Michael Lewis, GOING INFINITE: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

Michael Lewis, GOING INFINITE: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

Zibby interviews Michael Lewis — his second time on the podcast — about his latest masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon. This time, he followed crypto CEO Sam Bankman-Fried who, while still under age 30, became worth more than $20 billion, only to lose it all and stand trial — which started yesterday! Michael Lewis says the story was like a Shakespearean saga laid at his feet, and he just had to not mess it up. During the conversation, he shows Zibby the inside flap of the book jacket, his only time showing off the book’s secret! Listen to this newsworthy episode as the trial unfolds in real-time.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michael. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon.

Michael Lewis: It’s a pleasure to be here again.

Zibby: I have to say I know that we had pushed the time a smidge because of your appearance on CBS this morning, and I was at my doctor this morning trying to download the app so I could watch you. I watched CBS on my phone for an hour, but it didn’t work. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I watched an old show. Anyway, I tried.

Michael: You didn’t miss anything. I really, actually, love those hosts. They’re great. The six-minute format for this story is really hard. 60 Minutes did almost half an hour last night, and that just started to scratch the surface. What they left on the cutting room floor — can I give you an example?

Zibby: Yes, please.

Michael: You’re holding the book. If you take the jacket off the book and look on the inside of the jacket, you’ll find one of the many little puzzles in the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I am so mad at myself that I didn’t notice that.

Michael: What you’re looking at is something that both the bankruptcy people who are running the FTX bankruptcy — the book is about Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX and the collapse of this crypto exchange. He’s going on trial tomorrow. The bankruptcy people told me there’s no organization chart for this organization. We don’t even know the names of many of the employees because they kept no records. I’m presuming the prosecutors don’t know about this either. What you have in your hand is the one known organization chart for FTX. It was created on the sly, unbeknownst even to the CEO, by Sam Bankman-Fried’s personal therapist and corporate psychiatrist to FTX, who was in the Bahamas. He had a hundred employees who were coming to him because they were unhappy about one thing or the other. He realized he could not counsel them unless he knew what the organization looked like. He started to pick their brains about who reported to who and who had what title. You’ve got 453 people there laid out beautifully by the corporate shrink. This is all to my point. That thing is probably admissible as evidence in the trial tomorrow. It’s probably useful to everybody, including the readers of the book. 60 Minutes, who I unveiled it to, didn’t even have space in a half-hour piece to get to it. It just ended up on the cutting room floor. You are the first person on air to reveal this thing. It’s just amazing how dense the story is. Anyway, I’m pleased to have a little time with you. Sorry if I jumped ahead here a little bit.

Zibby: No, I’m delighted.

Michael: I’ve been waiting for someone to go look at that thing because I went to great pains to print it on the — I think of it as like — you know the family trees in Tolstoy novels or the kings in Shakespeare’s plays?

Zibby: Yes, totally.

Michael: That’s what it is. That’s what you’re looking at.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Did you think about putting it somewhere else? It was always on the inside?

Michael: It wasn’t my idea. It was the publisher’s idea. It was a brilliant idea. My main character, Sam Bankman-Fried, as a child, he has no connection to other human beings except for one instance, and that’s when he starts designing puzzles for other people to solve, like puzzle hunts on the Stanford campus. His relationship with the people around him he’s most comfortable with is he creates the puzzle, and you try to solve it. I wanted the reader to have some feel of solving a puzzle as they’re going through a book. The puzzle is him, but this is supposed to put you in the mood. It’s a sort of fluffer.

Zibby: Wow, I’m impressed and delighted because this is the coolest thing I’ve seen on a jacket cover, ever.

Michael: I love it. I love it that when you’re reading the book, there are half a dozen or eight other really important characters besides Sam who we draw on, and you can find them there and figure out where they were situated. Even the little people who kind of come and go, you can find them there. I’m tickled because there are 453, or whatever, people who worked at FTX, many of whom nobody knows their names. Now they’re all laid out. They can show their grandchildren. Here it is. The psychiatrist, his name is George Lerner. I came to adore him. He’s a curious character. The psychiatrist is off basically hiding in Vietnam because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with trial. He gave it only to me and did not let anybody else know that he created it. The CEO, Sam, does not know that thing exists. I never told him.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wow.

