sbf: the virtue was the con

Wait, But Weren’t His Parents Law Professors?

The Stanford genius bubble that birthed SBF.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

If you go to Crystal Springs Uplands School, it’s both difficult to truly succeed (as in exceeding expectations) and difficult to fail. You know the kind of place. The floor is so high, the net is so secure. You’re born with a feeling your intelligence is a gift to society, a confidence that you can do no wrong. Everyone’s parent is either a Stanford professor or a tech mogul or Steve Jobs, whose son attended the school at the same time as Sam Bankman-Fried, who graduated in 2010.

“There was one kid who was like the youngest global chess champion ever when he was, like, 11 years old,” one SBF-era alumnus of Crystal Springs Uplands School told me. (This was Daniel Naroditsky, class of ’14.) “Another girl from the school just made it into Forbes. She’s like 28 years old. She raised millions of dollars for a start-up.” (Ellen Rudolph, class of ’12.) Starting here, how could you rise so high that you ever impressed anybody? How could you fall with enough force to crash through the gold-mesh safety net?

And yet, even here, SBF was special. These were the days of grand tech optimism. Facebook introduced the “like” button in SBF’s junior year. Google still used its motto “Don’t be evil.” By age 14, SBF was reading up on utilitarian philosophy — the idea that one could use data and rationality to deduce right action, defined as producing the most good for the most people. (The means of getting there don’t matter.)

“He always seemed like a wunderkind,” the alumnus said. Everybody knew he was “that type” — the type to be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs. Sure, he was weird, socially awkward, lost in his own universe. But whatever. That was expected for “one of those super-genius, mathematically minded kids.”

SBF was born into this world literally at the Stanford hospital to Stanford Law School professors. His father, Joe Bankman, wrote two leading casebooks on federal tax law. His mother, Barbara Fried, spent her days thinking about the intersection of law, economics, and moral philosophy; she specialized in risk and harm. (Her publications include some now-unfortunate lines like, “But a world in which everyone is maximally risk averse is a world none of us wants to live in.”) The family lived on the Stanford campus when Sam and his brother, Gabe, three years younger, were children. Gabe was the smoother sibling socially and more charismatic — easier to befriend. In their early years, the boys ended up playing on the floor in the parents’ offices. “In many ways, they became these adopted mascots around the law school,” said one mentee of the Bankman-Frieds. As a family, they competed in nerdy, intellectual games. “They always had this quirky thing,” the mentee said, “trying to analyze problems very, very quickly.” Did you turn it over this way? Aha! Here’s one angle you didn’t consider. Rationality and gamesmanship as a pastime.

Both professors clearly understood the perils of being a young person in this milieu. Mid-career, Bankman returned to school and earned a clinical-psychology degree. He then offered lunchtime sessions to 1Ls on cognitive behavioral therapy and other tools for handling anxiety. “Everyone is trying to sort out the classroom dynamics, the Socratic method, Do I deserve to be here? Am I a fraud?,” said Andrew Toney-Noland, a former lunch session attendee, now a labor attorney. Bankman knew that if his students later fumbled their careers, their downfall would not have been inadequate understanding of the IRS code. They would fail because they cracked under pressure.

Barbara Fried, too, made a deliberate practice of being emotionally generous and warm with her students. She wanted to guide them toward being whole people, not just cogs in the legal machine. “At the end of the semester, my torts professor literally went,Okay, that’s torts!’ and left the room,” another former student told me. Fried, on the other hand, “gave this beautiful speech that we’ve all talked about for literally years.” She started by telling her students about her own personal reckoning: “sitting in a Chinese restaurant one day, realizing that “the goal of life is not to die with all of your options still on the table.” She closed with a poem, “Sometimes,” by Sheenagh Pugh. It’s about life defeating us often but not all of the time. “Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well,” the first stanza ends. “Sometimes our best intentions do not go / amiss.” Fried received a standing ovation.

The men in the Bankman-Fried household all believed deeply in utilitarianism, which seemed, for a time, like its sister philosophy, effective altruism, to provide a perfect loophole in the moral universe: a way to prioritize getting very rich while convincing yourself that your avariciousness was good. “I would like to acknowledge a significant intellectual debt to Joe Bankman and our sons, Sam and Gabe,” Fried wrote in 2020. “They have shown me by example the nobility of the ethical principle at the heart of utilitarianism: a commitment to the wellbeing of all people, and to counting each person—alive now or in the future, halfway around the world or next door, known or unknown to us—as one.”

The fall of SBF, who was on the cover of Forbes at age 29, was fast and violent enough to break the protective surface. It’s hard to excel by the standards of Crystal Springs Uplands School, and it’s hard to fail. It takes a truly talented young man to do both.

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Wait, But Weren’t His Parents Law Professors?