Tag Archives: Aaron Sorkin

“You Owe A Debt To The Unlucky” – Michael Lewis Gives The Best Commencement Advice Of 2012

(Note:  the links are to the text of each of these speeches.  You can also find the video of each with little trouble.  And there are plenty of “compilations” of the “best  commencement speeches of 2012” out there, like this one).


I like commencement addresses.  I do not remember the one I heard when I graduated.  I do remember the speaker (not the message; the speaker) at my wife’s graduation.  But I’ve liked them more and more as the years have rolled on.

I suppose my favorite is Steve Jobs at Stanford, as I suspect you would suspect if you’ve read my blog for very long:  “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.  Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

But there are a lot of other good ones, and they keep coming.  This year, we’ve had Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse“…make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people.”  And David Mccullough, Jr. at Wellesley High School (at a high school – I like that):  You are not special.  You are not exceptional. 

But, having presented synopses of five different books by Michael Lewis (including The New New Thing; Moneyball; The Big Short), it is not a surprise that moving near the top of the list of my favorites is Michael Lewis at Princeton  in 2012.  It is filled with Michael Lewis quality observation and insight.  Here is a great excerpt.  I’ve bolded what I think is the key line.

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’s something that you’re very likely to forget.

In an interview on PBS Newshour about the speech, Michael Lewis added these thoughts:

But I do think that there has been kind of sapped out of the culture an idea that used to be pretty robust. And it’s the idea of noblesse oblige. It’s the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected from.

And it’s an idea that it’s — you know, it’s the heart of the Princeton education. When you get there, they tell you, the motto is, in the nation’s service.

I would say that, look, that the successful in our society owe so much of their success to things outside of themselves. They owe it to the society, that they’re born into this affluent and peaceful society that was not of their making, that they should acknowledge that obligation.

And I think you see a lot of — a lot of fight-back on that subject. And you see it — you mean, you see it in the tax code. You see it in the way private equity managers manage to construe their income as capital gains, so they don’t have to pay taxes on it. You see it in CEO pay.

You see it in — you see it in the way Wall Street people pay themselves. So I think that — that even to — even to put the question into the minds of young people of what they owe is maybe a novel concept, because there are an awful lot of people who sit on top of the society who don’t feel that way.

Having said that, you know, I do think that one of the things that distinguishes our country from, say, Greece, is that we do have this notion that you give back. If you look at Greek culture and why — and why the place over there is crumbling right now, part of the problem is the elites feel they owe the place nothing. They don’t pay taxes. They don’t — they have no real organic relationship with the rest of the place, and they certainly don’t have a sense of noblesse oblige.

It’s sort of winner take all. And that’s something I think we need to really fight hard to avoid here, because when we get to that point, I do think the society starts to crumble. So this was on my mind when I wrote this talk. And I confess I’m a little surprised you’re interested, because, to me, it just seems obvious.

People go to their graduations, and promptly forget what they barely heard to begin with during the graduation speech.  And people read books, and articles, and blog posts, and promptly forget what they hear and read.

But maybe we should remember.  Maybe we should remember on purpose – you know, call to mind, and pay attention to…   “You have an obligation to the unlucky.”  An obligation! – to the unlucky.  This is something we should all remember, and pay a hefty amount of attention to, don’t you think?

Natalie Portman Reminds Us Well – There Are No Little People

Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made.  Or, to be more precise, built, one day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and, most of all, through habit…  Like creativity, collaboration is a habit – and one I encourage you to develop.
Collaboration guarantees change because it makes us accommodate the reality of our partners – and accept all the ways they’re not like us.  And those differences are important.  The more we can draw upon our partner’s strengths and avoid approving our partner’s weaknesses, the better the partnership will be.
You need a challenging partner.  In a good collaboration, differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.
Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

With God, there are no little people.
Francis Schaeffer

Here’s a snippet of a scene from Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first television series (Sorkin won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay last night for The Social Network. You can read the script of this Sports Night episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,  here). Casey McCall, one of the two fictional Sports Night co-hosts, had appeared on The View in the episode.  A big deal had been made about the color of his tie by the women on The View.    Monica (played by Janel Moloney) came to see him…


Excuse me, Mr. McCall?


I’m sorry, is this a bad time?

For what?

I’d like to ask you a question, but if you’re preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back.

What’s your question?

What’s my name?

(BEAT) What’s your name?


What are we doing right now?

If this is a bad time —

I’m sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names.

Who was the number two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?

