What I’ve Been Reading: Outliers/Liar’s Poker

There are two ways to move ahead in life: work with privilege, or work with luck.

What I’ve Read:

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

In the case of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s privilege. In the case of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, it’s luck.

Well, maybe that’s being too general. No, it is being too general.

But first, let me tell you what I’m doing here.

For over three years, I’ve written a monthly column about what I’ve been reading, cleverly titled “What I’ve Been Reading.” They were long, winding rambles that touched on everything from the reasons I chose the book to the tangents I found myself trailing off to while reading it. It touched upon everything I read and purchased over the past month.

It was a tome, and no one read it.

After a while – especially recently – I became less concerned with the Web version of “What I’ve Been Reading.” (It started as a pitched book column for Prime Magazine, which was eventually picked up and run for a year.) It kept getting longer and longer, and after writing it I’d be so exhausted I wouldn’t bother editing it, and – like I said – no one read it anyway.

So last year, I went a month without it. On accident: the book I had read literally took me two months, and what was I going to write about after the first month – how I had made it halfway through a book? No. Instead, I just skipped the column.

No one noticed. Which set the plan to do away with the column in motion.

The reason I started it – and the reason I keep writing about books – is because, while I loved books, I had lost the discipline it took to be an avid reader. I simply purchased without making time to read, and the idea of writing about what I wrote about gave me an incentive to get back on track.

I did. And, despite a child and new hobbies, I still am.

Which brings us to now. “What I’ve Been Reading” isn’t going away. It’s just not going to be a month-by-month laundry list of books I’ve read. Instead, it’s going to be on a book-by-book basis. Sometimes they’ll be mashed together, if they’re similar. Sometimes they’ll be on their own. They’ll be short. Shorter, at least, but at times short.

Getting to this point in my writing career has been more Outliers than Liar’s Poker. In Gladwell’s book, the most successful people aren’t lucky – they’re privileged. At least, they’re privileged in that they found themselves with opportunities that gave them a slight advantage over others.

Bill Gates received lucky chances in learning computers that others did not – and he took advantage of them. Hockey players born in an early part of the year take advantage of being the oldest in an age (and, therefore, bigger and stronger) and, in the major leagues, this is shown by a higher number of early-year birthdates.

But it’s not just the advantages. It’s the time spent as well. You don’t just get something because you lucked into some opportunities. You also need to work hard at it. Asians can read numbers faster (due to the words they use in their language), but it’s a culture of hard work that makes them better at math. Hockey players who are born earlier in the year are more often moved up into advanced classes, but they still have to practice harder when they get to that level.

I started writing my column because I liked books. I had an interest. A new magazine started and I offered to write for it. I was proactive. I wrote when I could. The article became well liked. I gained confidence. I practiced, became better, and when a job opportunity arose I went after it, despite having no formal experience. I got the job because of a lack of competition, but I did so also because I had practiced and worked and proven myself at the right times. It’s all very Gladwellian.

Liar’s Poker shows the opposite side. Set in the mid 80s, when mortgage bonds and junk bonds came into being, Michael Lewis recounts his time at Solomon Brothers, a trading firm on Wall Street. Here, luck seemed to outplay hard work, though, just as in Outliers, both were needed.

I’ve loved Michael Lewis’s sports books (Moneyball and The Blind Side), and enjoyed Liar’s Poker as well. For two reasons, really. First, it gave me an understanding as to the complete awfulness of the financial markets – both in their unpredictability and in the boy’s club mentality that pervades the system. Second, it was funny. Michael Lewis doesn’t take himself too seriously. He knows he was great at what he did. But he also realizes the utter stupidity of what he did. He can laugh at himself because he was too good to be in there in the first place.

Liar’s Poker had emotion, while Outliers had head-scratching aha moments. Liar’s Poker had luck, while Outliers had privilege. Liar’s Poker was at times tedious, or at least it seemed that way to someone just learning complicated markets, without being boring. Outliers was always fast but at times coincidental.

Either way, both showed the value of chance and the value of persistence. Which made them equally interesting – and perfectly paired.

Oops. So much for a short review, huh?

This was lovingly handwritten on March 26th, 2009