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Self-worth the hard way

Special Issue | Bestselling author Michael Lewis on how teachers and coaches can help kids earn it

Issue: "Rita: Strike 2," Oct. 1, 2005

Michael Lewis, 44, attended a private high school in New Orleans and encountered there Billy Fitzgerald, the school's life-changing baseball coach. Until then the teenage Lewis cared only about not caring, but he responded to the coach's passion and went on to attend Princeton University and the London School of Economics. He then had experiences as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers that he described in Liar's Poker and The Money Culture, and went on to write other books about people so passionate concerning their work-computerdom's Jim Clark, baseball's Billy Beane-that they create new ways to succeed in it. Mr. Lewis' new bestseller is Coach (Norton, 2005), about the life-changing success of Billy Fitzgerald, or Coach Fitz-that rare teacher with the ability to get inside a child's mind, as Mr. Lewis says, and stay there.

WORLD: You write that before Coach Fitz changed you, "I'd spent the previous school year racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers, and thinking up new ways to waste my time on earth. . . . What was wrong with me? I didn't know." Do you know now?

LEWIS: I'm a bit like a 1972 Mustang: The problem with what's wrong with me is that it changes all the time. But at that time, I think, the defect in the machinery was APATHY. I'd gotten so used to not caring very much about anything that it had become a habit.

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WORLD: A sharp one-hopper breaks your nose, the doctor says you'll have to play baseball behind a mask, and you recall, "Grim as it all sounds, I don't believe I had ever been happier in my adolescent life." Why?

LEWIS: Because I had a sense that I was struggling with something obviously difficult: pitching behind a bird mask. It all felt ever so slightly heroic-and that was a new feeling for me.

WORLD: When Coach Fitz "reached inside me, found a rusty switch marked Turn On Before Attempting To Use, and flipped it," you began applying the zeal acquired in sports to the rest of your life. What does it take to flip that switch?

LEWIS: This particular switch, if it exists on a person, is flipped by exposure to great passion.

WORLD: You imply that kids now have a High Self-Esteem switch turned on at birth, and quote Coach Fitz's concern about unearned self-esteem making coaching difficult: "If I were to jump all over you today, you would be highly insulted and deeply offended. You would not get that I cared about you." How can that switch be turned off so kids will listen to rightful criticism from caring adults?

LEWIS: This is a very difficult, and very important question. I think middle-class American society has created a lot of bizarre and corrupting ideas about self-worth. I don't think there is any obvious social policy to counteract the trend, but I do think it can be combated on the level of the family. If parents grasp that a sense of self-worth is a thing that can only be earned, they will be much more indulgent of the teachers who try to help their children to earn it.

WORLD: You write, "An invisible line ran from the parents' desire to minimize their children's discomfort to the choices the children make in their lives." The Bible is full of stories of good men who were bad fathers (Eli, Samuel, David) because they had that desire. What will you do not to minimize your two daughters' discomfort?

LEWIS: On the other hand there is the case of Abraham, who created quite a bit of discomfort in his eldest son. My daughters are 6 and 3, which is to say they are not fully equipped to be reasoned with. Or coached. About the only thing I do, intentionally, to make them miserable is to make them finish what they start-unless they can outwit me with a very good reason why they should not do so.

WORLD: Coach Fitz's talks "never strayed far from a general theme: What It Means To Be A Man," which meant fighting the "natural tendency to run away from adversity." Based on what you've observed, would you add anything to that?

LEWIS: God no. Fitz has a gift for teaching these sort of lessons; I don't. The moment you catch me trying to explain What It Means To Be A Man, write me a note and tell me to put a lid on it. Somehow the man shattered my general pose of Ironic Detachment. But I've picked up the pieces and mostly put it back together.

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