Since his first book was published back in 1989, Michael Lewis has been famous for explaining complex concepts and operations to people in a way that both entertains and informs, whether it’s Wall Street (Liar’s Poker, Flash Boys), sports analytics (Moneyball), Silicon Valley (The New New Thing), or government agencies (The Fifth Risk).
Last year, Lewis took this ability into your ears with a podcast called Against the Rules, produced by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries. Lewis’s first pod focused on the decline in the role of referees in our society, from a lack of respect in pro sports to financial regulators that help protect people from predatory banking practices.
Today marks the launch of season two, which stays with a sports angle and takes a closer look at why the role of coach has expanded far beyond athletics in American life. Money coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, college coaches, coaches of all stripes, for seemingly any situation.
That expansion was one spark for this new season. The other was the influence of a childhood coach in Lewis’s own life, which he wrote about in 2005’s Coach. “In that book I basically say there was a man who changed my life in extraordinary ways, and, but for him, I would’ve had an entirely different life,” says Lewis. “And I’ve been intrigued by coaching ever since.”
While the first season of Against the Rules chronicles a decline, this is about a rise in the use and application of coaching. Both tell stories that fundamentally boil down to issues of inequality. Why major corporations are charged a fraction of the interest on their debt compared to a working-class teacher. Why rich kids with SAT and college application coaches tend to—surprise!—find more post-secondary success.
“The referee story is kind of a dark story, like there’s this role under attack, and that’s a bad thing,” says Lewis. “I didn’t know where this season would lead, but it’s kind of got me to a place that this is great that coaching is everywhere. Obviously there are caveats to that, though. One that there is plenty of bullshit coaching going on. And second, there is this fairness angle, that once you realize the power of it, all of a sudden you start asking how come some people get it and some people don’t? It creates afterburners on privileged people’s lives, because they can afford it.”
Case in point, in episode one, he revisits teacher Katie Hyland who struggled with consumer debt, and her experience working with credit-card consolidation app Tally. In episode four, Lewis talks to Dave Eggers about his San Francisco-based nonprofit ScholarMatch, which pairs disadvantaged youth, especially first-generation students, with resources, donors, and other networks to help get them into college. “Look at the effect when you apply coaching to places that can’t normally afford them,” says Lewis. “This should be a national program. It shouldn’t be rich kids getting the SAT gamed for them by their coaches. It should be poor kids getting coaches telling them how to even take an SAT.”
For Lewis, his goal is for people to enjoy the stories he tells, but also that all the fashionable, positive-reinforcement coaching philosophies may still be balanced with the kind of tough-love coaching that made such a positive impact on him. Most importantly though, is an aim for broader action.
“I hope some philanthropist says, ‘I’m going to nationalize Dave Eggers’s program,'” says Lewis. “Or someone will hear the Katie Hyland episode and say, ‘We should make this universal for people in credit card debt.’ Ideally, it helps more people find their coach. That would be my biggest hope.”
As a storyteller, Lewis says the experience of season one has made this one much more fun.
“The biggest thing—and I found this in the middle of season one—was that there are things you can do in the medium, and there’s things you want to but probably shouldn’t,” he says. “You shouldn’t try to explain a collateralized debt obligation. If it’s really, really technically complicated, it’s probably better done in print. On the other hand, if it’s got emotional content—if it’s sad, if it’s funny—it pops with their voices in a way it doesn’t on the page. That’s not to say it doesn’t look good on the page. It just pops louder (in podcasts).”
In selecting the material, Lewis says it forces him to seek out the emotional content in the story, because if there isn’t any, you’re not taking advantage of the medium. “It’s figuring out how to stick your sail up so you catch the emotional winds that are blowing,” he says. “So you try to figure out what the emotion is and try to harness it.”