Download this week’s slides here: Week 4 slides
In the last year or so, I’ve been reading and writing about the American meritocracy, and I’m going to be posting some of these pieces here from time to time. But today I want to post a wonderful statement on the subject by Michael Lewis, which I somehow had missed when it first came out. It’s his address at the Princeton commencement in 2012 called, “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.” The theme for the new Princeton grads is simple and powerful: You shouldn’t assume you deserve to be where you are today.
Princeton University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Remarks
“Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie”
June 3, 2012 — As Prepared
(NOTE: The video of Lewis’ speech as delivered is available on the Princeton YouTube channel.)
Thank you. President Tilghman. Trustees and Friends. Parents of the Class of 2012. Above all, Members of the Princeton Class of 2012. Give yourself a round of applause. The next time you look around a church and see everyone dressed in black it’ll be awkward to cheer. Enjoy the moment.
Thirty years ago I sat where you sat. I must have listened to some older person share his life experience. But I don’t remember a word of it. I can’t even tell you who spoke. What I do remember, vividly, is graduation. I’m told you’re meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are. I wasn’t. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life and this is how they thanked me for it. By kicking me out.
At that moment I was sure of only one thing: I was of no possible economic value to the outside world. I’d majored in art history, for a start. Even then this was regarded as an act of insanity. I was almost certainly less prepared for the marketplace than most of you. Yet somehow I have wound up rich and famous. Well, sort of. I’m going to explain, briefly, how that happened. I want you to understand just how mysterious careers can be, before you go out and have one yourself.
I graduated from Princeton without ever having published a word of anything, anywhere. I didn’t write for the Prince, or for anyone else. But at Princeton, studying art history, I felt the first twinge of literary ambition. It happened while working on my senior thesis. My adviser was a truly gifted professor, an archaeologist named William Childs. The thesis tried to explain how the Italian sculptor Donatello used Greek and Roman sculpture — which is actually totally beside the point, but I’ve always wanted to tell someone. God knows what Professor Childs actually thought of it, but he helped me to become engrossed. More than engrossed: obsessed. When I handed it in I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to write senior theses. Or, to put it differently: to write books.
Then I went to my thesis defense. It was just a few yards from here, in McCormick Hall. I listened and waited for Professor Childs to say how well written my thesis was. He didn’t. And so after about 45 minutes I finally said, “So. What did you think of the writing?”
“Put it this way” he said. “Never try to make a living at it.”
And I didn’t — not really. I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn’t the first clue what I should write about. One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.
Now I had something to write about: Salomon Brothers. Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money. I’d stumbled into my next senior thesis.
I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You might just want to think about that,” he said.
“Stay at Salomon Brothers 10 years, make your fortune, and then write your books,” he said.
I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.
The book I wrote was called “Liar’s Poker.” It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?
This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.
I wrote a book about this, called “Moneyball.” It was ostensibly about baseball but was in fact about something else. There are poor teams and rich teams in professional baseball, and they spend radically different sums of money on their players. When I wrote my book the richest team in professional baseball, the New York Yankees, was then spending about $120 million on its 25 players. The poorest team, the Oakland A’s, was spending about $30 million. And yet the Oakland team was winning as many games as the Yankees — and more than all the other richer teams.
This isn’t supposed to happen. In theory, the rich teams should buy the best players and win all the time. But the Oakland team had figured something out: the rich teams didn’t really understand who the best baseball players were. The players were misvalued. And the biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success. Players got given credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others: pitchers got paid for winning games, hitters got paid for knocking in runners on base. Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control. Where balls that got hit happened to land on the field, for example.
Forget baseball, forget sports. Here you had these corporate employees, paid millions of dollars a year. They were doing exactly the same job that people in their business had been doing forever. In front of millions of people, who evaluate their every move. They had statistics attached to everything they did. And yet they were misvalued — because the wider world was blind to their luck.
This had been going on for a century. Right under all of our noses. And no one noticed — until it paid a poor team so well to notice that they could not afford not to notice. And you have to ask: if a professional athlete paid millions of dollars can be misvalued who can’t be? If the supposedly pure meritocracy of professional sports can’t distinguish between lucky and good, who can?
The “Moneyball” story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.
I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.
I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.
Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.
This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.
This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.
All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.
Never forget: In the nation’s service. In the service of all nations.
And good luck.
Download this week’s slides here: Week 3 Slides
You can download the slides here: Week 2 Slides
For the last few years before retirement, I taught a class at Stanford for graduate students who wanted to work on their writing. Now I am putting that class online for anyone who is interested in trying it out. The class is called “Academic Writing for Clarity and Grace.”
I know, the title sounds like a joke, since academics (especially in the social sciences) do not have a reputation for writing with either clarity or grace much less both. But I hope in this class to draw students into my own and every other academic’s lifelong quest to become a better writer. The course will bring in a wide range of reference works that I have found useful over the years in working on my own writing and in helping students with theirs. The idea is not that a 10-week class will make students good writers; many of us have been working at this for 40 years or more and we’re just getting started. Instead, the plan is to provide students with some helpful strategies, habits, and critical faculties; increase their sense of writing as an extended process of revision; and leave them with a set of books that will support them in their own lifelong pursuit of good writing.
The original class was offered in the ten-week format of the university’s quarter system, and I’m keeping that format. But you can use it in any way that works for you.
Some may want to treat it as a weekly class, doing the readings for each week, reviewing the PowerPoint slides for that week, and working through some of the exercises. If you’re treating it this way, it would work best if you can do it with a writing group made up of other students with similar interests. That way you can take advantage of the workshop component of the class, in which members of the group exchange sections of a paper they working on, giving and receiving feedback.
