The Crafts of Writing, Friendship, Coaching, Happiness | Michael Lewis on The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Although Michael struggled early on in his writing career, he kept writing because writing gave him enormous pleasure
    • “I was having so much fun doing it and it was just like, I just have to get better. I’ll keep doing this because this is just fun.”Michael Lewis
  • Michael’s day job was working at Salomon Brothers, an investment bank, where he earned a $225,000 bonus in a single year and was on track to double it the following year. However, he gave it up to accept a $40,000 book advance and become a full-time author
  • Being successful helps you stay off the path of writing about topics that make money and instead pursue your interest
    • “I think readers and audiences really appreciate and will engage with the writer who’s willing to take risks…they’ll follow you if you take a brave risk” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael views podcasting as literary cross-training
    • “I’ll be a better prose writer because I’m working out these other muscles”  – Michael Lewis
  • Don’t be good, be great
    • “If you’re going to do it, be great”Michael Lewis

Intro

Books Mentioned

How Michael Fell In Love With Writing 

  • Michael was never interested in writing until he worked on his senior thesis at Princeton
    • Michael wrote about the famous renaissance artist Donatello
      • Michael thought he wrote a beautiful thesis but his advisor thought the opposite and told him to never try to make a living out of writing
        • He graduated from Princeton in 1982 and knew he wanted to write books for a living but didn’t know where to start
          • “I didn’t know any writer. I didn’t know anyone who knew any writers.” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael walked into a bookstore and asked if there were any books that would help him become a writer for a magazine. He found a reference book that listed all of the magazines in America along with the addresses of the editors.
    • He started to submit articles to as many magazines as he could
      • After seeing a job ad in The Economist, Michael gave it a shot and ended getting an interview. He didn’t land the job, but they encouraged him to keep submitting stories to them.
        • “Over a period of about a year, I must have published 20 articles in The EconomistMichael Lewis
  • Although Michael struggled early on in his writing career, he kept writing because writing gave him enormous pleasure
    • “I was having so much fun doing it and it was just like, I just have to get better. I’ll keep doing this because this is just fun.”Michael Lewis

Going From Finance To Writing

  • Michael’s day job was at Salomon Brothers, an investment bank, where he earned a $225,000 bonus in a single year and was on track to double it the following year. However, he gave it up to accept a $40,000 book advance and become a full-time author
    • Michael went into Salomon Brothers knowing it would only be a temporary gig
      • “The whole time I was there, I was writing” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael actually wrote an op-ed in the NYT saying that traders were overpaid which got him in a lot of trouble
    • Fortunately, Michael wasn’t fired because he was bringing in too much money with his clients
      • For the next year, Michael wrote under his mother’s maiden name, Diana Blecker
        • Since Michael was writing under a pseudonym, it gave me a lot more freedom as a writer to talk in detail about the financial world
  • One day, Michael got a call from a senior editor at a book publishing company encouraging him to write a book
  • Michael has always been competitive and ambitious, but he doesn’t view money as an accurate measure of success
    • Instead, he seeks to create things he is proud of

Thoughts on Writing

  • Michael’s old writing process:
    • Start writing a 4pm 
    • End at 3am
    • Sleep till noon
      • However, Michael now has kids so he can’t do that
  • Now, Michael writes with headphones on to block out the world
    • “The purpose of it is to shutout the possibility of interruption” – Michael Lewis
      • With music, he can’t hear knocks on the door, phones ringing, people dropping packages, or anything else
  • Michael believes that most creative writing professors are too polite with their students. Michael’s editor at The New Republic would often destroy his work. 
    • “He just couldn’t be polite”  – Michael Lewis
      • “It was a kind of feedback that everybody should get, but that most people are too sensitive and tender to deliver”  
  • Being successful helps you stay off the path of writing about topics that make money and pursue what interests you
    • And if doing that does make money, it’s an added bonus 
      • “I think readers and audiences really appreciate and will engage with the writer who’s willing to take risks…they’ll follow you if you take a brave risk” – Michael Lewis
        • That’s why Michael’s books cover a wide range of topics

Inspiration For Books

  • What inspires Michael to write a book?
    • He finds a topic that he feels if he doesn’t cover it, it won’t get done
    • He feels obligated to write about a topic
      • “Once I have that feeling, I have a motive…it’s the highest motive. It’s I have an obligation, I have a duty.” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael wrote Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game because he was interested in the class-dynamics within a baseball team now that salaries had skyrocketed
    • At first, Michael thought this story would just be a magazine piece but then realized a baseball team had started to look for underappreciated players much like investors look for underappreciated stocks
      • For example, if two players had similar stats, the player that looked like more physically fit would get paid more simply because of his appearance
        • “It became a very universal story about the mistakes we make when we look at another person” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael wrote the book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds to explore the relationship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They were two psychologists who wrote a series of breathtakingly original papers that invented the field of behavioral economics.
    • “The book explores their relationship…and explores the power of collaboration” – Michael Lewis
      • Michael was fascinated that the two of them were completely different but by working together, they created breakthrough work in their field

Michael’s Podcast

  • Michael has a podcast called Against the Rules
  • Michael views podcasting as literary cross-training
    • “I’ll be a better prose writer because I’m working out these other muscles”  – Michael Lewis
      • He’s still going to write books
        • He encourages writers to try writing in different forms (e.g: magazine articles, film scripts, books, etc.)
          • Michael views writing a book as an individual sport but podcasting as a team sport

Michael’s Book Recommendations

  • The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson
    • It’s a comic novel that covers everything you need to know about Vikings
      • “It is just an incredible pleasurable reading experience and partly just to illustrate to a point that you never know where great books are going to come from” – Michael Lewis
  • A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles
    • It’s about a Russian aristocrat who was supposed to be killed during the revolution but because of his connections, he instead gets to live but is locked up in a hotel for the next 50 years
      • “It makes you see the possibilities of resourcefulness in a refined space”  – Michael Lewis
  • Michael gives away a lot of memoirs such as Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
  • The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley
    • The author goes to live with a remote tribe and studies them for his thesis
      • “That was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read” – Michael Lewis

Additional Notes

  • When Tim was early into his career, he reached out to Michael and was kindly rejected
  • Michael almost got kicked out of middle school for copying the back of a book for his book report, he didn’t know it was plagiarism
  • Michael says he learned about storytelling from his father who was a master storyteller and that his writing embodied the book The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
  • Tim and Michael both enjoyed the book A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee
  • Tim reads a quote from one of Michael’s book, The Undoing Project: “People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives”
    • In other words, the need to always be busy can stop people from realizing what’s actually important
  • Michael says he’s always been a happy person
    • Every person has a narrative of who they are that they tell themselves, and Michael decided early on to adopt the narrative that he’s the happiest person he knows 
      • “It’s partly a personality trait and partly a trait that I’ve just tried to really encourage in myself” – Michael Lewis
  • Michael is addicted to exercise, he gets about an hour of exercise every day. He says it makes him feel and think better.
    •  “It’s the closest thing to a magic pill” – Michael Lewis
      • He tries to do a different activity every day (biking, hiking, swimming, tennis)
        • It also helps him work out ideas for his books
  • What message would Michael put on a billboard? 
    • Don’t be good, be great
      • “If you’re going to do it, be great”Michael Lewis
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Notes By Alex Wiec

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