Michael: I’m sorry. I’m getting too excited about my own jacket cover.

Zibby: Don’t be sorry. It’s amazing.

Michael: It’s unseemly in an author.

Zibby: It’s not at all. It’s totally expected and wonderful. By the way, even just the fact that the company has a psychiatrist, that is the red flag waving at all. What kind of company? It sounded like the two of you and Sam were the only ones left standing at the end.

Michael: Not only did the company have a psychiatrist and not only was he the personal therapist to the CEO, he was the personal therapist to the CEO’s girlfriend, who ran the side of the company that collapsed and who wasn’t speaking to the CEO. The therapist, in a funny way, was the only line of communication between the two most important people in this drama. It’s great. I often have been handed material that are these kind of god’s gift to nonfiction narrative writers. I’ve been, in my career, unbelievably lucky in the stuff I’ve wandered into. The feeling that I love to have is, I’m only limited by my powers. It’s not the material that’s stopping me from doing something great. It’s me. That’s it. I had that feeling with this one. I’ve had it before, but I had it in spades with this one. This material was worthy of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, he would’ve done things with it that I have not imagined. You could see in the material, the world. It just kept on giving little things like that. I feel like I’ve started this thing by monologuing. I will shut up. You can now interrogate me.

Zibby: I don’t want to interrogate you. I want to just have a regular conversation. I don’t think interrogation is fun for either person. I think conversation is a lot more fun, personally.

Michael: You also get more out of people if they’re not defensive.

Zibby: I found it really interesting how you started the book with a really deep dive into Sam’s childhood and what he’s like. You never referenced if you felt like he was on the spectrum or if there was any sort of diagnosis. You did a very clear picture of somebody who didn’t really care about other people’s feelings, essentially, and beat to his own drummer and even though he was so brilliant in some ways, just lacked the ability or desire to read facial expressions or things like that that other people kind of take for granted. Then you set it up for how his life unfolds by us getting to know what he was like and his relationship with friends and just some of the deficits in his personality that end up becoming hugely significant later when he’s trying to interact with the company. When you were doing this deep dive into childhood, were you surprised? Is this what you expected him to be like? I know there wasn’t that much information as everybody was like, he doesn’t even remember. What was that like?

Michael: The first thing I would say, let me just amend something you just said.

Zibby: Okay, amend it.

Michael: He never had trouble reading other people’s expressions. He himself had no expressions. He had to learn with a mirror when he was in college, how to smile, how to respond with facial expressions so that other people could read him. The problem was always other people’s ability to read him, his ability to signal other people, his interest or disinterest or whatever. The first thing about his childhood that was instantly striking — this is after I had spent months roaming around his company. I started to wonder, what was this person like when he was ten years old? I said, “Could you just give me a list of everybody who knew you and could say something about you before the age of eighteen?” They were his parents and nobody else. I said, “How could that be? You went to school with people for all those years. You had someone write you college references, presumably. You must have had some interaction.” He said, “Slim pickings.” I did a couple things with him. I actually made him drive around the scenes of his childhood with me. Went to his old schools. We went to his home just to see if they triggered any associations. Pretty much, zip. It eventually elicited one person who he had formed an attachment to of sorts. It was a person with whom he competed in a game called Magic: The Gathering. It’s a delightfully complex strategic card game. This person, the name was Matt Nass, went on to be a builder of games, a creator of Sam’s favorite video game called Storybrook Brawl. As I got to know him, his chief quality, the important attribute that he had that allowed him to even be in Sam’s life was he made zero emotional demands on Sam. They just sat and played. Even now when they’re together, they don’t say anything.

I was dealing with a character who was — he grew up with two parents who were socially very outgoing, professors at the Stanford Law School, center of a social world at Stanford, widely loved and admired by their colleagues, hosts of parties all the time. In spite of all this, he was really isolated and went through his childhood feeling, basically, not understood by anybody and went through his childhood a bit like a Martian. He was learning that his parents were unusual people. You’d loosely describe them as utilitarians. They weren’t religious. They weren’t tribal in any real way. They didn’t go to football games. They had this view that they lived their lives to maximize the benefits or the pleasure and minimize the suffering of others. They did think that way. He sort of absorbs this from them. They realize at quite a young age that he’s so different that there’s no point in trying to parent him like a normal child. His mother said that when he was little, that she took him to an amusement park. They’re going to the rides. She senses as they’re going from ride to ride that he’s looking at her. He’s not expressing himself in any way. She looks down, and he says, “Mom, are you having fun yet?” She said, “I was busted. It was sort of like I was here for me, not him. He didn’t want to be there.”

