By the time Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) made it to the courtroom, his inability to empathize or be sympathetic was disastrous. His habit of saying “yup,” rather than really listening or answering was a problem. His unkempt appearance and his disregard for both social norms and the potential intelligence of other people didn’t help his case. His excessive candor in interviews really hurt his case. The funny part is, all these things that contributed to his downfall actually helped fuel his rise and the brief success of FTX.
Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon is the new Michael Lewis book about Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) that everyone is buzzing about. Lewis spent some time shadowing SBF and then the book came out right around the time the trial went down, which was just great for the publisher. It’s a pretty remarkable close-up of a whirlwind rise and fall.
Some consider Lewis’ portrayal too sympathetic, but Going Infinite very clearly shows a young man taken very seriously by people around him who refuses to take others seriously. Lewis describes SBF doing interviews and phone calls while playing video games. He doesn’t really listen to other people, even when he asks them for advice. He changes his mind constantly and is fickle and unreliable, but it is excused as being behavior based on a superior understanding of probabilities and uncommon intelligence. He is selfish, but considered nice because he believes in effective altruism. So does Dave Ramsey basically, by the way, even if he doesn’t use the term. Nerds hate that guy.
Going Infinite is weirdly reminiscent of the 1979 film, and earlier book, Being There. The main character in Being There is a gardener who says next to nothing and is actually pretty simple, but, when he enters the world, people hear what they want to hear from him. He introduces himself as “Chance, the gardener” and soon he’s “Chauncey Gardiner” and moving in some pretty elite circles. Women also fill in his silences. Shirley MacLaine swoons for him.
In a way, Sam Bankman-Fried was another Chauncey Gardiner. He, too, was something of a blank slate. We are told he’s not very good at portraying (or experiencing) emotions. He often barely participates in conversations with new people. “Yup,” seems to be his preferred conversational input when he’s not interested. He doesn’t share much with others when it comes to personal things. He fails at social conventions. People saw the gaps, they filled them in themselves.
People swooned for Sam Bankman-Fried. He was considered special, by some, from the beginning. When SBF was a child and had trouble connecting with others, his parents assumed that he was just too smart to “get” other kids. Early on, he formed his own opinions. His parents didn’t raise him with conventional religion, so when he found out some people believed in God, it “rocked his world.” But he soon made up his own mind about that (no God) and never really had to revisit the topic. His conclusion was that, “the world could be completely wrong about something and he could be completely right.” He was very good at math and, at one point, he told his mom, “I’m so bored, I’m going to die.” She took that literally and sent him to a better school. He was bored there, too, but he also stopped reading books around eighth grade. In high school, he especially objected to the study of literature. He says, “I objected to the fundamental reality of the entire class.” He wasn’t afraid to tell his teachers, either. He didn’t think Shakespeare was “that great.” He was highly skeptical that Shakespeare was even in the running for greatest writer of all time. Why? “The Bayesian priors aren’t very favorable.” SBF’s bad behavior continued to be interpreted as genius all the way until the end.
People hear what they want to hear. A young boy who struggles to connect with other children may be a genius, but the odds are higher that something else is the underlying issue. So much in SBF’s young life that was taken as exceptional is altogether typical. Children claim to be bored enough to die daily. Every high school has many teenage boys who don’t read books and defy English teachers. It’s neither bold nor independent to not like Shakespeare in the twenty-first century. Magic: The Gathering may be challenging in different ways than chess and require a great deal of intelligence to excel at, but preferring it to chess does not automatically make you smarter than everyone who plays chess.
You can see how poorly the non-Ockham explanations work when you consider that he was described both as not much of a kid when he was that age, but now—as an adult—he is often described as a kid. Not enough of a kid to be comfortable among other kids, but too much of a kid to understand or work with “adults?” Too smart for his own good but too easily taken in by others? It’s not just beauty that hurts, Mr. Vinal.
Why was it so easy to call this Chance a Chauncey? Yes, SBF is good at math and did well with a quantitative trading firm, but that wasn’t enough. When SBF had the world on a string, part of how he kept investor confidence high was by being considered a genius and doing things outside the norm. We want geniuses. And we want them to be weird and uncoordinated. According to Michael Lewis, SBF can’t accurately throw popcorn into his own mouth. Ever since Mark Zuckerberg ran around in that hoodie, they can’t dress too nicely, either. It’s easier for us to believe that they are too busy thinking complicated things and reasoning ahead of the rest of us if they can’t find their keys or match their socks. When it comes to professional athletes, it’s visibly clear that they are not like most of us. We need our geniuses to stand out, too. So, we require them to perform genius by being socially awkward. If they try to look cool, we’ll let them know they aren’t.
The problem with our love of geniuses and our earnest desire that they be strange or immature is that it makes it easier for us to be taken in or to ask to much of the wrong individuals. The same thing happens with “Big Head” in Silicon Valley. SBF operated companies without boards, he moved money around in unacceptable ways, he changed benefits packages for employees without notice—genius! Well, once that outside the box thinking gets a little bankroll, strange behavior acts like compound interest in certain circles. Everyone wants your time and attention. Some people even want to give you money. In Going Infinite, Lewis describes SBF on a video call with Anna Wintour, who he is basically ignoring, but: “She was really warming to him. Everyone did these days. When you had 22 and a half billion dollars, people really really wanted to be your friend. They’d forgive you anything.” SBF had dinner with Mitch McConnell, he met with Ron DeSantis, he hung out with Tom Brady.
That isn’t to say that SBF was or is an idiot or that he’s not actually good at math or that he doesn’t have a flair for understanding markets. But people see what they want to see, in his case, competence when SBF was clearly winging it. In Going Infinite, many people worry that “Sam is too easy to steal from.” Is it truly that he is too trusting and not self-interested enough or is it possible that he is smart in some areas of life, but not all? Wouldn’t it be more fun to believe this person is a genius than to believe that he is what he appears to be: an under-socialized young man who has been permitted to engage his favorite subjects, like math, while believing that the things he doesn’t like or understand are actually stupid?
Why do we want geniuses? Well, we’d love to get rich. But we fall for “smart people” all the time, in all kinds of arenas. We want gurus of any kind. Too often, we’d like to outsource our thinking. A great deal of responsibility comes with reasoning and not as much sleep as we would like. It’s simpler to pick a few people and let them pick our stocks and then pick a few people and let them pick our opinions.
We all have places we want to go without knowing how to get there. We think it best if we can find someone to follow. We want to be rich, but we don’t have confidence in our ability to understand the market. We want to be successful with men or women, but we don’t have confidence in our own romantic charisma. We want to be right, but we don’t want to investigate actual political policies. We turn to others. Very often we find ourselves with people who will take advantage of us. Whether or not SBF was actually trying to take advantage of people, it’s clear that people had more confidence in him than he could carry. There’s a reason that Sheldon Kopp wrote the book If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! We can let Chauncey Gardiners tell us which way to go, but it’s very possible we won’t get anywhere that way.