How the right environment makes all the difference

In March, I ran a 10k training run (a little more than 6 miles) in just under 50 minutes. That’s slightly faster than a pace of 8:00 minutes per mile.

March 10k Training Run Time

That was almost six months ago.

Then I stopped running more than 5 miles at a time and started training for shorter distances (like a mile) and just trying to get through the miserable Florida summer.

The first signs of Fall have arrived, which means race season is coming up and I need to start training for longer distances if I want to run a half marathon this year.

So I decided to try a 10k training run this weekend to see how it felt. I ran the same route as I did in March, but this time was significantly faster: It only took me about 48:30, which is a pace of 7:44 per mile.

October 10k Training Run Time

Ninety seconds is a pretty big improvement considering I hadn’t run that far in six months. That’s a big improvement over my previous personal best, and it felt great to run such a good time. 

Can you guess what I did differently to run so much faster this time?

Think about it for a second, then scroll down to see the answer.

Spoiler below!

Are you ready?

The answer is: Nothing.

I’m pretty sure the difference was the temperature.

When I ran that 10k in March, it was 79 degrees outside. When I ran on Saturday, it was only 72 degrees.

There are lots of studies showing that race times improve as temperatures drop (to an extent, of course).

So it feels good to run a personal best, but most of the improvement was just the lower temperature. My job was to train hard enough that I could finally take advantage of the improved running conditions once the weather cooled off.

Sometimes, the conditions just aren’t right to get the result you want. But as long as you keep preparing and putting in the work, you can make sure you’re ready to capitalize once the conditions are right.

Here are some other examples that come to mind:

  • Starting a business
  • Getting a raise
  • Running for office (a different kind of running, har har)
  • Inventing something
  • Planting plants

For all of those and lots of other things, timing is often the crucial ingredient that dictates success or failure.

Learning a skill, practicing, looking for ways to improve, waiting for the right moment to capitalize is often the key to success. And a big reason to keep working is that it’s not just doing the thing, but being prepared to do the thing when the conditions are right that makes all the difference.

I ran all summer in hot, humid weather, just waiting for it to cool off. I called those runs “maintenance runs”, and my goal was usually to run at an 8:00-per-mile pace regardless of the distance.

Maintenance runs were not fun and it often took a few hours to fully recover from them. But I knew they were helping me build strength and endurance that I could use later on when the conditions were right.

Sure enough, the weather cooled off and I smashed another personal best. That gives me confidence going into race season, where I’ll be able to capitalize on favorable running conditions after all those months of training in the Florida heat.

Before you write something off as a failure, consider whether the conditions are right for success. If they’re not quite right, keep working so you’re ready to capitalize next time there’s a good opportunity.

The breakthrough that helped me smash the six-minute barrier

Earlier this week, I ran a mile in under six minutes for the first time. It felt really good for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s nice to achieve a challenging goal and it felt good to cross it off my list and see some results from all the hard work I’ve been putting in.

Second, I had already tried and failed to run a six-minute mile twice—both of my previous attempts were about 6:11—and that was really frustrating. I had been so close yet I felt so far away and it really stings to be totally exhausted without much to show for it. But not this time! This time I got it done.

What’s even better is that I had a significant breakthrough with this particular goal, but it’s difficult to describe without some context.

My one-mile run in almost-real-time

Before this attempt, I made a lap-by-lap plan so I knew exactly what I needed to do. It’s one thing to know I have to do four laps in 360 seconds. It’s another to know exactly what I needed to do on each lap to make that happen.

Here’s a summary of how I felt throughout the run—I took this down as a note on my iPhone once I managed to catch my breath and stave off some leg cramps:

First lap—1:27 I wanted to start fast because I knew that I could go much faster than the 90-second pace that I required. I added about 10m to that first lap to make sure I ran a full mile, so I wanted to be sure that I got around with time to spare on my 90-second-per-lap limit. That would give me some cushion if I slowed down later.

Second lap—1:28 I already felt tired, but I knew that would happen and had already prepared myself to just keep pushing and try and maintain the same pace through the second lap.

Third lap—1:32 This is when the mental fatigue really hit me. By this point in my run, my brain was repeatedly shouting STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!

I told myself that I was going to finish running a mile either way and if I just kept going at this pace it would be over quicker.

For the final 100 meters of the third lap, I basically had to get myself to focus on a six-minute pace again knowing I had been gradually slowing down and that I had probably used up most of the cushion from the first lap.

Fourth lap—1:26 I actually felt pretty good going in because I knew it was almost over. I’d also kept some energy in reserve, which I think was a result of my recent training to keep my legs working when I’m tired.

I started picking it up with about 300m left and began kicking with about 200m left. I went pretty much all-out for the final 100 meters although I never got into a full-on sprint.

My six-minute mile time with 400m splits

Even though I had been monitoring my time after each lap, I was really surprised to see a final time of about 5:54. That’s a significant improvement over my previous times. I actually had a little left to give at the end and the overall run went about as well as I could’ve hoped.

Before I say any more, take a minute to look back at that recap and see if you notice a theme.

My big breakthrough

Do you see it? There’s almost nothing about the physical difficulty of running a mile. The entire recap was almost entirely about my mental state throughout the run.

I started fast because I knew I had to. I got tired, but I knew that would happen so I just kept pushing. I told myself I would finish the mile regardless of how long it took, so I might as well just get it over with. I felt great and had some left in the tank, but I may have left some time on the table because I relaxed a little when I realized I had hit my goal.

It was all mental.

The last two times I tried to run a sub-six-minute mile, I lost too much time on the middle two laps. Those two laps are really tough because the initial adrenaline rush has worn off, yet there’s still a long way to go.

I expected to lose time in the middle due to physical fatigue, but I had also lost time due to mental fatigue because I wasn’t totally prepared.

I suspect I’ve been physically ready to hit this goal for over a year now. I just had to try it a couple times to see my own weaknesses and find a way to work around the mental fatigue that slowed me down.

And now, of course, I’m wondering if I can get that time down to 5:45. We’ll see.

My first ski trip since high school was awesome

The Monte Carlo at Breck

I lay on my back, staring up at the blue sky. I assume it was beautiful, although I can’t really remember because I was desperately trying to catch my breath at 11,000 feet above sea level.

I looked past my feet, up the mountain to find my ski. My friend had already found it and was bringing it down to me.

“I. Don’t think. I’ve. Ever. Been. This tired.” was all I could say.

Our group had just accidentally gone down a Blue run, which we later found out was basically a Black, and it had not gone well. I tried my best to maintain control, but I had gone down the un-groomed part of the run, which meant I was basically skiing down a black on ice.

This moment was one of many that we would later call the #VailFail, and it was definitely a low point. But around this low point was a week of high points and a lot of fun.

Skiing for the first time in a long time

Last week, I went skiing for the first time since high school. All of my previous skiing experiences were terrible, so I wasn’t expecting to have much fun.

Fortunately, my friends insisted I try skiing on real mountains with real snow, so I went to Breck to give it a shot.

I had an amazing week and really enjoyed skiing. It was a lot easier than I expected and I picked it up faster than I thought I would.

So this will be more of an old-school day-by-day recap of my trip, mostly for posterity.

Day 1: Traveling there

A few of us rented a car and drove from Gainesville to Orlando, where we flew Southwest directly to Denver. Then we rented cars and drove from Denver to Breck. Everything was entirely uneventful, which is how I prefer to travel.

Once in Breck, I immediately felt the altitude and got winded just walking up stairs and doing other simple things. I also got a low-level headache that persisted for a couple of days despite all the water I drank.