Then she also said that — she wrote these very complicated journal articles about law and philosophy. She ran one of these by him when he was a kid, ten, eleven years old. He started asking her questions that she said were more pointed and better questions than her peers did when she was peer reviewed. They just threw up their hands and said, we don’t know what to do with this. I can tell you that their colleagues, their friends always thought that the parents were both very afraid for Sam — they didn’t know what was going to happen to him in the world — and a little afraid of him because he was so detached. That’s the childhood. That makes it sound a little grimmer than it was. When he talks about it, what the world looked like through his eyes when he’s eight, it’s quite funny. When he was eight, he’s at school. The kids are talking about Santa Claus.

Zibby: I loved that part.

Michael: This is December. It’s December. There’s a kid in the class named Henry. Henry says that Santa is bringing him some presents. It dawns on Sam that the kids actually believe that Santa exists. He had heard of Santa. It was a thing. It was like Bugs Bunny. It was a cartoon character. It had never dawned on him, because no one had ever told him, that kids believe that Santa is real. Basically, he locked himself in the room and thought about this for twenty-four hours. It blew his mind. What does this say about human beings? He knows the whole story now. There are these elves in the North Pole. This guy gets on a sled. He drops presents down chimneys. Obviously, obviously, preposterous. No way this actually happens, but everybody believes it. He says his whole view of humanity started to shift. He has a similar sort of response when he finds out that even grown-ups believe in God. He thinks, how could anybody do that? This continues on into adulthood when he starts colliding with things like the financial system. He’s looking at it almost like a Martian. He has none of the receive notions. He’s just thinking for himself about it. When you do that, life looks comical. His childhood, as sad as it is when you think about it in a certain way, is funny when you listen to it through his eyes. Maybe another way to put it is it is sad, but he’s not sad. You don’t feel sad when you’re listening to him talk about it. You feel curious. This is a very interesting Martian.

Zibby: If he doesn’t think it’s sad, then for him, it was fine.

Michael: Yes, I think that’s right.

Zibby: It doesn’t make any sense, a lot of the things we believe. It’s true. Recently, I had to tell my kids that the tooth fairy didn’t — I made the huge mistake of doing this —

Michael: — You monster. You told them?

Zibby: On a huge trip we were taking all the way to Massachusetts or something, at the beginning of the trip. It was a really bad parenting move. I don’t know how it came up, but they kept begging me to tell them. Finally, I was like, “Okay, fine. No, it’s not real.” I’m like, “How would the tooth fairy be getting in our apartment anyway?” They’re such smart kids. Why would they believe this?

Michael: You’re worried about security.

Zibby: Sam the doorman is letting up the tooth fairy?

Michael: Who breaks into a place to leave stuff rather than take it?

Zibby: Exactly. Nobody wakes up.

Michael: Anybody that’s going to bother to break in is not going to leave you money. They’re going to take something from you.

Zibby: How does he know where everybody is? They’d ask that too. They’re like, “Once, I was in Mexico.” I’m like, “Yeah, how would he know? How would the tooth fairy know?” It is crazy what we can believe.

Michael: I didn’t ask Sam about the tooth fairy. I think the tooth fairy might have been one too many things for him to internalize when he was a kid. Maybe he never had to deal with the tooth fairy. I should’ve asked him.

Zibby: Next time. You did write that there was only the one time that he got upset, and that was when he got very depressed because he was so bored.

Michael: That’s interesting. It’s interesting you pull that out. His mother came home when he was in the sixth grade and found him crying in his bedroom. That never happened. She didn’t get that kind of emotional response. He just said, “I’m so bored.” What had happened was, in retrospect, he had been put in an average public school and never identified as having any particular intellectual gifts. He’d been an average student. Good enough, but not — the truth was he was so bored by what was coming out of people’s mouths that his mind was elsewhere, always. He had demonstrated, at that point, some clear mathematical ability. They, with some other parents, muscled the school into creating a sophisticated math program for the kids that was extra layered on at six in the morning or seven in the morning, and he woke up. He was just wildly interested in it. It changed his life. All of a sudden, he found something. At that point, he was identified as gifted, smarter than most kids. At that point, he excelled. From that point on, he excelled in school even while being kind of cantankerous about it.

