Westmont Magazine Bestselling Author Michael Lewis Shares Stories, Inspiration

Sold-out event returns in person with interview of writer behind “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side” and “The Premonition,” featuring Santa Barbara's own Dr. Charity Dean

By Ann Pieramici, contributing writer at Noozhawk.com
March 6, 2022

Talk about backstories.

Michael Lewis, the bestselling author and financial journalist behind such books as “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side” and “The Big Short” (all adapted into Academy Award-nominated films), shared some of the stories behind the stories at the 17th annual Westmont President’s Breakfast, held March 4 at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

“The breakfast was the last big event in 2020 before everyone went home and put on their pajamas,” mused event chairman John Davies, who welcomed the in-person, sold-out crowd, as well as friends zooming from afar.

Davies introduced Westmont President Gayle Beebe, who awarded Lewis with the Westmont Leadership Award, recognizing exemplary leaders for their character and competence.

Lewis, who has published 16 books ranging from politics and baseball to Wall Street and the COVID-19 pandemic, spoke with Beebe, sharing engrossing anecdotes about the real people profiled in his books, and talking about his inspiration and search for meaning in the world.

Michael Lewis and Westmont students

“I really move through the world looking for stories that need to be told,” said Lewis, who lives in Berkeley. “For me, the deep motive and the thing that gets me back into the chair over and over again is the need to make sense of the world around me.

“There is a clarity that comes from putting words to observations.”

One hilarious observation that Lewis shared was the moment he conceived the idea for “Moneyball.”

“I was in the Oakland A’s clubhouse interviewing the players trying to determine how they made sense of how strange their team looked,” he explained. “They had a fat, slow leadoff hitter, a relief pitcher with a club foot, and a first baseman who had never played first base.

“And yet they were beating other teams.”

As their interaction ensued, Lewis watched the players come out of the showers, and he joked that their uniforms clearly covered a lot — compared to, say, basketball.

“I could not help but observe their naked bodies and thought how unlike professional athletes they appeared,” he laughed.

It was then that he began to understand that what the Oakland organization did really well was find better measurements with which to place values on players, other than physical appearance. He said traditional values were distorted so that if a player looked good, he was overvalued, while more subtle, yet favorable performances were likely undervalued.

“The book is ostensibly about baseball, but, really, it’s about anybody who is misperceived simply because of their appearance,” Lewis said. “And more broadly, it’s about exploring the errors that our human mind makes when engaged in intuitive judgments.”

A review of his book in The New Yorker likened his “Moneyball” theory to earlier, original research on behavioral economics conceived by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The discovery of these two men in this review would compel Lewis to seek out the pair and inspire “The Undoing Project.” Again, the book was about more than it would seem.

Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who spoke at the 2020 Westmont President’s Breakfast, had been working alongside Tversky before the cognitive and mathematical psychologist’s death in 1996, to study the ways in which the human mind erred, when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations.

Their groundbreaking work created the field of behavioral economics.

While “The Undoing Project” is an intellectual journey of how observations that people make as they move through the world are skewed, Lewis says it’s actually a platonic love story between these two incredibly different men.

“A love story between two Israeli psychologists is not actually a promising premise for a bestseller,” he joked. “And yet it’s a fascinating friendship that also makes us question the inner workings of the human mind.”

Michael Lewis books

Lewis also shared backstories of research leading to his novel, “The Fifth Risk,” which reveals frightening realities inside several federal government agencies.

“The government is a vast risk management enterprise,” Lewis observed.

He said he started to discover that there are all these existential risks that government manages — including cyber warfare, food insecurity, financial crises, nuclear arsenals — at the same time that he had learned that President Donald Trump’s administration had fired most of its transition team. The result meant that nobody in the new administration was getting vital information that outgoing President Barack Obama’s administration had prepared to share.

“Politics aside, this is complicated stuff that needs to work to avert crisis,” said Lewis, who took it upon himself to wander the halls of Congress receiving briefings and writing a dramatization of what’s at stake if we ignore the inner workings of these critical agencies.

What risk will bubble up that we will mismanage because nobody is paying attention?

Unfortunately, the answer would originate in Wuhan, China, which would lead Lewis to Santa Barbara for research on his latest book, “The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.” The book follows three central characters, including Dr. Charity Dean, Santa Barbara County’s former public health officer.

“What I do when I roll into a complicated story like the pandemic, is I look for the person who understands what’s going on and can explain it, and that’s how I found Charity Dean,” Lewis said.

Dean fits within Lewis’ “L6” theory that, he noted, means one needs to go six levels down in an organization to find the person who can actually solve the problem.

Lewis closed his talk by offering teasers of what’s to come — he is working on his “Against the Rules” podcast as well as a new book on crypto currency.

President's Breakfast 2022

The Westmont College Choir led by assistant music professor Daniel Gee opened the breakfast with “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “The Promise of the Living” and an original “Table Grace.”

Davies shared highlights of the past year, including Westmont’s new nursing and data analytics programs, as well as its outstanding athletics.

In addition to achieving the 100th championship in the Golden State Athletic Conference, the women’s basketball team won their second national championship last season.

Academics remain strong at the Christian LIBERAL ARTS college at 955 La Paz Road in the Montecito foothills. Four-year  graduation rates at the school are in the top 5% of all California colleges, and statistics of new graduates show that 96% either have a job or are enrolled in grad school within six months of graduation.

Finishing his 15th year as president, Beebe thanked his colleagues and presented a travelogue of how Westmont has grown over the past decade.

“I think so often you run on a parallel track — you have all of these objectives — programs you need to start, capital money you need to raise, graduates you need to prepare to lead and serve, buildings you need to build,” he explained.

“All of this has to get accomplished at the same time that you are responding to challenge after challenge and so when you think about the Thomas Fire, debris flows, economic implosion; this is all happening on a parallel track with the need to maintain the forward momentum of the college.”

In fact, Westmont has maintained momentum and extended reach in many ways, including the Augustinian Scholars Program, Global Leadership Center, Hughes Center for Neuroscience and Leadership, the Women’s Leadership Council and the expansion of Westmont’s downtown campus. Beebe thanked supporters and key contributors to each of these initiatives.

The Westmont President’s Breakfast was sponsored by Bank of the West along with Davies Public Affairs, Anna and David Grotenhuis, Monica Eiler, In Memory of Jim Haslem, HUB International Insurance Services Inc., La Arcada Plaza, Matt Construction, Mary Lynn and Warren Staley, Sunset & Magnolia Interior Design and Union Bank with special thanks to Ashley and Tim Snider.

The breakfast was coordinated by the Westmont Foundation.

Editor’s Note: Bill Macfadyen, founder, publisher and CEO of Noozhawk.com, serves on the Westmont Foundation Board of Directors and was a Table Host at the President’s Breakfast.