We rented a ridiculous three-story house that slept 13 people. “The bunk room”, which I shared with three other guys, was crowded but fun.

That first night, we got our ski gear, settled in, and went out for our first crepes of the trip.

A picture of a giant crepe

These crepes are delicious and enormous.

Day 2: Lessons and getting settled

Everyone I talked to said, “You should definitely take lessons on your first day. It’s the best way to learn the basics.” This was great advice, which I think they learned to give after other training methods failed.

For example, I think they used to teach newbies how to ski using a sort of Scared Straight methodology (“This is a blue run. You will fall a lot, but by the time you make it to the bottom, you’ll be ok at skiing.”), which probably isn’t the best way to learn.

So several of us split into groups for snowboarding and skiing lessons. There were only two of us skiers, and our instructor was Dave. There were two other folks in our group, which meant Dave only had to work with four students—that was great for us.

My first ski lesson

We gradually worked through the basics, and I felt pretty good right away. Skiing was already less awful than I remembered. By lunch time, my friend and I had progressed past our two fellow students and were quite a bit more comfortable with the green runs we were doing.

Just before lunch, Dave took my friend and I on a couple runs while the other two members of our cohort took a breather (they were very tired and frustrated, and I think Dave correctly assumed the best thing was for them to rest so they didn’t get hurt). We did our first blue and it went pretty well—we could see that we were making real progress already.

After lunch, we did a few more runs, worked on some more advanced (for us) techniques, and officially graduated to “Level 4” (of 5?), which felt pretty good.

We finished the day by meeting up with most of our other friends to ride up and do the 4 O’Clock Home run (which is mostly green with a little blue up top).

One of the nice things about the awesome house we rented was that we could almost ski in and ski out. It was super convenient to walk for three or four minutes, put our skis on, and hit the lift. And it was even more convenient to ski down the 4 O’Clock, pop our skis off, and get home in about 5 minutes.

Our only in-house group dinner

After we finished skiing, some of us headed off-site for some hot-tub time while others went shopping to get supplies for our only in-house group meal of the week. I sautéed asparagus for everyone, which meant I got to hang in the kitchen and meet new people as they passed through to see what we were up to.

This was probably my favorite meal of the week and I’m hoping we do at least two of these next year.

Body Body Body

After dinner, we played Body Body Body, which is like a live-action version of a game called Mafia. I’ve always liked Mafia and I like Body Body Body even more.

There were about 10 townspeople and 3 mafia members. Once the mafia members have identified each other, we turn the lights out, crank up spooky music, and wander around the mansion in the dark. Mafia members kill townspeople by mock-slashing their throats. Once a townsperson has been killed, they stop walking and drop to the floor. The game continues until someone finds the “body” and shouts “Body body body!” so that everyone can turn the lights on and run to see who died.

Then the game moves to the more typical “Mafia”-style game where everyone talks things through and nominates a couple people they think might be in the mafia. Eventually someone is voted out and the game resumes unless the mafia have all been discovered. The game ends when either the mafia are all voted out or there are equal numbers of townspeople and mafia remaining.

The game is a lot of fun and we played pretty much every night. My only regret is that despite playing 10+ games, I was never mafia (which is the most fun part of the game) thanks to a series of unfortunate events that culminated in our narrator tilting and skipping one game, causing some logistical snafus that caused us to redraw for spots the one time I actually drew a “Mafia” card.

C’iest la vie.

Day 3: First normal ski day

Lessons were physically and mentally exhausting, plus I was still feeling the altitude, so I was admittedly not super stoked to hit the slopes again.

Fortunately, a couple of experienced friends, who arrived later than the rest of us, were heading out for their first day on the slopes and offered to take me along and help me slowly work up from Greens to Blues. (Shout out to James and Jen for being awesome teachers.)

By lunch, we were doing Blue runs and I felt pretty comfortable. They were a little fast for me, and I didn’t quite have the control I wanted, but I was able to move down them pretty quickly, mostly maintaining control, and without falling. All in all, a pretty big win.

By the end of the day, I felt comfortable on Blues, which was pretty remarkable considering I had taken beginner lessons the previous morning. Some of the group took a short Black to finish the day, but I skipped it. I was super tired and just didn’t want to risk hurting myself with two days left to ski.

Mi Casa

We went to a local Mexican restaurant for dinner, and it was pretty good. Although… my stomach didn’t take too kindly to it. Normally, this would be no big deal, but an upset stomach plus altitude meant Day 4 at Vail would be challenging.

Assume there was hot-tubbing, Body Body Body, and probably crepes

The evening routine was pretty consistent. Here was our view from the hot-tub:

Hot Tub View

Day 4: #VailFail

This brings us full circle to the beginning of this post. We decided to make a day trip to Vail, which is about 45 minutes from Breck. At first, it was a smaller group, then it expanded to be almost everyone. In theory, the skiing is better at Vail, plus we could get an awesome group picture at a famously beautiful spot on the mountain.

But, all the best laid plans…

We arrived at Vail and easily got onto the mountain thanks to some great planning by the more experienced members of our crew. Our first order of business was to rendezvous at the top of Lift 37 for the infamous picture, and then we could all split off into groups based on experience level.

Our plan was to take a long catwalk to another catwalk that would drop us at Lift 37. But a Vail employee convinced one of our crew that there was a better way: We could cut out a lot of catwalking by taking an easy Blue after the first catwalk.

“We have a lot of beginners. Is that Blue going to be ok for beginners?”
“Definitely!”

We knew we were in trouble pretty much right away. The entrance to the first catwalk gave a lot of folks serious problems. I made it down to the catwalk without falling, but it was a dicey run.

Once we eventually got across the first catwalk, we stopped to regroup before heading to the beginner-friendly Blue we had been promised. But first, we had to wait out a pretty serious windstorm that made me thankful I brought my balaclava since the wind-driven snow felt like a sandblaster to the face.

Another ominous sign.

At last, we all get around to the entrance of the beginner-friendly Blue and we realized… this was not beginner-friendly. It was super steep and icy—not good for beginners. I tried my best to take shallow angles and control my speed, but I just wasn’t good enough to manage it. I fell over a few times—nothing serious—before heading to a part that another skier said was probably a less-steep way to get down.

Turns out I was heading for the most steep part of the run, and a more experienced skier in our group later told me, “I saw you heading over there and thought, ‘He needs to turn back the other way or this could get really ugly.'” I did not turn back the other way. Things got pretty ugly.

This is the part where I wound up sliding head-first down the mountain on my back, losing one of my skis in the process. Ironically, this may have been the best outcome for me once I chose this particular path.

We later found out from another Vail employee—a friend of the group—that this was basically a Black run and that beginners had no business being on it. There was a groomed section, which they considered a Blue, but most of us had not taken the groomed section. (This might be my only regret of the trip—if I had known about the groomed section, I may have gotten down with little trouble.)

Exhausted from accidentally attempting a Black run, I caught my breath and chugged half a bottle of blue Gatorade, then made my way down to the second catwalk. As I worked my way across the catwalk, the wind picked back up—it was getting worse.

Most of us met up at a natural stopping point before heading down to Lift 37. Bad news was waiting for us there: Lift 37 had been closed because of the wind; only Lift 36 was open; there was no way to ski down.

A few of us had made it onto Lift 37 before it closed. Some of us were stuck waiting for Lift 36. And others had been so far behind that they were blocked from the catwalk and could not even make it Lift 36. We were now scattered all over the mountain.

The lift line at Vail

They had also been slow to close the catwalk, so people continued pouring in as the line backed up. We waited there for over an hour, totally exhausted and dehydrated.

