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Michael Lewis, author of ‘Moneyball,’ speaks at Qualtrics Summit about why experts and scouts get it wrong

SHARE Michael Lewis, author of ‘Moneyball,’ speaks at Qualtrics Summit about why experts and scouts get it wrong
The Qualtrics Insight Summit led off with a heavy hitter on Wednesday morning — Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.”

The Qualtrics Insight Summit led off with a heavy hitter on Wednesday morning — Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.”

Herb Scribner, Deseret News

The Qualtrics Insight Summit led off with a heavy hitter on Wednesday morning — Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.”

Lewis spoke for about 50 minutes about his writing career and how he finds ways to write about data and analytics constantly.

Mostly, he said his books were all born out of interest.

“There’s no formula. The only thing all of them have in common is I got really interested in something. It’s funny because there are themes that run through a lot of the stories” like data, he said at the summit.

Lewis said he’ll write about subjects that say “something about the world that needs saying.”

Lewis said he writes about what gets him jazzed or people who he falls in love with. He enjoys people who disrupt their environment because those stories tell you something about the environment.

Of course, Lewis said he’s not a prime of example of a busybody. He said his background of being born in New Orleans makes him a little lazy. But, he admits anything good takes hard work.

“Almost everything worth doing is hard,” he said.

Lewis, fielding questions from Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, spoke on three of his major book projects — “Moneyball,” which is about the Oakland A’s magic season that was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, “The Big Short," an Oscar-winning film about the collapse of the housing market, and his new book, “The Undoing Project,” which looks into behavioral analysis and why people make certain decisions.

Here’s a breakdown of what he said about each book and other subjects.

“Moneyball”

“Moneyball” is a familiar film to many Americans. It stars Pitt and Jonah Hill, and it tells the story of an unlikely band of misfits playing for the Oakland A’s finding success.

Lewis said the book identified a myopia in the sports writing industry. No one else wanted to write the story because no one asked basic questions about baseball and how the players in the locker room and scouts interact.

Lewis said he was watching TV while on the treadmill when the Oakland team's salaries came up. The numbers were so different between players, which forced him to ask the question, “Is there a class warfare in the locker room?”

Lewis posed the question to Billy Beane, then-manager of the A’s, about how they planned to compete.

“Once you ask the question, the answer is unbelievable,” Lewis said.

Lewis spent six weeks with the team before he knew this was going to be a book. He said he watched the players come out of the showers and they didn’t look like professional athletes. One was fat around the ankles, another had webbed feet.

This sparked his interest. He asked questions about why these players were picked.

“You need data sometimes to see what’s right in front of your nose," he said.

They were looking for defective people physically because it blinded the market to what the player could actually do.

But he said “Moneyball” didn’t address the core problem — why are experts not relying on data? Why are they making misjudgements? The brain is wired to make intuitive decisions, he said, but why?

And that led to his newest book.

“The Undoing Project”

Lewis’ new book, “The Undoing Project,” centers around two Israeli psychologists who research how people make mistakes when they’re analyzing data or making predictions.

Lewis said it is a bit of a companion piece to “Moneyball.”

He said he missed a “huge story in the middle of it (‘Moneyball’).” He never asked why experts get it wrong on how players will perform when the data is right in their face.

He said it comes down to “behavioral analysis,” or basing decisions based on stereotypes, memory and intuition.

He said people make a lot of mistakes when they think too much and don’t rely on data. He also said that memory and how we view stereotypes tend to impact our decision-making.

"People are fallible,” he said. “It's essential to our humanity. Embrace it, explore it. That's the first step to correct it."

Lewis said “The Undoing Project” will be the best movie his books have made. He said Lionsgate told him that it offered the film to “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle.

“The Big Short”

“The Big Short” tells how the housing crash of 2006 happened, specifically by examining a host of characters who saw the downfall coming.

Lewis said his work on “The Big Short” taught him how impressive the movie industry can be. Lewis said Christian Bale played his “Big Short” character, Michael Burry, extremely well. He said Bale was almost indistinguishable from the real man.

There’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into making movies, he said.

What it’s like to work on a movie as an author

Lewis said oftentimes authors find themselves in tough situations with books, where they have to give away their artistic dream for the sake of the film.

“The author in a movie of a book, especially a nonfiction book, is the chicken at the hams and eggs breakfast. The subjects are the pigs,” he said.

Lewis said many filmmakers have asked to make movies of his work. They give him money but they never make the films. He told all of this to Beane before making “Moneyball,” since Beane didn’t want to sign away his the rights to his life.

One day, Beane called Lewis up and told him Brad Pitt was interesting in coming over his house.

“He had some global obligation to let Brad Pitt into his door.”

How to squeeze big subjects into small language.

Lewis finished his speech by saying that he wants to make projects that his mother would read.

"When I write my books I ask, ‘Will my mother understand this?’"

He does this by taking big projects and condensing them into easy-to-understand language so that they’re universally accepted.