Back in March, during Jon Stewart’s now-infamous flogging of Jim Cramer, the Daily Show host at one point leaned in to deliver this pearl of wisdom to the onetime hedge-fund manager and longtime financial journalist: “It’s not a game,” he said sternly, whereupon we actually laughed out loud. Then we threw our remote control at our television, because Cramer didn’t defend himself by saying, Of course it’s a game. At least, that’s how everyone who works on Wall Street has always treated it. I mean, what did you think? That the math nerds and sports geeks and BrickBreaker enthusiasts who spend the day moving pieces around and manipulating the market are thinking about individual lives and people and 401(k)s? Ha, please. They’re playing an enormous game of chess. Or, in Jimmy Cayne’s case, bridge.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the former Bear Stearns CEO’s past as a professional bridge player might have affected his thinking about his job:
“In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that develop — and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years — if at all. Perhaps this is part of why we play games: there is something intoxicating about pure expertise, and the real mastery we can attain around a card table or behind the wheel of a racecar emboldens us when we move into the more complex realms. “I’m good at that. I must be good at this, too,” we tell ourselves, forgetting that in wars and on Wall Street there is no such thing as absolute expertise, that every step taken toward mastery brings with it an increased risk of mastery’s curse.”
What we’re getting from this, quite frankly, is that this next generation of boys should be discouraged not only from bridge and Grand Theft Auto but also from Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, checkers, and all competitive sports — and should instead be encouraged to take interpretive dance, art, and fine-cooking classes. But maybe we just think that because we live in Brooklyn?
Related: Are Overconfident Executives More Inclined to Commit Fraud? [Wharton]