By the time we got off Lift 36, it was after 1:00 PM. We had been on the mountain for over three hours and had almost nothing to show for it. We finally made it down to our next rendezvous spot where we were able to regroup and get a less-spectacular version of the picture we had been chasing for the past several hours:

Our group at Vail

And here is where we coined #VailFail. We had been on the mountain for about four hours and had almost nothing to show for it. The back side of the mountain had been closed, we had done like 1.5 runs, we didn’t get the picture we were chasing, and several of our crew were wiped out from the initial “Blue” that we descended.

We split up by experience level and managed to get a few runs in before calling it quits and meeting up at The George for an early dinner. Even the Greens at Vail were pretty steep and challenging—some of them harder than the Blues I had done at Breck.

After the high of making such quick progress the day before, this was a pretty serious low for almost everyone. I was glad the day was over and that we would be back at Breck for the rest of our trip.

Day 5: Redemption

This would be our final ski day, and I was really happy to be back at Breck. I spent most of the day doing Blue runs, which all felt really easy after the runs we did at Vail.

We all met for lunch on Peak 7, where there was a food court with a fantastic view of the mountain.

The last real run I did was Monte Carlo, which is a really long, fun Blue. A friend got some photos and video of the run so I have a record of where I was skill-wise after my first real ski trip. I felt much more comfortable than I expected, but can also see that I have a lot of work to do.

The Monte Carlo at Breck

I finished the day paying it forward: A less-experienced skier in our group and I did a couple of super-slow Blue runs to get down off the mountain. This gave me a chance to help someone the same way I was helped on Day 3, and also gave me a chance to really enjoy the views and reflect on how much I had learned in just a few days.

On Wednesday, I had no idea what I was doing and felt accomplished for scooting down the bunny slope without falling over. On Saturday, I was helping another skier get down Blues to get off the mountain.

Day 6: Traveling back

After a long week, I was ready to get home. But first we had to drive back to Denver, fly east for a few hours, rent a car in Orlando, grab dinner and drive back to Gainesville. We would be lucky to get home by 11 PM.

But on our way to dinner, we passed Andretti Karting and our crew couldn’t resist. Actually, I could totally resist—I was about 5 hours past my “have fun while traveling” limit—but the other four in our little group were all about it.

So after about seven hours of traveling, we stopped off for some kart racing. My only options were to just sit around and watch them race, or to join them and hope I could compete despite how tired I was. We warmed up by playing a reaction-time game and two quick-shot basketball games (I won two of three of the games I played) while waiting for our track to be ready.

The race was really fun except we were surrounded by terrible drivers who kept puttering around the middle of the track. All of us would’ve gone much faster if we hadn’t had to work around the slower drivers. I tied for 2nd overall, and I felt pretty good about that.

Our Andretti Racing crew

Then we finally started our drive home from Orlando, talking about the Oscars most of the way.

I finally got home around 1:00 AM and immediately crashed.

Planning for next year

Before this trip, I had decided I hated skiing. Now I’m looking forward to heading back out next year. My friends were right: I hadn’t really skied before, and skiing out west is much more fun.

Hopefully I’ll be shredding Black runs by the end of our next trip.

Where was this video BEFORE my first time skiing?

I couldn’t see through all the snow spraying me in the face, so I just closed my eyes and waited for impact. Another skier was trying to stop before he ran me over, and he barely missed me. I had fallen – again – and couldn’t get up.

This was my first ski lesson. It was not going well.

Even better, the skier trying to avoid me was my good friend and instructor, Scott. He was much better than I was and he didn’t have much patience for teaching a newbie how to ski.

I would just sort of point myself down the mountain and try to maintain some control while zipping down in a straight line. When I eventually got to the bottom, I would either coast to a stop or intentionally wipe out to avoid hitting anyone.

It was awful, and I was content to never ski again.

Then my friends convinced me to give it one more shot, on powder this time. So I’m heading to Colorado next week to try again. They insist it’ll be a lot more fun than I remember.

We’ll see!

It’s a big investment—time and money—for something that could turn out to be really un-fun. So I put on my “learn a new thing, even if it might be unpleasant” hat and started doing some research.

I found this fantastic video on YouTube—it’s exactly what I needed:

How to ski | 10 beginner lessons for the first day of skiing

What impressed me most is how the instructor anticipates almost every fear that I have about skiing. “How do I turn?” “What if I fall?” “What if I accidentally end up on a slope that’s uncomfortably steep?”

He’s been teaching for so long that he’s heard all of those concerns before. His list of “10 beginner lessons” probably came directly from hundreds of terrified students who have said, “What if I fall? How do I get up again?!” as they pictured themselves stuck on the side of a mountain, people zipping by as they struggle to stand up, for hours and hours and hours.

After watching that short video, I have enough confidence to give it a shot. I’m still going to take lessons the first day, but I’m a lot less worried about embarrassing myself than I was before.

Most people feel the same way about getting a raise. Maybe they tried it once before, but it didn’t go very well. So they gave up and decided to just wait for their next raise to come along whenever it happens to come along.

Sometimes, they don’t even get that far—the idea of asking for a raise and having to defend their request may be so daunting that they never even try.

Does that sound familiar?

Now it’s February again and most companies are gearing up for performance evaluation season.

You know you’re underpaid, and you want to do something about it, but you don’t know where to start. Last time you tried, nothing came of it, so why try again?

This year can be different with Get Your Next Raise, a simple way to learn the 7 key things you need to get your next raise.

I’ll be your expert instructor showing you how to get your next raise in just 7 short video lessons with clear action items to help you make steady progress to your goal.

I’m opening up registration soon, and you can get an exclusive launch-day bonus when you join the early access list! ?Ready to finally get paid what you’re worth?

>> Join the early access list for Get Your Next Raise

My first 15k race didn’t go well

I ran my first 15k (9.3 miles) this weekend, and it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. The official race results say it took me about 1 hour and 20 minutes to finish with a pace of about 8:38 per mile.

At first, I was pretty upset with myself because I hoped to be much faster. I tried to go faster, and kept telling myself, “Ok, it’s time to start moving!”… but that extra boost just never came.

Then I talked to a friend of mine, and he reminded me of a pretty important detail: I was recovering from the flu, so I was probably dehydrated and of course I didn’t run a very fast race. I probably shouldn’t have run at all, so finishing with a decent time was actually a great result.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized there were a lot of positive things about the race, even if I didn’t run a great time. I ran the race with two friends, and it was fun to see them run well and to encourage each other. I ran further than I’ve ever run before, and I felt pretty good despite the flu. I even experienced my first “runner’s high”, which I previously thought was just a myth.

Plus, I went to Chick-Fil-A for my post-race meal, and I ordered enough food to feed a small family.

My post-race meal at Chick-Fil-A

There were a lot of positive things about the race, even if my time wasn’t what I had hoped for.

Sometimes the value in doing something is the thing itself.

I think this applies to our work, too. It can be tempting to look for “business value” or “promotion potential” behind every little thing we do, but that takes all the fun out of it.

Don’t forget to look for opportunities to do work that you enjoy, just for the sake of having some fun. Not only does that make it easier to finish the hard things, but you might find a whole new fun dimension that you can add to your work.

How I get into the Christmas spirit every year

Every year, my friends and I watch as many Christmas movies as we can between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have an elaborate system to nominate and veto movies until we have three movies to choose from, then we vote for our favorite.

It gets pretty crazy with people forming alliances and using complicated strategies to watch the movie they want, and we spend a lot of time arguing about what constitutes a “Christmas movie” (Die Hard is a Christmas movie, Die Hard 2 is not).

