Extract: Going Infinite by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis shares an extract from his book and explains how he got unparalleled access to Sam Bankman-Fried, the enigmatic figure at the heart of one of the 21st century's most spectacular financial collapses.

Michael Lewis
Image credit: Victoria Ford / Penguin

A note from the author

This book came about in an unusual way: I didn’t go looking for Sam Bankman-Fried, and he didn’t go looking for me. A friend of mine came to me and said, “I’m thinking of doing this massive business deal with a person I don’t know. He’s called Sam Bankman-Fried. Nobody knows him, he’s come out of nowhere. Forbes says he’s worth 23 billion dollars, he’s 29 years old. I need some view of his character.” Which is a very nineteenth-century thing to ask, but nevertheless. (My friend is Canadian, so that partly explains it.) He said, “I’ve seen you sit down and make sense of all these other people; make sense of him for me.” I agreed. Sam visited my house and we went for a long hike. And at the end of the hike I turned to him and said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to you, I don’t know where your story is going, I’ve never seen anything like this.” I just thought to myself that I wanted to be a fly on the wall and he said yes. And to this day he’s never limited my access. 

I want to tell you two things that have been peculiar about writing this book. One was that he’s let me see everything. When it all came crashing down last November it was literally me, his parents and his therapist. And I could hang around as long as I wanted, see whatever I wanted. This was the other odd thing: not only has he never sought to control anything I think, or anything I might write, he's never even asked, "what are you doing?" He just allowed me freedom, a freedom that is really unusual, especially given the circumstances, to just try and understand him and his situation. So that’s the beginning. 

When it all comes crashing down last November it’s literally me, his parents and his therapist

In telling this story, it was such an advantage to have interviewed everyone, all the principals, exhaustively before it went bad. So I got to know everybody. Investors, venture capital investors, employees, some of the company's customers – everybody. I didn’t even know what book I was writing, I just knew I was writing a book. And so I have both the before and the after picture in pretty pure form.

The last point I’d make is that I didn’t know for sure that I was actually going to write a book until November last year. I spent a year doing all the things I do before I write a book, frantically gathering material, and I was in a fix because I essentially had two acts of a three-act drama. I didn’t know where it was going, and when I don’t know where it's going it’s very hard for me to write the beginning. I had done all this work, but I had not actually written a word of it until January of this year, so it has been an unusual literary exercise. 

It’s almost as if I was attached to a character who was insistent on generating a beautiful work of fiction for me in real time, in the real world, and allowing me to watch.


Most of the people who went to work for Sam Bankman-Fried ended up in jobs for which they were not obviously qualified, and Natalie Tien was no exception. She’d been raised in Taiwan by middle-class parents whose only real hope for her was that she’d land a rich husband. She was small and agreeable and ill-designed for rebellion. She still reflexively covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed. And yet she’d been determined to prove to her parents that they’d underestimated her. After college she’d gone hunting not for a husband but for work. She’d been so anxious about her own ambition that, before each interview, she’d write out and memorize exactly what she wanted to say about herself. She’d landed the first real job she’d applied for, at an English language training company, and it had bored her to tears. But then, in 2018, at the age of twenty- eight, she’d discovered crypto.

The previous year, the price of bitcoin had risen almost twentyfold, from $1,000 to $19,000, and the daily trading volumes had boomed by some massive amount that was hard to precisely quantify. (The closest thing to an accurate accounting of what occurred was from the Coinbase crypto exchange, where trading volume in 2017 was thirty times greater than in 2016.) Across Asia, new cryptocurrency exchanges were popping up every month to service the growing gambling public. They all had deep pockets and an insatiable demand for young women. “Requirements are: pretty, big boobs, have done live streaming before, born in 2000 or later, good at chitchatting,” read the job ad for a salesperson at the fastest-growing new exchange. By 2018 a lot of young Asian women were trying to meet those requirements. Natalie took a different approach. She spent a month reading everything she could find about cryptocurrencies and blockchains. “Everyone called it a scam,” she said, and she worried about that. Once on the inside, she was struck by how few of the people who worked in crypto could explain what a bitcoin was. The businesses themselves didn’t always know what they were doing, or why. They were hiring lots of people because they could afford to, and big headcounts signaled their importance. What kept Natalie going, and ignoring the feeling that whatever talent she might possess was being wasted, was her feeling that crypto might be the next big thing. “I thought of it as a gamble with nothing to lose,” she said.

Everything here is five times, she thought. Five times more work, five times more growth, five times more money, five times more responsibility

By June of 2020 she was working for her second Asian crypto exchange when she heard about the opening at FTX. Like the other exchanges, FTX hired her quickly, after a single interview, and she became the company’s forty-ninth employee. FTX was different from the other exchanges, mainly because the guy who ran it, Sam Bankman-Fried, was different. Every man Natalie Tien had ever met in crypto had been chiefly interested in money and women, and Sam was chiefly interested in neither— though it took her a while to figure out what it was he was chiefly interested in. Everything here is five times, she thought. Five times more work, five times more growth, five times more money, five times more responsibility. No one came out and said that you had to work all the time, or that there was no room for a life outside work, but anyone at FTX who tried to live a normal life simply didn’t stick. Natalie stuck, and within months of moving to FTX’s Hong Kong offices found herself named head of the company’s public relations. What was peculiar about this— apart from the fact that she had no real experience in public relations— was that FTX had no public relations. “When I joined, Sam didn’t believe in PR,” said Natalie. “He thought it was all bullshit.”

An extract from the audiobook, read by author Michael Lewis

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