Others may use it as a general source of information about writing, diving into particular readings or slide decks as needed.
Classes include some instruction on particular skills and particular aspects of the writing process: developing an analytical angle on a subject; writing a good sentence; getting started in the writing process; working out the logic of the argument; developing the forms of validation for the argument; learning what your point is from the process of writing rather than as a precursor to writing; and revising, revising, revising. We spend another part of the class working as a group doing exercises in spotting and fixing problems. For these purposes we will use some helpful examples from the Williams book and elsewhere that focus on particular skills, but you can use the work produced within your own writing group.
Work in a writing group: Everyone needs to develop a recognition of the value of getting critical feedback from others on their work in progress, so you should be exchanging papers and work at editing each other’s work. Student work outside of class will include reading required texts, editing other student’s work around particular areas of concern, and working on revising your own paper or papers. Every week you will be submitting a piece of written work to your writing group, which will involve repeated efforts to edit a particular text of your own; and every week you will provide feedback to others in your group about their own texts.
Much of class time will focus on working on particular texts around a key issue of the day – like framing, wordiness, clarity, sentence rhythm. These texts will be examples from the readings and also papers by students, on which they would like to get feedback from the class as a whole. Topics will include things like:
- Framing an argument, writing the introduction to a paper
- Elements of rhetoric
- Sentence rhythm and music
- Emphasis – putting the key element at the end of sentence and paragraph; delivering the punch line
- Concision – eliminating wordiness
- Clarity – avoiding nominalizations; opting for Anglo-Saxon words; clearing up murky syntax
- Focusing on action and actors
- Metaphor and imagery
- Correct usage: punctuation, common grammatical errors, word use
- Avoiding the most common academic tics: jargon, isms, Latinate constructions, nominalizations, abstraction, hiding from view behind passive voice and third person
- The basics of making an argument
- Using quotes – integrating them into your argument, and commenting on them instead of assuming they make the point on their own.
- Using data – how to integrate data into a text and explain its meaning and significance
- The relation of writing and thought
- Revision – of writing and thinking
- The relation of grammar and mechanics to rhetorical effect
- Sentence style
- The relation of style to audience
- Disciplinary conventions for style, organization, modes of argument, evidence
- Authority and voice
Writing is a very personal process and the things we write are expressions of who we are, so it is important for everyone in the class to keep focused on being constructive in their comments and being tolerant of criticism from others. Criticism from others is very important for writers, but no one likes it. I have a ritual every time I get feedback on a paper or manuscript – whether blind reviews from journals or publishers or personal comments from colleagues. I let the review sit for a while until I’m in the right mood. Then I open it and skim it quickly to get the overall impression of how positive or negative it is. At that point I set it aside, cursing the editors for sending the paper to such an incompetent reviewer or reconsidering my formerly high opinion of the particular colleague-critic, then finally coming back a few days later (after a vodka or two) to read the thing carefully and assess the damage. Neurotic I know, but most writers are neurotic about their craft. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. Beyond all reason, I always expect the reviewers to say, “Don’t change a word; publish it immediately!” But somehow they never do. So I’m asking all members of the class both to recognize the vulnerability of their fellow writers and to open themselves up to the criticism of these colleagues in the craft.
Here is the course syllabus. The readings include five books and a number of articles; the latter are available on a Google drive.
I’m a recently retired professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. I see this blog as an opportunity for me to continue my work as a teacher without the annoyances of having to teach classes, grade papers, and attend faculty meetings. It will allow me to exercise my teacher voice and to explore the wide range of issues that I have raised in my classes over the years. The idea is to write for a broader audience, freed from the annoying conventions and stilted jargon of the academic journal article.
At core, my scholarly work has explored the historical sociology of American education, with a particular focus on the role that consumer pressure and markets have had on schooling at all levels. As a sociologist, I’ve been most interested in examining the nature of American schooling as a system: how it evolved, what dynamics govern its behavior, and what the consequences of this are for both school and society. My overall frame is that this is a system without a plan, which emerged organically as part of the evolution of American society — more influenced by self-interested actors in the educational marketplace than by deliberate efforts at educational reform.
My most recent book is A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017). Others include Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale, 2004); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Schooling (Yale, 1997); and The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (Yale, 1988). More recently I have been publishing in Aeon Magazine (https://aeon.co/).
I plan to continue writing books, but not ones that are overly researchy. In the past, my books have emerged from classes I have taught. In practice, I work out a story about a particular topic after teaching a class for a half dozen years of so, and at a certain point it feels like time to turn this oral account into a written text. I publish individual pieces around the class topic (drawing on a set of sources used in class) and then eventually pull them together into more coherent form between the covers of a book.
The idea is to continue that pattern here. The blog will be my effort to explore issues that pique my interest through the medium of essays, both short and long. Some I will be be publishing in nonacademic venues, of the sort that I have been seeking out in recent years: Aeon Magazine, Kappan, Quartz, Project Syndicate, and Dissent. Others will appear only here. Freed from academic conventions, I plan to pursue a wide range of interests that in the past have found an outlet in my teaching. Here are some examples:
- The role of consumers and markets in shaping educational systems
- The implications of the peculiarly organic and emergent form of the US higher education system
- The role of schools as institutions of credentialing more than learning, whose major social function is to promote social access and preserve social advantage
- Explorations in Big History, about the factors shaping the rise and fall of empires, with special emphasis on the role of fear and greed, war and profit
- The art and craft of good writing, looking at examples of when it’s done really well and examining the approaches that ordinary writers like ourselves can use to infuse our writing with clarity and grace
- Mini-reviews of books that cut across all these topics, mining them for key insights and cool quotes
That’s the plan. I hope you will join me for what could prove to be an interesting ride.