Here’s how it works…

The group nominates three movies. Each person can nominate one movie. Each person also gets one veto—they can veto any movie that’s already been nominated, and they must replace that movie with another nomination.

Once there are three nominations and no more vetos, we all vote for our favorite. The movie with the most votes wins. If there’s a tie, then there’s usually some campaigning before we re-vote for the movies that tied. If there’s still a tie, I think we flip a coin or something.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is: Sometimes the nomination process is as long as the movie we choose.

We’ve already had four movie nights and my guess is we’ll have five or six more before Christmas. Here are the movies we’ve watched so far this year:

  1. Better Watch Out – Is this a Christmas movie? There were…disagreements.
  2. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York – One of the best Christmas movies.
  3. Trading Places – Yes, the one about trading pork bellies. No, this isn’t really a Christmas movie—turns out the TV version is quite a bit different than the full version.
  4. Jingle all the Way – What’s not to like about a Christmas movie starring The Governator?
  5. Christmas Vacation – Chevy Chase at his best, and a timeless movie that gets better with time.
  6. Home Alone – The quintessential Christmas movie.
  7. The Santa Clause – A solid Christmas movie with one of my favorite Christmas movie characters: Neil.

A pretty good lineup, but we still haven’t watched my favorite…

Christmas Vacation

There’s just something about Clark Griswold’s dogged determination to have a Merry Christmas despite the universe conspiring against him at every turn. Hopefully I’ll get this one on the list while there’s still time.

And I’m still hoping for It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone this year.

UPDATE (12/19/2017): We have watched a few more movies since I originally posted this, so I’ve added them to the list above. We’ve had a really solid lineup so far this year!

Speaking of Christmas…

Give them a lifetime of bigger paychecks

If you’re looking for a great Christmas gift, Fearless Salary Negotiation is the gift that keeps on giving – literally.

For the rest of their career, they’ll know how to ace job interviews, get more job offers, negotiate a higher salary, and get raises and promotions rather than just waiting for them to happen. All because of your thoughtful gift.

Just click the little gift box icon at checkout and I’ll take care of the rest. You can even set a future delivery date to make sure their gift arrives on Christmas Day!

Give the gift of bigger paychecks

The Satchel’s Grand-Reopening (recap)

Satchel’s is finally open again, and anyone who knows me knows I couldn’t wait to get back. So some friends and I went to get a deep dish, which was amazing, as always. Satchel asked us to keep it hush-hush until yesterday evening, so I waited until about 9:00 PM before I binge-tweeted a bunch of delicious pics.

Since it might be hard to find those pics on Twitter or Facebook later, I figured I should put them on the blog, too. So, here’s a recap of my visit to the Satchel’s Grand-Reopening (including the text from the original tweets).

Finally back at Satchel’s after MONTHS away. Satchel asked us to keep quiet till tonight, so I’m tweeting on delay!

Apparently Satchel’s has decided they don’t want to sell Dr. Pepper, soooo… REDACTED!!

The first deep dish anyone has ordered since Satchel’s reopened. And that’s Satchel (who Reagan is investigating).

Half “Super Hawaiian” – bacon, pineapple, ricotta, ham. Half “The Old Standby” – pepperoni, sausage, spinach, feta.

They remodeled Lightning Salvage! The left wall as you walk in (used to be the front bar) – yes, they built a booth.

They moved the bar to your right when you walk in, and knocked out a wall. The new bar is a horseshoe.

Satchel’s update!

For those of you who care about Satchel’s, and for those of you who are just curious about Satchel’s and my obsession with it, here’s an update. Satchel sent this email to the people who contributed something to the Satchel’s “Employee Relief Fund” via an IndieGoGo campaign a while back. I thought I would pass it along to update those people who care, but who didn’t give to the fund.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is an article that talks about the fire that damaged the kitchen at Satchel’s.

And here’s the latest update email:

Hello! Please forgive me for waiting so long to reach out to you and say thanks for helping the Satchel’s employees! I have been working such long days, sometimes 16-18 hour days. My desk is piled high, my clothes need washing, my car needs cleaning but the restaurant re-model is moving along pretty good. The outpouring of support for our indiegogo campaign raising money for employees was incredible. I knew that folks loved our pizzas and salads and staff, but I had no idea that you loved us THIS much! It was humbling and kept me going through the hardest times.

It became apparent quickly after the fire that putting things back the way they were just wasn’t an option. Our tiny kitchen had 8 people working in there and there was very little space for the amount of food we were putting out. Also, in order to increase our occupancy to be more in line with the people we serve, we needed our “back door exit” to be through a hallway instead of through our prep room. The code doesn’t allow customers to exit through the kitchen so we’ve had to not only re-model the kitchen for more space, but also the prep room. We’ve combined these 2 rooms into one bigger connected kitchen and we feel we will have a better flow and more efficient kitchen, hopefully getting your food to you even faster, (notice I said “hopefully.”) The progress is good. Today the exterior walls were put on and tomorrow the electrician is supposed to start running the new electric. There is a lot to do but I am on it every day.

Those of you who got a perk of a cake made by my mom, I’ve already contacted you about how to begin the claim process for that. For the 2 of you that gave enough to get a painting or collage of mine, I will be in touch about that later. Basically my art show will go up in December and you’ll be able to pick from the paintings then. Those of you who gave enough for a menu-back, I’ll contact you when I get a little further along with the re-model and have some extra time. And for the majority of you who are waiting patiently for calzones and pizzas and salads, I’ll be sending out details of how to claim your food when we have a re-opening date. I would like to open for a couple days before the “official” opening to just feed those of you who gave to our campaign. But you’ll be able to come in any time and claim your perk after that as well. I’m still a but too swamped to figure it all out right now.

I just wanted to get out an email to say thanks to everyone for your gifts and your support. The employees were all so very happy and grateful. One employee told me how she cried when she saw the money show up in her account. I feel pretty sure that you’ll be seeing familiar happy faces when we re-open and all of us will be so glad to get a regular paycheck and a pizza again, especially me! I hope I get the chance to thank each of you in person when we re-open, as best I can tell I am hoping that we will be able to re-open in early June.

thank you thank you thank you.

satchel

Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better?

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

[This was originally a three-part series: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.]

We spend a lot of time gobbling up media. We want to do fun stuff, and we want to do stuff on the cheap. Such is life in a stagnant economy. One of my go-to, quick and dirty ways to choose one option over the others is to figure out the cost per hour for each of my options, and then choose the one with the lowest cost per hour. 1

Here’s a quick summary of the cost to consume different types of media, shown in ascending worst-case dollars per hour 2 3:

  • Podcast – free – As long as I have iTunes and an internet connection, I can get just about any podcast free of charge.
  • News online – free – Yeah, the NYT has a pay wall now, but they don’t have any news I can’t get for free somewhere else.
  • Video games – $.03 to $1.25 – Angry Birds, Madden, NCAA: they all take so long they end up being really cheap by the time we’re through with them.
  • Books – $.25 to $2 – This one obviously depends how fast you read, but a good old paperback can go a long way on short change.
  • MP3 albums – $.3 to $4 – The trick with MP3s is to find them on sale. The Amazon MP3 store runs sales all the time.
  • Movies – $.50 to $5 – Movies tend to run the gamut because there are so many ways to get them. Prices vary pretty widely from Redbox to IMAX.

Almost any way I slice it, movies are one of the most expensive pieces of the entertainment pie. Looking back at my personal habits over time 4, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve been moving to cheaper and cheaper options over time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I have been purposely reducing my spending over the past few years, and I’ve obviously accomplished that by buying cheaper media.

