We'll admit we have a bit of an obsession with commencement speeches. Sure, a lot of them are kind of boring, but every so often, one will really strike a chord (Sheryl Sandberg, President Obama, Bono, J.K. Rowling...). These are the ones that we find inspiring and motivating and life-changing in a way that makes us want to talk about what they really meant, ad nauseam, to everyone who will listen. So, this time of year is kind of like Christmas for us. And this past Sunday, when Moneyball author, Michael Lewis, spoke at Princeton's Baccalaureate, was no exception. So, just in case you're looking for a shot of Thursday-afternoon inspiration, we're breaking it down for you, with the three most interesting takeaways from the speech below. The most stirring part is the cookie metaphor Lewis closes with. But the bottom line: We'd heard Woodrow Wilson's line about "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations," which has become the school's much-bandied slogan, a thousand times. It had never really affected us. But reading Lewis' remarks, it gave us chills. So follow along, and see if you agree. Remember the feeling.
Leaving Wall Street to write about Wall Street obviously changed Lewis' life. But for so many of us, taking that kind of leap is exactly what we put off...indefinitely. Holding on to that feeling of infinite possibility that we felt at graduation feels harder as we get older, but it matters. Lewis says, "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." You got lucky.
This led up to his most salient point: "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." ...So make it count.
"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." Lewis illustrated this poignantly with a cookie metaphor: "[Researchers] put 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.... Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. 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." Lewis makes the point that we shouldn't be the ones to eat fortune's cookie. Bear in mind the debt we all owe to society, and to the unlucky, and do better — both in the nation's service and the service of all nations.
Photo: Courtesy of Princeton University