It is rare to find a nonfiction page-turner about faculty and higher education. Faculty may be doing exciting and interesting things on a daily basis, but we do not often find about them on best-seller lists. Until Michael Lewis.
Lewis is an extraordinarily successful writer. Beyond his journalism, magazine work and lesser-known efforts, he has authored Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, and Flash Boys. In each, he has taken intellectual challenging ideas and made them accessible and understandable – all while building narratives that make you want to know more. It’s a great talent. I am grateful that he turned his eye to academics.
In The Undoing Project, Lewis writes about the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologists who invented behavior economics and eventually won the Nobel Prize. Part biography and part intellectual history, Lewis writes with curiosity, empathy, and great enthusiasm. The book’s title comes from the revolutionary way that Kahneman and Tversky upended conventional thinking about human behavior – and especially economic behavior. Lewis’s book shows how the individual strengths and proclivities of these two geniuses were able to come together to do something truly special. Their ideas were not immediately well-received, but their brilliance led to a rethinking of entire fields. We get to know them as people, as thinkers, and as workers. They are fascinating people. The book has received many well deserved rave reviews and awards.
Lewis has the right background for the story. He has written about math, decision-making, and the ways the people understand (or don’t get), the intersection of math and decision-making. Sports is possibly the easiest and most accessible realm for exploring these ideas – and Lewis uses basketball here as an introduction the the concepts of behavior economics. In Lewis’s hands, it make for an extremely enjoyable read.
From a higher education perspective, Lewis’s book also highlights something that I think that we often tend to neglect: the value of partnerships when it comes to learning and intellectual work. The image a solitary figure working alone in a lab, at a desk, or in a library or archive is surprisingly hard to dislodge. Our practices, evaluations, and processes consistently focus on individuals and individual effort. In reality, better ideas always come from ongoing back-and-forth, from building off the work of colleagues, and from teamwork. The hard sciences, whose organizational structure rewards collaboration in experimentation, knows this very well. Sometimes collaboration is less appreciated in the social sciences and humanities.
The Undoing Project reminded me that great work comes from shared work. It is in our to create, support and celebrate academic environments where partnerships can flourish. We are fortunate that Kahneman and Tversky found each other and the means to work together for many years.
Here’s to partnerships and collaboration.