Consuming media isn’t just about being entertained as cheaply as possible 5; I want quality entertainment. It’s not as simple as just consuming some type of media–I also have to figure out which examples of a given type of media to choose. If I’m listening to podcasts, how do I decide which ones? How do I find good books to read? How do I decide which movies to see in the theatre and which ones to rent? How do I know which ones to avoid altogether? The easy answer is recommendations. The trickier answer is expectations.

Recommendations

Over the past decade, recommendations 6 have gone from an informal give and take to a very sophisticated marketing tool, employed by giant companies to boost sales. Amazon, Netflix, Apple’s App Store and many other companies rely on recommendations to keep customers coming back for more. “Recommendation Engines” have become a closely guarded secret and a competitive advantage designed keep customers from switching to a competitor. I’ve bought hundreds of items on Amazon, and I like the recommendations it provides based on my previous purchases. If I start shopping at another online vendor, I’ll have to start over from scratch. That would be a lot of work, so I’m likely to stay with Amazon for quite a while unless a competitor offers something significantly better or Amazon totally drops the ball.

Many of my social interactions revolve around either sharing recommendations or comparing opinions on different media. For as long as I can remember, I’ve frequently asked friends what they’re into: “Seen any good movies lately?” or “Have you heard the new Girl Talk? How is it?” For almost any kind of media, I have at least one friend who’s practically on speed dial in case I need new recommendations.

I also make a lot of recommendations. I love it when a friend tweets, “Looking for some good books to read this summer. Any suggestions?” It takes me a few questions to figure out what kind of stuff they like, but once I zero in on their preferences I can usually recommend several titles that I can almost guarantee they’ll like. The same goes for music, movies, podcasts and TV shows. Part of being a maven 7 is that I’ve always got a solid cache of information ready to share if someone’s careless enough to open the door for me.

Expectations

The flip-side to recommendations is the expectations they create. If a friend of mine, let’s call him Morris, has successfully recommended 10 documentaries to me without any stinkers, then I expect his next doc recommendation to be a good one. If another friend, let’s call him Les, has recommended five documentaries for me, and all of them have been terrible, then I expect his next recommendation to be terrible and I’ll eventually just stop listening to his recommendations altogether. If Morris and Les both make recommendations to me at the same time, I can safely choose Morris’ recommendations because I expect them to be better. With each recommendation Morris and Les make, I can reevaluate their recommendations as a whole to determine how much weight I’ll give to either recommender in the future.

This is also true for recommendation engines like those at Amazon and Netflix. If Amazon starts recommending stuff that I hate, I’ll take that into account in the future and begin lowering my expectations for the stuff they recommend. Eventually I’ll just stop buying stuff they recommend, and that may remove the exit barrier I described earlier so that I’m comfortable going to another company and starting over from scratch.

There’s a feedback loop of recommendations and expectations. With each new good recommendation I get from a friend, the higher my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. With each bad recommendation I get from a friend, the lower my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. Eventually, I will learn to anticipate exactly how accurate my friends’ recommendations will be.

Recommendations and expectations are part of an adaptive framework wherein each future recommendation carries the weight of all previous recommendations. This feedback loop is only useful if I compare my actual experience to my actual expectations. 8

Utility-Hours Per Dollar

Before I can compare outcomes to expectations, I need a way to objectively measure my general satisfaction with any particular piece of media. Dollars per hour is a good metric to figure out the cost of consuming media, especially if my biggest concern is keeping a budget. It helps me measure efficiency. I might say, “Well, I’ve got three bucks left in my entertainment budget this month. I might as well stretch it as far as I can. What’re my options that are three bucks or cheaper and provide the most entertainment time?” But I’m not just looking for any old media–I want the good stuff. I need a way to account for both efficiency and the relative enjoyment offered by something. Enter this new thing I’m creating called “Utility-Hours per Dollar” (UHD) 9. The UHD allows me to normalize things so that I can compare apples to apples. Yes, going to see a movie in the theatre is really expensive ($5 per hour), but what if it’s the most fun thing I could possibly do with five bucks? That has to count for something, right? Sure it does.

I calculate UHD like this:

  1. Find the absolute cost (in dollars) of the media I’m looking to buy.
  2. Estimate how long (in hours) it will take to consume. 10
  3. Subjectively determine its utility 11on a 10-point scale (1 is for awful stuff, 10 is for incredible stuff).
  4. Multiply the utility number by the number of hours.
  5. Divide that number by the cost, rounded to the next highest dollar. For free stuff, use $1 (not $0). 12 13

For those who like a tidy formula, here it is:

  • UHD = (Utility * Hours) / Dollars

That’s it. Here are a couple examples 14:

  • A really bad movie at the theatre would be $10, last 2 hours and provide a utility of 2:
  • 2 utils * 2 hours = 4 util-hours
  • 4 util-hours / $10 = .4 UHD

  • A pretty good album that I buy on Amazon for $8 might give me 20 solid hours of listening at 6 utils:
  • 6 utils * 20 hours = 120 util-hours
  • 120 util-hours / $8 = 15 UHD

A UHD near zero sucks. A UHD that ends up in the double digits is pretty good. Stuff with a UHD in the mid-to-high double digits is pretty great. Using this metric, I can figure out my most cost effective, enjoyable option for entertainment.

Our trusty UHD chart–we’ll see this again later

UHD isn’t as esoteric as it seems

I realize that, at first, UHD just seems like a wonky way to describe something that’s already obvious and intuitive. But it actually has real-world applications, especially when it comes to understanding our intuitive-but-not-easily-explained preferences for stuff.

For example, UHD helps me understand why it took me a little while to move from CDs to downloading MP3s 15. Initially, the cost of an MP3 album (on iTunes, for example) was pretty close to the CD and Apple was using DRM 16. My concern was that I wouldn’t “own” the music if I paid for the MP3s. The result was that the utility of the MP3s was less than that of the CD, even though it was the same music at the same cost. Since the cost was similar, and the hours of entertainment would be the same, the difference in utility made the UHD for CDs higher than MP3s. Eventually, Amazon started offering DRM-free downloads and cheaper prices, shifting the UHD for MP3 downloads ahead of CDs. That’s when I made the switch to MP3 downloads 17. Of course, I didn’t actually do a conscious UHD calculation one day and say, “Ah ha! The UHD for MP3s is finally greater than it is for CDs! Time to make the switch!” But that’s basically what happened. The same process is happening for me with eBooks right now. 18

A brief, anecdotal history of cinema

The shift from CDs to MP3s, or from physical books to eBooks is interesting to me. But what’s really interesting to me is the persistence of movie theaters despite cheaper, very similar movie-watching options. Fifty years ago, the only real option for seeing a movie was to go to the movie theatre. This was great for movie companies because they could charge high prices since they were basically the only game in town. The UHD calculation wasn’t really useful for deciding how to watch a movie because it wasn’t so much a matter of comparing different movie-viewing options as just deciding whether it was worth it to spend the money on a movie or not. If it wasn’t, you just had to find something else to do.

Then technology started changing, opening the door for the home theatre experience. First, VHS started enabling people to watch movies at home en masse. Hi-fi began morphing into fancier surround sound setups whose cost was dropping so that more and more people could buy them. LaserDisc 19 came and went. Then DVD took hold and made the home-viewing experience even better.

