Today Michael Lewis’s new book, “The Undoing Project,” will be published to great fanfare, and for good reason. For writers, this event holds many lessons. One is that the old saw, “Write what you know,” now requires an expanded definition, maybe something like, “What you know is more than you think you know, and less than you think you know — so you should write it, but not until you do your homework.”
Michael Lewis, clearly an expert in high finance, knew very little about psychology, which is at the heart of the new volume. But his high-profile work over the years, without him really becoming aware, was influenced by the developing principles of two Israelis who conducted studies about how human beings make decisions under duress, and why they often make the wrong ones. Characters in Moneyball, for example, greatly experienced baseball execs, generally rely on the wrong evidence and on useless lessons of experience when making personnel decisions. On the other hand, a main character in The Big Short makes millions by betting against the housing market and the so-called common wisdom. The work of the two Israelis show how this is possible.
Also for writers another lesson: Lewis first heard of the work of the two men a decade ago, and instinctively knew that they were somehow connected with what he was doing. When he approached them, he was nervous. The source of the nervousness was his lack of knowledge of psychology. (Does nervousness ever affect you?). But he did so, and he even overcame some hesitancy on the part of his sources. The key point here is commitment and immersion. The more you involve yourself in a subject, the more you dig, the more you make yourself a constant presence, the more you are determined to learn what you don’t know, the greater the chance you’ll succeed.
Anyway, read the book. That’s a start. Then go from there. Go farther than you ever thought you could in places where, at this moment, you know nothing.