History was a career limiting decision. He never wanted to be a professor or get into academia, which meant that he would have zero job prospects when he graduated.
So why did he do it? Because he took an Art History class and loved it. After that class he took another, then another, and ended up deciding to major in the subject.
But here’s the critical thing that enabled him to make his decision – a ridiculously supportive father. And I don’t mean that his father just offered the usual advice of “follow your dream” or “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Michael’s dad went a big step further.
His dad said that he would essentially support Michael for 2 years after he graduated. Michael was free to work any job he wanted. Michael could spend the 2 years traveling, or painting, or sitting in his underwear watching cartoons. His dad would pay his rent and ensure that Michael didn’t starve so he could do anything he wanted to do.
This convinced Michael to major in a subject he loved despite little to no job prospects in the field. It allowed Michael to take a low paying job working for an art dealer after he graduated (a job he said he loved, by the way).
When the 2 years were up Michael decided to go on to get his MA in Economics from the London School of Economics. He then went to work for Salomon Brothers. His experiences at Salomon Brothers served as the basis for “Liar’s Poker”, which launched his writing career.
When put into context the years after graduation and before starting his MA in Economics seem unimportant, but Michael Lewis didn’t feel that way. When asked about how he became the writer and person he is today Michael Lewis said that time, and the support from his father, was absolutely pivotal.
Michael Lewis’ advice
The whole story behind his dad’s support and majoring in art history came up because, during the Q&A session, a college kid asked Michael Lewis for advice on what a college kid should do.
The advice was twofold:
- Do what you love. You’ll be able work harder at it and be more dedicated to it than to something you don’t care about. This means you’ll get better at it and eventually be more successful. He left a very lucrative job as a bond trader to become a starving writer because that was his passion, and he was emboldened to do this because he had both had a job doing something he loved (working for an art dealer) and a job he just did for the money (being a bond trader). He knew how much happier he was when he was doing something he loved.
- Put yourself in a financial position so that in the future you can do for your kids what his father did for him
The more I think about it the more I love this advice.
The first piece of advice is interesting because Michael Lewis was making the point that he wanted to do what he loved because he’d previously had a chance to do something he loved.
I think that’s the thing holding so many of us back from making career changes or retiring early or whatever. We don’t have a frame of reference for if/how life will be different when we aren’t working for money but instead having money be a pleasant side effect of work we enjoy. I certainly don’t have any experience like that. I’ve been working for 19 years, and while I certainly don’t hate my job, I certainly wouldn’t say I love it.
I’ve put a lot of thought into switching careers (and becoming a financial planner), but I don’t really have an idea what it would be like to do something I like. Part of me is convinced that it’s impossible to love something you get paid to do. Another part of me is concerned that I won’t actually like financial planning any more than I like my current job.
But really, it’s fear of the unknown because I’ve been working for the same company for 19 years dong more or less the same thing. It’s what I know. I don’t know what life is like on the other side, so it’s hard to make the jump.
And the second piece of advice is as good a reason as any other to build wealth. Why not build enough wealth to not only send your kids to school, but allow them some time to find their passion? And if this enables them to become independent and self-sufficient sooner, so much the better.
What do you think?