A sidebar into UHD for movies at the turn of the century

Ten years ago, we really had two options for watching a movie (without owning it). We could either go to the theatre or rent it at Blockbuster. Let’s run through the UHD calculations real quick, just to get an idea of the difference in UHD for these two options at that time:

  • A good movie as a “New Release” rental was about $4 (-ish), lasted 2 hours and provided a utility of 6:
  • 6 utils * 2 hours = 12 util-hours
  • 12 util-hours / $4 = 3 UHD

  • The same good movie in the theatre would have been about $5, lasted 2 hours and provided a utility of about 7 (slightly higher since it was in the theatre):
  • 7 utils * 2 hours = 14 util-hours
  • 14 util-hours / $5 = 2.8 UHD

So the UHD for renting versus going to the theatre was really close even as recently as 2000. They were close enough that there was a real decision to be made: Spend $5 and go to the theatre or spend $4 and stay home? We would often decide what to do based on the number of people in a group (if there were four of us, we could just split the rental for a buck a piece; if there were two of us, then why not just pay for the movie in the theatre?) and our willingness to sneak snacks into the theatre. 20

Our trusty UHD chart from earlier

Snap back to reality

A lot has happened over the past 10 years or so. Netflix popped up, HD-DVD lost the war to Blu-Ray, streaming video became better and better, Blockbuster got crushed, and DVD rentals have gotten cheaper and cheaper. There are options now, options that just weren’t available when movie theaters first became a big deal. Not only are there options, but there are cheap options that rival the actual movie-going experience. And yet, movie ticket prices have been steadily increasing over time. 21

Let’s look at one more sample UHD calculation:

  • A really bad movie that I waited to watch on Redbox DVD would be $1, last 2 hours and provide a utility of 2 22:
  • 2 utils * 2 hours = 4 util-hours
  • 4 util-hours / $1 = 4 UHD

As we saw earlier, watching the bad movie in the theatre gives .4 (that’s point-four) UHD. Watching the same bad movie on DVD gives 4 UHD. Watching the bad movie on DVD is 10 times “better” than watching it in the theatre, and all of this difference is accounted for by the difference in cost. “But wait!”, you say, “What if I enjoy watching movies more in the theatre?! I really like going to the theatre!” Ok, fine. How much better would the movie have to be in the theatre to make up for the difference in UHD?

Some people will want to go to the most extreme case first, so let’s just go straight there. Let’s say that the bad movie moves from 4 utils to 10 utils just because I enjoy going to the theatre so much. It only jumps to 2 UHD (still half of the 4 UHD if I wait to watch the bad movie on Redbox DVD). “That doesn’t make any sense!” My counter would be, “So you’re saying there’s no way any movie can be better than the bad movie in the theatre? What if you go see a good movie in the theater?” Since the 1-10 scale is a subjective scale, I have to leave room above the bad movie for less-bad movies. Either that or I have to slide my Redbox DVD experience down to a 1 or something. If I move the theatre experience up to a 10 and move the Redbox DVD experience down to a 1, then I get the same result for both options: 2 UHD.

The present, seemingly uncrossable gulf between UHD for going to the movies and watching them at home is due to super high, sticky movie prices and much, much cheaper alternatives for watching movies at home. This has created such a big gap in cost that watching movies in the theatre is just that much more expensive, ruining their UHD relative to the very-similar experience of watching movies at home now.

Going to see movies in the theatre is expensive. I realize some people will say, “But your formula is just wrong. It weights the cost too much.” Using the UHD calculation as-is, it’s hard to see many situations where it would be better to go to the theatre than to watch the flick at home. It’s possible that I’m weighting cost too heavily, but I think the real problem is that movie theaters are just way too expensive now because we have more, better options. There really is that much of a difference in cost between movie theaters and rentals.

Movie Expectations – A bizarre special case?

And yet, new releases continue to set box office records as people go to the theatre in droves. At the same time, the movie theaters are much more expensive than the alternatives, and the quality of the movies released has been consistent (or at least not improving enough to justify the growing gap between theatre prices and the alternatives). What gives? If I’m right that waiting for the movie on DVD is almost always better than going to the theatre, then why do so many people continue going to see movies in the theatre? Why did I go see three movies in the theatre this summer?

I’ve overheard this sentiment several times recently: “That movie wasn’t that bad. I just went into it with no expectations and it turned out ok. I’ve decided I just won’t have expectations for movies because I end up over-hyping them and when they don’t meet my expectations I feel ripped off.” So the idea is that movies are often bad because we expect them to be good, or at least because we expect them to be better than they actually are. To solve this problem, we play mind games with ourselves, intentionally under-hyping a movie so that when we go see it and it’s just an ok movie, it exceeds our deflated expectations.

At first, I saw the wisdom in this tactic. If we get really good at lowering our expectations, almost any movie will be a success, at least inasmuch as it will exceed our expectations. That way, we can pretty much guarantee that when we pony up $10 for a ticket and another $10 for concessions, we won’t be let down.

The more I think about this, the more ridiculous the idea seems. We don’t lower our expectations for music, books or TV shows, do we? So why do we do that with movies? Of all our options, movies are one of the most expensive options we have. Why would we trick ourselves into doing something super expensive that we don’t really enjoy that much?

But this one goes to 11.

What we’re doing when we go see movies with deflated expectations is trying to trick ourselves into accepting the lower utility of the movie and ignoring the greater cost. Let’s say we go see the same bad movie we’ve talked about already, but we have “no expectations”, meaning we essentially expect the movie to be about 1 util of entertainment. That way, when we go to the movie and it’s 4 utils, we exceeded expectations! We practically created three utils out of thin air! Um, ok. But the problem is that the movie itself is still only 4 utils. It has to be because we have to put every other movie we’ve ever seen on the same scale. We can’t artificially inflate the number of utils to, say, 5 because what happens to those other movies that really were a 5? 23 This also reduces the perceived value of a 10 because we’re watering all of our other movie experiences down. So if we inflate the utility from a 4 to a 5, what we’re really doing is inflating the whole scale. Now it goes to 11. We have created UHD inflation.

A Delightful Food-Poisoning Analogy

It’s as though we have a friend who likes to cook. He says, “Hey everyone! Come over to my place and bring $5. I’ll cook something for all of us to eat. It’ll be delicious!” So we all go over there and bring five bucks. We eat the meal and it’s really freaking terrible. Half of us are disappointed and the other half are left with Oregon Trail flashbacks. A few weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer. We all decide to give it one more shot–maybe he just had a bad night, right?–and we head back over there with our five bucks. Same thing happens. Half of us are disappointed and the other half end up battling the dysentery. A couple weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer again. Would I go? Of course not. But what if I said, “You know what? I’m going back! I’ve learned that I just have to lower my expectations so I can really enjoy the food poisoning! I’m going to just assume it will kill me this time, or at least that it’ll ruin my digestive system for the next few days. It’s going to be terrible! I can’t wait!” I’m tricking myself into paying $5 for the privilege of being food-poisoned by my friend.

Ridiculous, right? How’s that any different than saying, “The trick to movies is that I just lower my expectations as much as possible. If I go in without expectations, I can’t be disappointed!” Well, kind of. But you’ll trick yourself out of $10 and you’ll waste time that you could’ve spent doing something cheaper and better.

What’s going on here?

So why do we trick ourselves into going to see bad movies in the theatre at 10 times the cost of the Redbox DVD? What’s really strange is we don’t do this with other stuff. If anything we tend to inflate our expectations, especially when it comes to music. I’ve heard friends totally pan a new album just because it didn’t live up to their expectations, which were far higher than they should’ve been. This happened with She & Him’s “Volume 2”. Many of my friends said they didn’t like it, and it was just more of the same from She & Him. Well, duh. They’re still She & Him and their first album was awesome. I’d say “Volume 1” was like 8 utils to me. I expected “Volume 2” to be about 8 utils. I think some of my friends expected it to somehow magically be 10 utils. Why? I have no idea. Turns out it was right about 8 utils (maybe slightly less, but it was really close). I ended up enjoying it a lot (and still listen to it regularly), whereas they ended up all disappointed and annoyed. Of course, they just did that to themselves.