It was Ferguson Jenkins.

My name’s Monica. I’m the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen and she’s been working here since the day you started.

I know Maureen.

Can I ask you another question?

I’m sorry I didn’t know your name.

(HOLDING UP A NECKTIE) Do you know what color this is?

It’s grey.

It’s called gun metal. Grey has more ivory in it, gun metal has more blue. Can you tell me which of these shirts you should wear it with?

I don’t know.

You’re not supposed to know what shirt goes with what suit or how a color in a necktie can pick up your eyes. You’re not expected to know what’s going to clash with what Dan’s wearing or what pattern’s gonna bleed when Dave changes the lighting. Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk-show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say “That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen, I wouldn’t know gun metal from a hole in the ground.” Do you have an idea what it would’ve meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would’ve played that tape for her husband and her kids?


Let’s start with the obvious.  The Academy Awards gives out Oscars for a number of different categories – all of which point to the obvious truth there is no such thing as a good movie that is not a team project – a true collaborative product.  It takes a lot of people working together, with great and diverse skills, to make an Oscar-worthy movie.  So there is no best actor, best director, best actress, without a really good cinematographer, or screen writer, or make-up artist, or, composer, or…you get the idea.  And the Oscar telecast is filled with such reminders, as every winner thanks people who helped him or her win this coveted award.

But, within each category there is excellence all the way down to the smallest behind-the-scenes bit-part.  And it was this truth that Natalie Portman so eloquently stated.  Even though one winner (Randy Newman) reminded the audience that reading off a list of names is “not good television,” Portman’s list reminded us that people — real people, behind every name in such a list of “thank-yous” —  are the reason a movie is made well to begin with.

Ms. Portman thanked many people, but near the end of her acceptance speech, she added this (from transcript, here):

And also there are people on films who no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day. Margie and Geordie who did my hair and makeup, Nicci, who dressed me, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed the beautiful ballet costumes, Joe Reidy, our incredible AD, first AD, and our camera operators J.C. and Steve who gave me so much soul behind the camera everyday, you gave me all of your energy.

Here is the business lesson (and yes, movies are big business).  It takes a team — a diverse team, made up of people with a life-time of carefully honed skills (the 10,000 hour rule!) to make a world-class movie.  Collaboration, with gifted, skilled, trained, people, at every level of the organization, produces excellence – even magic.  And shoddiness, anywhere on the team, can lower the quality all the way through the endeavor.

And for every leader (or, those with “leading roles”), take a lesson from Natalie Portman.  Don’t forget to include, and thank, the “little people.”

Aaron Sorkin Reminds Us To Keep Our Focus

Folks, a lot of people got killed last night. Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?
(Fictional President Andrew Shepherd, The American President, after the press corps wants to know more about his private life than about the international incident that prompted the press conference).


Aaron Sorkin -- could somebody please talk him into writing a business book!

If Aaron Sorkin wrote a business book, I would immediately buy it, consume it, and then most certainly put it at the top of any list I compiled as the best business book ever.  Not because he knows much about business (I don’t know if he does or not), but because I am addicted to anything/everything he writes and puts on the screen.  Take your pick:  The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and of course the greatest program in the history of television that never found enough of its audience, Sports Night.  (and this is not all).

I realize this is a business book and business issues blog.  And I’m quoting from an article by Sorkin written about quite a controversy regarding a Newsweek contributor’s opinion regarding a gay actor playing straight — definitely not on subject for this blog.

But…  the article is Now That You Mention It, Rock Hudson Did Seem Gay, written for the Huffington Post. And, here’s the paragraph:

When I need the audience to know that a piece of information they’re about to hear is important, I can use words, a close-up, a push-in, music… when the authors of the no-longer-private-lives “A” story want the audience to know that something’s important, it shows up on our Yahoo homepage. (The third story on my homepage yesterday was that Britain, our closest ally, has a new Prime Minister. The first story was about Justin Bieber. Unless the new Prime Minister is Justin Bieber, something’s obviously gone wrong.)

And here’s the lesson.  It is an old lesson.  A society that becomes consumed with trivia is a society that really does need to pay attention to the right issues.  And Sorkin rather passionately makes that argument in this article.

And for business people, the lesson is this:  focus on the right things, and do not, ever, get bogged down on the wrong things.  Your moments are incredibly precious.  Do not waste any of them on inconsequential trivia.  You’ve got important matters to think about and plan and implement.  Stay focused and get to it!

Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?