He had no problem with math and science, but when you got him in the humanities — as he said, the minute English classes ceased to be about, “Can you read a book?” to “What is your subjective view of this book?” he thought it was all preposterous Why is one opinion better than another opinion? Okay, you like it or you don’t like it. Some involved interpretation of this thing, why is one more valid than the other? He does things that are, again, funny, outrageous for a kid, making arguments to his high school English teacher that Shakespeare isn’t a good writer, but statistically based arguments. The point is that you say this dude is the greatest writer in the history of the English language. The population of literate English people in England when he was born was miniscule in relation to the population of the planet that has been literate in English. What’s the statistical likelihood that the greatest writer came out of that tiny population? This is what I found audacious about his childhood. He’s audacious in being such a Martian but insisting on his Martian views even when everyone around him would disagree with him. He didn’t mind. I think he got so used to being isolated and comfortable with it. There wasn’t anything to take away from him. I’m already alone. You’re not going to take away your friendship. I don’t have it. You’re not going to take away your tribe. I don’t have a tribe. He was always sitting there alone. It left him in a curious relation to the rest of the world.

Zibby: Then you have, fast-forward to today. I didn’t mean to spend all the time —

Michael: — He’s blown up the world. Yes, that’s true. It’s a long and torturous journey to where we get to today. I want to say something about the story I’ve just written. I’ve found that my books, when they’re the most alive, they leave a hole for the reader to walk into and exercise some role in the story. They leave some space for the readers, like a book club. A book club of eight people, if my book is good, will come together, and they will have radically different views about the book, about what it means, about what they think about it. They won’t all think the same thing. I didn’t muscle them all into some space. This story presented me with a wonderful hole to create. This young man — he’s now thirty-one — is going on trial tomorrow in the Southern District of Manhattan. He stands to spend the rest of his life in jail if he’s convicted. He probably won’t, but maybe. The sentence could be as long as 120 years for having — we’ll get to what it is, but for having defrauded the customers of his crypto exchange. In that courtroom, there are going to be two stories that are told. The defense is going to tell one story, and the prosecutor is going to tell another story. They’re going to be unbelievably selective about the facts, unbelievably selective about who they let on the witness stand. Both sides are going to leave out lots and lots of interesting things. Neither story is going to be exactly true.

I was in this very privileged position of having watched this thing for a year on the way up before anybody had any sense there was anything wrong with it and then having established relations with all the principals so that I was able to also interrogate them afterwards, which neither of the lawyers could do — one side can talk to Sam; the other side can talk to everybody else — and craft a story that got to be a better story than either of the stories that are going to be told in the courtroom. I’m presenting it to the reader as if the reader is a juror. I’m leaving it to you to decide both how to think about it, whether you think he’s guilty or innocent, whatever you think about that, how you feel about that — as a writing exercise, it was totally fun to do this. It was a really interesting exercise to do this. Right at the beginning, I thought, what I have is I have unusual access to information, unique access to information. I have a unique access to the story. If I just tell the story and leave it to the reader, the reader ends up in the jury box. I find the idea of it really cool. That it’s coming on top of the actual trial, it’s an interesting exercise.

Zibby: You couldn’t have gotten better timing for a book release.

Michael: The timing is not accidental. I knew I could have it finished by mid-August. Then the publisher could decide when to bring it out. I started writing it in January. Usually, it takes me about six months to write a book. The timing, it was questionable if they were going to move up the trial or postpone the trial. I kind of thought they were going to postpone it. This is the funny thing they did. The trial was originally supposed to start today, October 2nd. The judge, for some personal reasons, moved it to tomorrow, which is exactly the pub date. Maybe he wants it on the pub day. Maybe no matter where we brought the book out, he was going to put his trial on top of it. This guy, he’s shameless, this judge, just trying to maximize my book sales.