So, with music, a lot of my friends do the opposite of this movie theatre trick–they inflate their expectations so they’re artificially disappointed when they hear a new album. 24 This is silly, but at least it makes some kind of sense: If we’re going to mess with expectations, we should manipulate the numbers so we tend to be less satisfied. That way, we’re basically tricking our future selves into spending less money. But this leaves us in an awkward place: we trick our future selves into spending more money on expensive stuff (movies at the theatre), and less money on cheap stuff (music). If we’re going to trick ourselves, we should be tricking ourselves so that we’re less satisfied with expensive stuff and more satisfied with cheaper stuff. At least that way we end up tricking our future selves avoiding the more expensive purchases on stuff we don’t like anyway. The UHD for music is almost always higher than it is for movies so, if anything, we should tend to “trick” ourselves into consuming more music and fewer movies in order to use our time and money more efficiently by consuming better stuff.

Why do we have it backwards? There could be a few explanations for this. Rather than trying to make sure we spend our money as efficiently as possible, we’re more focused on justifying expensive movies because they’re a cultural staple:

“Did you see the new X-Men movie?”
“No, I’m waiting for it on DVD.”
“Lame-o! Hey everybody! This guy’s super lame!”

It’s not cool to wait to watch movies on DVD. If I show up at the water cooler on Monday morning after a big release 25, nobody wants to hear anything I say if it starts with, “Well, I’m waiting for that one to be available on Netflix streaming.”

Sometimes there are benefits to seeing a movie in the theatre, especially action flicks. But we can account for that by bumping the utils for the movie just a little bit. Maybe X-Men on DVD is 6 utils, but X-Men in the theatre is 8. Ok, but does that justify the 10-times-higher price tag? The UHD sure doesn’t think so.

Conspiracy Theory!

There’s also some clever marketing going on by the movie studios. Most of the movies made are crap. We tend to remember good things more than bad, but most movies are really, really bad. This is easily confirmed by just browsing Netflix for movies 26. Some friends and I recently spent about two hours scrolling and scanning through Netflix to find a movie to watch. We ended up just re-watching Arrested Development Season 1. The issue wasn’t a lack of options, it was a lack of good options. There just weren’t any. We looked at hundreds of movies and all of them were terrible. If we used movie studios’ previous product as an indicator of future quality, we’d almost always opt not to go see movies in the theatre because there’s just too much risk that the movie will be crap and we’ll waste $10. Waiting for the DVD gives us more time to get recommendations from other people who have seen it so we can decide whether it’s even worth seeing on DVD.

But movie studios have cleverly convinced us that we should set our expectations aside so we can enjoy the movie-going experience itself. 27 Of course, as discussed earlier, the movie theatre experience isn’t really much different than just watching the movie at home (there are a few exceptions). If we all had the appropriate level of expectations for movies, we would rarely go to the theatre because we would mostly be disappointed. But instead of just saving that cash and doing something with higher UHD, we buy into this idea that we should essentially forget all the crap they’ve fed us previously so that we can enjoy this current experience more.

Positive Reinforcement of Terrible Moviemaking

But it’s actually worse than that. By tricking ourselves into “liking” (and paying for) bad movies, we’re encouraging movie studios to make more bad movies. If I trick myself into paying $10 to see Zookeeper, then I just gave the movie studios $10 and a green light to start production on Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo. Now I have to trick myself into going to see that dud, too?

Not only am I tricking myself into spending a lot of money on a bad movie, but I’m feeding the movie making machine so that it continues to churn out garbage that I have to trick myself into overpaying for in the theatre next time. I’m essentially a recommendation engine whose recommendations are made in dollars. I’m saying, “Movie studios. I recommend that you make Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo! Here’s ten bucks to get you started!” When does it end?

It is ending

In many ways, this phenomenon is ending, if only subtly. There are myriad modern sources of recommendations that are almost forcibly removing our self-imposed myopia. For example, Rotten Tomatoes is a crowd-sourced recommendation engine that is almost impossible to ignore once you know it’s out there.

“Want to go see the new Zookeeper movie?”
“What’d it get on Rotten Tomatoes?”
“Eleven percent.”
“And how did the first one do on Rotten Tomatoes?”
Fourteen percent.”
“This one is worse than the first one? That’s pretty bad. I’ll pass.”

That’s what saving $10 and two hours sounds like. I have conversations like this one a couple times a month. On the flip-side, I often decide to go see a new movie specifically because Rotten Tomatoes rates it highly. For example, when I was in Vancouver last year, my friends and I went to see Drive because I saw it got something like 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. They had never heard of the movie, and I had only heard a little about it, but the Rotten Tomatoes score pushed me to recommend it to them. We also went to see The Help and Moneyball because of high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. All three movies ended up getting Oscar nominations 28 There were a few other movies that we skipped because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low.

Recommendations Engines are enabling us to make better decisions and making it more difficult to declare that we’re lowering our expectations to justify a trip to the theatre. It’s a lot easier to lower expectations when there’s some chance that the movie will be good despite the trailer or word-of-mouth buzz it’s been getting. But when thousands of people have already said it’s a bad movie and we know that, then it’s much harder to pretend it might be good.

The trick is that we, as consumers, have to listen to what so many other people are telling us through all the recommendations vehicles that are out there. When we start listening to others’ recommendations, we can set our expectations appropriately to maximize two of our scarcest resources: time and money.

SPECIAL THANKS

I put a lot of work into this piece, but I also got a lot of help from other people. Jason Killingsworth offered his editorial insight and sage advice to help make it better and more readable. Jason was also one of the first bloggers I read, so there’s a nice historical symmetry here. Danny Anderson did the final review before I published, and helped me figure out how to wrap it all up. Sean Nyffeler illustrated the piece (twice, actually: he did a draft, took some notes and re-did the illustration for the published version). Several other people were sounding boards who helped me refine the basic ideas over the past several months. Thanks to everyone who helped make this a better piece.

Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better? (3 of 3)

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

PREVIOUSLY, in Part 2: How we all use UHD to decide what to buy, and how we sometimes ignore UHD altogether. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

But this one goes to 11.

What we’re doing when we go see movies with deflated expectations is trying to trick ourselves into accepting the lower utility of the movie and ignoring the greater cost. Let’s say we go see the same bad movie we’ve talked about already, but we have “no expectations”, meaning we essentially expect the movie to be about 1 util of entertainment. That way, when we go to the movie and it’s 4 utils, we exceeded expectations! We practically created three utils out of thin air! Um, ok. But the problem is that the movie itself is still only 4 utils. It has to be because we have to put every other movie we’ve ever seen on the same scale. We can’t artificially inflate the number of utils to, say, 5 because what happens to those other movies that really were a 5? 1 This also reduces the perceived value of a 10 because we’re watering all of our other movie experiences down. So if we inflate the utility from a 4 to a 5, what we’re really doing is inflating the whole scale. Now it goes to 11. We have created UHD inflation.

