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Michael Lewis and the parable of the lucky man taking the extra cookie

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In 2012, Michael Lewis gave a commencement speech at Princeton University, his alma mater. In the speech, Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, and The Big Short, talks about the role of luck in rationalizing success. He tells the graduates, the winners of so many of life’s lotteries, that they “owe a debt to the unlucky”. This part near the end is worth reading even if you skip the rest of it.

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.

You can watch Lewis’ speech as delivered on YouTube:

I wonder if hearing that moved the needle for any of those grads? I suspect not…being born on third base thinking you hit a triple is as American as apple pie at this point. (via @goldman)

Tags: commencement speeches   Michael Lewis   Princeton   video
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lograh
5 days ago
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popular
13 days ago
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3 public comments
kleer001
13 days ago
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Excellent! Don't forget to help your lucky friends come to the same realization.
dmierkin
13 days ago
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well put
jheiss
15 days ago
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Well, as someone who was "born on third base" and is making decent progress on scoring a run (to keep up the analogy), I can tell you that there's at least one of us out here who is damn well aware that luck has played a significant part and does at least try to pretend that he doesn't deserve the cookie.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Listening

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Back in my day, we only gave corporations 70 percent of our data, and that's the way we liked it!

New comic!
Today's News:
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lograh
9 days ago
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acetyleni: sillyfudgemonkeys: natrenwal: renderiot: watsonian...

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acetyleni:

sillyfudgemonkeys:

natrenwal:

renderiot:

watsoniananatomy:

thebigcatblog:

A 22-month-old female scaredy cat tiger appeared to get the shock of her young life when she encountered a dead leaf floating on a pool of water in the Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Clearly unusure about just what was approaching her, the partially submerged youngster’s tail shot up in the air and with teeth bared she let out her most fearsome growl - all in an effort to scare the humble leaf away.

Picture: HERMANN BREHM / NPL / Rex Features

I CAN’T BREATHE

OMFG I AM DYING!

this is like the happiest thing I have encountered in a while

they should form a support group. 

I lost it when I saw the tail, before I even read the comment oh my god

My name is cat
And wen I see
An unnown thing
Approaching me
Prepared to fite
I show my teef
I growl real loud
I scare the leef

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lograh
21 days ago
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bibliogrrl
21 days ago
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Chicago!
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Rapid Transit

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Buster Keaton’s 1925 silent comedy Seven Chances contains a remarkable transition — Keaton gets into a car and the setting dissolves into his destination. The car never moves. In 1964 interviewer Kevin Brownlow asked how this was done:

KEATON: Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t.

BROWNLOW: Now, what about lighting on it?

KEATON: Standard lighting.

BROWNLOW: It was interior.

KEATON: No, all exterior.

BROWNLOW: If it was standard lighting and the sun wasn’t in the right place, the shadows would …

KEATON: We made sure of that, same time of day so the shadows would [be in the same place]. But for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.

Keaton was also rumored to have relied on surveyors’ tools in 1924’s Sherlock Jr., but he said it wasn’t so. “Every cameraman in the picture business went and saw that picture more than once, trying to figure out how in hell we did some of that. Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!”

(From Kevin W. Sweeney, ed., Buster Keaton Interviews, 2007.)

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lograh
22 days ago
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afishhook-anopeneye: my name is cowand wen she sitsbenethe the...

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afishhook-anopeneye:

my name is cow
and wen she sits
benethe the stall
withe tiny kit

I hav no hands
withe which to pat
I use mye tung
I lik the cat

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lograh
54 days ago
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bibliogrrl
58 days ago
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Chicago!
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My Pitch for a Soft Reboot of the Iraq War

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What I’m about to toss your way may seem a bit crazy at first, but if you stick with me to the end, I think you’ll all end up agreeing that our next major tent-pole title has been staring right at us this whole time. Gentleman, I think it’s time for a soft reboot of the Iraq War.

It’s been thirteen years since audiences last saw the Iraq War — that’s practically ancient history these days. There’ve been some similar sells: the prolonged Afghan conflict, Russia’s encroachment in the Balkan states, et cetera. But nothing resonates with this generation quite like that classic quagmire, nothing’s packed that same sort of devastating, demoralizing punch. You ask any millennial gliding down the sidewalk on their hoverboard, “Hey, what’s the one thing that jaded you the most, the thing that really, really made you question humanity’s purpose and worth during your adolescence?” I don’t think I have to tell you guys what their answer invariably is.

Look, you all can brainstorm about new ideas, new locales, and new characters ‘til the deployed servicemen come home — and we all know how long that’ll be — but you know there’s always a huge risk involved with trying something novel, something innovative. North Korea? We haven’t sent our young over there to get blown up in decades. South China Sea? Are you kidding me? And if that flops, woo boy, no coming back from that one, am I right? I mean, I’m talking a Showgirls situation. Your safest bet right now is to go with what you know, and what you know is convoluted, misguided Middle Eastern conflict.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit there were flaws in the source material. The warmongers were a little too obvious, the gross mistreatment of prisoners and civilians came a bit too early in the plot, but all that’s what gave it character. There was an earnestness in that administration’s public deception that you just don’t see these days, and I think we can capitalize on that in some very, very lucrative ways.

People want something that appears new, but comforts them on a certain, primordial level. There may be some new settings, a couple unseen plot twists, but overall, it’s the same bleak, horrific storyline. We all know how it’s gonna end — tragically — and that’s why it’s an easy sell. People will flock to it because it’s familiar, but also because it’s terrifyingly uncertain enough to compel them to check it out.

What I’m proposing to you tonight in this smoke-filled subterranean military bunker is a reimagining of the original twenty-first century clusterfuck. The first steaming pile of horseshit that set the tone for this miserable century. We base it somewhere strikingly similar, but original enough to stand on its own. This isn’t a straight-up remake, after all. Data shows audiences have had enough of that. We can’t just waltz back in to Iraq. I mean, technically we never left, but that’s neither here nor there.

No, we base our soft reboot in Syria. It’s got a dictator, stockpiles of chemical weapons, and an extremist insurgency of radical terrorist warlords. Of course, we modernize it all a bit for our audience — I think ISIS is a particularly nice, soulless reimagining of their Taliban source material — but it’s all largely the same song and dance.

The Syrian War. Picture that in lights. On news headlines. In protest songs. On magnet ribbons supporting our troops. It practically rolls off the tongue. The Syrian War. I see from the glimmer in your eyes that you’re thinking it, too.

So, in conclusion, gentlemen, I’ll just leave you with a simple question: What’s always been the hottest thing? What’s an almost guaranteed hit, no matter who directs it, which stars you get to sign on, what time of year you drop it on audiences? Fads come and go, but there’s one thing that’s a surefire win, so long as we don’t lose: War.

Plus, just think of the franchise potential!

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lograh
76 days ago
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