Do you deserve the extra cookie? Leadership lessons from Michael Lewis’ Commencement Address

‘Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie’ was the title of the 2012 Princeton University commencement speech delivered by alumnus Michael Lewis. His message: “recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation.”

Michael Lewis graduated from Princeton with a degree in art history believing he “was of no possible economic value to the outside world”.

The experience of writing his senior thesis introduced him to the possibility of building a career on his talent for words. With no experience and little encouragement from his thesis professor:

“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.”

And one night he makes a connection at dinner and ends up working as a derivatives expert at the financial firm, Salomon Brothers. Two years later he realizes he has found something to write about.

“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.”

Imagine, reader with the perfect resume and highly regarded credentials, that the luck of a seating arrangement could lead you to a position that allows you, in time, to connect the dots back to your passion.

“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.”

But accidents do happen and the best you can do is consistently put yourself in front of the oncoming ‘career possibilities’ truck.

And now, about the cookies. The leadership lesson is humility, and Mr. Lewis illustrates with a story of a ‘teamwork’ exercise.

Two Cal researchers recruited students for an experiment.

“…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.

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.”

We probably cannot remember our commencement speaker or their message. That’s why each year at this time we should reflect on the words we missed, now that we have the context of experience to help us understand.

There are no straight lines along a career path. Michael Lewis is a highly regarded, bestselling author who has written stories of Wall Street and baseball. The lessons he shared that spring day:

Don’t put too much distance between you and your passion, because you may forget the feeling.

Be Humble. Don’t eat the last cookie. You may sit at the head of the table and truly believe you deserve the extra cookie, “But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.” 

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