On a recent trip to New York I was standing in an Italian pastry shop debating between two kinds of cookies. Not a very important decision, but a decision nonetheless. It was down to the lemon gingerbread or the chocolate sprinkles. Since I really couldn’t choose, I decided to ask the guy behind the counter for his opinion. I told him which two I was considering, and then added: “Is the lemon gingerbread popular?”
He gave me a blank stare, then replied: “The lemon gingerbread is good, I wouldn’t say it’s popular. But why does that matter?”
Hmm. SUCH a good point! I had committed one of the common sins of preferences. Asking if something is popular is not always a good indication of whether it’s good. Something could be really popular… but everyone who orders it has different taste than you. Or maybe it’s popular because it’s the first thing on the menu. Or perhaps everyone else who goes to that restaurant read the same review and only tries whatever happened to be reviewed. That actually happened to me in a gelato shop in Italy. The server told me that the majority of people who came to his store ordered the cinnamon and the pistachio- even though they weren’t the best flavors. He said he couldn’t figure it out. I solved his mystery in a jiffy: Rick Steves had recommended the store in one of his books, and had specifically mentioned those two flavors. Rick’s word is like gospel to many, so tourists simply ordered what they had been told to get!
But, even though I too respect the word of Rick Steves, I understand that guidebooks are not gospel. And I realize that following what’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean I personally will be satisfied. I once saw a poster that said “what is popular isn’t always right, and what is right isn’t always popular.” I’m pretty sure that sign applied to moral situations and not cookies… but hey, always a good lesson. My lemon gingerbread snafu reminded me that relying on others’ preferences to order makes no sense unless you screen for someone with similar tastes. And, applied more broadly, doing something because others do it that way makes very little sense unless you screen for people with either your same beliefs or your aspirational beliefs. Not an incredibly meaningful impact when you’re picking a cookie- but sort of a big deal to remember when you’re making life choices, don’t you think?
Oh and in case you’re wondering- I did get the lemon gingerbread. Good decision.