A Delightful Food-Poisoning Analogy

It’s as though we have a friend who likes to cook. He says, “Hey everyone! Come over to my place and bring $5. I’ll cook something for all of us to eat. It’ll be delicious!” So we all go over there and bring five bucks. We eat the meal and it’s really freaking terrible. Half of us are disappointed and the other half are left with Oregon Trail flashbacks. A few weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer. We all decide to give it one more shot–maybe he just had a bad night, right?–and we head back over there with our five bucks. Same thing happens. Half of us are disappointed and the other half end up battling the dysentery. A couple weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer again. Would I go? Of course not. But what if I said, “You know what? I’m going back! I’ve learned that I just have to lower my expectations so I can really enjoy the food poisoning! I’m going to just assume it will kill me this time, or at least that it’ll ruin my digestive system for the next few days. It’s going to be terrible! I can’t wait!” I’m tricking myself into paying $5 for the privilege of being food-poisoned by my friend.

Ridiculous, right? How’s that any different than saying, “The trick to movies is that I just lower my expectations as much as possible. If I go in without expectations, I can’t be disappointed!” Well, kind of. But you’ll trick yourself out of $10 and you’ll waste time that you could’ve spent doing something cheaper and better.

What’s going on here?

So why do we trick ourselves into going to see bad movies in the theatre at 10 times the cost of the Redbox DVD? What’s really strange is we don’t do this with other stuff. If anything we tend to inflate our expectations, especially when it comes to music. I’ve heard friends totally pan a new album just because it didn’t live up to their expectations, which were far higher than they should’ve been. This happened with She & Him’s “Volume 2”. Many of my friends said they didn’t like it, and it was just more of the same from She & Him. Well, duh. They’re still She & Him and their first album was awesome. I’d say “Volume 1” was like 8 utils to me. I expected “Volume 2” to be about 8 utils. I think some of my friends expected it to somehow magically be 10 utils. Why? I have no idea. Turns out it was right about 8 utils (maybe slightly less, but it was really close). I ended up enjoying it a lot (and still listen to it regularly), whereas they ended up all disappointed and annoyed. Of course, they just did that to themselves.

So, with music, a lot of my friends do the opposite of this movie theatre trick–they inflate their expectations so they’re artificially disappointed when they hear a new album. 2 This is silly, but at least it makes some kind of sense: If we’re going to mess with expectations, we should manipulate the numbers so we tend to be less satisfied. That way, we’re basically tricking our future selves into spending less money. But this leaves us in an awkward place: we trick our future selves into spending more money on expensive stuff (movies at the theatre), and less money on cheap stuff (music). If we’re going to trick ourselves, we should be tricking ourselves so that we’re less satisfied with expensive stuff and more satisfied with cheaper stuff. At least that way we end up tricking our future selves avoiding the more expensive purchases on stuff we don’t like anyway. The UHD for music is almost always higher than it is for movies so, if anything, we should tend to “trick” ourselves into consuming more music and fewer movies in order to use our time and money more efficiently by consuming better stuff.

Why do we have it backwards? There could be a few explanations for this. Rather than trying to make sure we spend our money as efficiently as possible, we’re more focused on justifying expensive movies because they’re a cultural staple:

“Did you see the new X-Men movie?”
“No, I’m waiting for it on DVD.”
“Lame-o! Hey everybody! This guy’s super lame!”

It’s not cool to wait to watch movies on DVD. If I show up at the water cooler on Monday morning after a big release 3, nobody wants to hear anything I say if it starts with, “Well, I’m waiting for that one to be available on Netflix streaming.”

Sometimes there are benefits to seeing a movie in the theatre, especially action flicks. But we can account for that by bumping the utils for the movie just a little bit. Maybe X-Men on DVD is 6 utils, but X-Men in the theatre is 8. Ok, but does that justify the 10-times-higher price tag? The UHD sure doesn’t think so.

Conspiracy Theory!

There’s also some clever marketing going on by the movie studios. Most of the movies made are crap. We tend to remember good things more than bad, but most movies are really, really bad. This is easily confirmed by just browsing Netflix for movies 4. Some friends and I recently spent about two hours scrolling and scanning through Netflix to find a movie to watch. We ended up just re-watching Arrested Development Season 1. The issue wasn’t a lack of options, it was a lack of good options. There just weren’t any. We looked at hundreds of movies and all of them were terrible. If we used movie studios’ previous product as an indicator of future quality, we’d almost always opt not to go see movies in the theatre because there’s just too much risk that the movie will be crap and we’ll waste $10. Waiting for the DVD gives us more time to get recommendations from other people who have seen it so we can decide whether it’s even worth seeing on DVD.

But movie studios have cleverly convinced us that we should set our expectations aside so we can enjoy the movie-going experience itself. 5 Of course, as discussed earlier, the movie theatre experience isn’t really much different than just watching the movie at home (there are a few exceptions). If we all had the appropriate level of expectations for movies, we would rarely go to the theatre because we would mostly be disappointed. But instead of just saving that cash and doing something with higher UHD, we buy into this idea that we should essentially forget all the crap they’ve fed us previously so that we can enjoy this current experience more.

Positive Reinforcement of Terrible Moviemaking

But it’s actually worse than that. By tricking ourselves into “liking” (and paying for) bad movies, we’re encouraging movie studios to make more bad movies. If I trick myself into paying $10 to see Zookeeper, then I just gave the movie studios $10 and a green light to start production on Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo. Now I have to trick myself into going to see that dud, too?

Not only am I tricking myself into spending a lot of money on a bad movie, but I’m feeding the movie making machine so that it continues to churn out garbage that I have to trick myself into overpaying for in the theatre next time. I’m essentially a recommendation engine whose recommendations are made in dollars. I’m saying, “Movie studios. I recommend that you make Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo! Here’s ten bucks to get you started!” When does it end?

It is ending

In many ways, this phenomenon is ending, if only subtly. There are myriad modern sources of recommendations that are almost forcibly removing our self-imposed myopia. For example, Rotten Tomatoes is a crowd-sourced recommendation engine that is almost impossible to ignore once you know it’s out there.

“Want to go see the new Zookeeper movie?”
“What’d it get on Rotten Tomatoes?”
“Eleven percent.”
“And how did the first one do on Rotten Tomatoes?”
Fourteen percent.”
“This one is worse than the first one? That’s pretty bad. I’ll pass.”

That’s what saving $10 and two hours sounds like. I have conversations like this one a couple times a month. On the flip-side, I often decide to go see a new movie specifically because Rotten Tomatoes rates it highly. For example, when I was in Vancouver last year, my friends and I went to see Drive because I saw it got something like 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. They had never heard of the movie, and I had only heard a little about it, but the Rotten Tomatoes score pushed me to recommend it to them. We also went to see The Help and Moneyball because of high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. All three movies ended up getting Oscar nominations 6 There were a few other movies that we skipped because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low.

Recommendations Engines are enabling us to make better decisions and making it more difficult to declare that we’re lowering our expectations to justify a trip to the theatre. It’s a lot easier to lower expectations when there’s some chance that the movie will be good despite the trailer or word-of-mouth buzz it’s been getting. But when thousands of people have already said it’s a bad movie and we know that, then it’s much harder to pretend it might be good.

The trick is that we, as consumers, have to listen to what so many other people are telling us through all the recommendations vehicles that are out there. When we start listening to others’ recommendations, we can set our expectations appropriately to maximize two of our scarcest resources: time and money.

SPECIAL THANKS

I put a lot of work into this piece, but I also got a lot of help from other people. Jason Killingsworth offered his editorial insight and sage advice to help make it better and more readable. Jason was also one of the first bloggers I read, so there’s a nice historical symmetry here. Danny Anderson did the final review before I published, and helped me figure out how to wrap it all up. Sean Nyffeler illustrated the piece (twice, actually: he did a draft, took some notes and re-did the illustration for the published version). Several other people were sounding boards who helped me refine the basic ideas over the past several months. Thanks to everyone who helped make this a better piece.