Zibby: I have to say, what you did so well, which you always do, of course, is really just give us a portrait of someone who maybe we don’t feel like we understand completely or who, if we interacted with or if I was Anna Wintour on that Zoom I would’ve been offended by, but you really explain it so much so that — even the PR woman — I can’t remember her name — was like, I can’t hold anything against him. This is just him.

Michael: I felt the same way. I did not have a conversation with him when he wasn’t also shuffling a deck of cards and playing a video game. He didn’t mean it to be rude, honestly didn’t mean it to be rude. It was almost medically necessary, is what it felt like. It felt like being angry at someone for being in a wheelchair. It felt that way. His mind, for better or worse, needs to be preoccupied or be occupied in two places at once. It needs some other reality to be in in addition to this reality in order to function in this reality. He himself, possibly wrongly, but he himself thought that. He himself though, I’m much better when there are two things going on at once rather than one thing. There’s all this research that shows multitasking does not work. The origins of this research — this is odd. This isn’t even in the book. The origins of this research, it begins on the Stanford campus with a genius of a professor named Cliff Nass, who is the father of Matt Nass, Sam’s childhood —

Zibby: — No way.

Michael: Yes way. It just never came into the story, but yes. Sam is maybe a textbook case of why that’s true. He seems so highly functioning when he’s got half his mind on the problem, but you wonder if he’d actually had his whole mind on the problem, if maybe ten billion dollars wouldn’t have ended up in the wrong place. The multitasking thing, it comes across, at first blush, as annoying. Why are you shuffling cards while we’re playing? You realize he can’t help it. If you just make him feel comfortable, you signal to him that you don’t mind, you get the best of him. If you show irritation, he realizes that this is something wrong. I watched him on live television shows playing video games. Who does that? I can barely hold it together when I’m all there. You’re a bundle of nerves. You’re worried you’re going to make an ass of yourself. You’re playing a video game? That was just normal for him.

Zibby: Unbelievable. Do you believe in this “30 Under 30” curse? Have you heard about this?

Michael: I haven’t.

Zibby: Two of the people have been in prison or arrested, died. If you’re on this list — I think it’s the Forbes, whatever, the one you were talking about in the book. Fortune, Forbes.

Michael: He was on the Forbes actual just main rich list. He was also the richest person in the world under thirty.

Zibby: This is, I think, the Forbes.

Michael: There’s another that’s the thirty most influential people under thirty or whatever. He was probably on that.

Zibby: Something bad is happening to all of them. Maybe to make older people feel better. I don’t know. I’ll send it to you.

Michael: I’m sure that if we sat and thought for two seconds, we could dream up theories about this. His story, people will think that it is a story of simple fraud and miss the joys of this story and the interest of the story. He actually was worth $22.5 billion. It wasn’t just like, oh, he stole some money, and it seemed like he was worth $22.5. He was actually worth $22.5 billion having started with basically zero eight years earlier or seven years earlier with the ambition to make as much money as he could to give it away. Just think about how odd that — when you start to make money in order to give it away, already an unpromising beginning in a sense. You’re just going to get tired of it. To actually have it happen — in fact, he really goes from zero to $22.5 billion in about twenty-two months. The speed with which this money gets made, it’s head-spinning. If the “30 Under 30” has a thing, what may be going on there is just the leaps that are happening in people’s lives so fast at that age, which didn’t really happen in human history like this. Forbes said it’s the fastest anybody’s ever made this kind of money, as far as they know, ever. That’s got to be disorienting.

Zibby: I like the theory.

Michael: Anyway, that’s one thought.

Zibby: That is one thought. I have so many more questions, but now we’re out of time already.

Michael: That’s all right. We don’t want to bore people. We just want to let them know that —

Zibby: — We don’t want to bore people. Now they will be enticed to find the whole rest of the story. I intentionally left out some of the more financial concepts because I was getting to the second half. I was like, okay, I think I’m going to focus on talking about the first half which I can speak about more clearly.

Michael: We left out the whole love affair, which is .

Zibby: Yes, of course. Oh, my gosh, wow. So much more in there. So much more in there. Congratulations. This is so exciting. Thank you for showing me the inside. I’m going to post about it tomorrow. Congratulations. This is always so fun.

Michael: All right, Zibby. Good to see you again.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Michael: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

GOING INFINITE: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon by Michael Lewis

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