Monday, July 23, 2012
The Parable of the Extra Cookie
Bestselling author Michael Lewis gave a remarkably self-effacing and genuinely humble speech to the graduating class at Princeton last month.
His speech was titled, “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.” It was in many ways the antithesis of the traditional graduation speech. He did not outline his keys to success or exhort the graduates to set high goals, or talk about discipline and hard work. What he told them was that success was more about luck than hard work. Successful people have to work hard. They have to be disciplined and focused. But lots of people work very hard and are very focused and still achieve much less.
As individuals and as a society, we don’t want to see it that way. We want to believe that what we have achieved is entirely the result of our own efforts.
He tells the story of his own lucky break this way, “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.”
For Lewis, the money was really beside the point. He didn’t want to be a Wall Street executive, he wanted to be a writer. The critical thing was that now he had something to write about, “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.”
He went on, “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?”
He talked about his writing, and then he told a story which is also a parable.
Researchers at Berkley recruited undergraduates to particpate in an experiment. They segregated them into three person teams. Each team had either trhee males or three females. Then they arbitraritly chose a person to be the group “leader,” who would report back to the larger session. The “leaders” were each given a special T-shirt to wear, identifying him or her as the “leader.” And each group was given a moral dilemma to solve, like reducing campus drinking or academic cheating.
After thirty minutes, the researcher interrupted each of the groups and offered them a plate of cookies. Each plate had four cookies. There was one for each participant and one extra. This might have been the source of some awkward negotiation, but it wasn’t. The fourth cookie was almost always consumed by the “leader,” who “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.”
Lewis observed, “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.”
The experiment, he said, helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay and lots of other human behavior. And then he explained the meaning of the parable in specific reference to Princeton graduates, “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.”
And then he urged them never to forget the Princeton motto: “In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.”
We do live in the richest society the world has ever seen at a time when no one actually expects us to sacrifice our own interests for anyone else. We will be tempted to “eat the extra cookie.” In some cases we will be tempted to eat the extra cookie even when we know that outside of our group there may be others with no cookies at all.