#5: Evolving experiences
Vibe shifts and chasing dopamine
👋 Hi friends, it's Hesam with issue #5 of 4 bits. 4 bits is a biweekly newsletter where I share thoughts and musings on how to build memorable experiences.
One quick life update:
👦🏻 Visited my son's kindergarten class this week. I was asked to talk about my job. Rather than presenting, I had them do a 15 minute marshmallow challenge where the goal is to build the tallest tower using only spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow.
🗼 Kindergarteners outperform business school students on this challenge because they have a bias towards action. Business school students tend to think, think, then build. Kindergarteners think, build, think, build, repeat. I explained to the class that my job is to help my students become more like kindergarteners.
🤯 They were confused and asked why big people would want to become little people.
Fast-pace casual elegant Omakase dining experience, consisting of 12-courses in 30 minutes! 🍣🍣
When I saw this headline in the Instagram bio of a local sushi restaurant in Houston, my jaw dropped.
Like a flood, questions starting pouring into my head:
How dare they attack the sacred Omakase dining experience?
What does it mean to be both casual and elegant at the same time?
How can you have one course every 2.5 minutes?
Is this the McDonalds of sushi?
Sushi bars in Japan often don’t have menus, as Omakase, translated literally, means “I leave it up to you”.
An Omakase meal means putting your preconceptions about what to order aside. Let the chef decide for you. Omakase dishes contain the finest seasonal ingredients, with the chef occasionally making changes mid-course as they notice the guest’s reactions.
They’re literally watching you eat and adjusting in real time.
In Japan, these meals tend to last 45 minutes to an hour, while in the U.S. Omakase is considered an extended sushi dinner that can last more than two hours.
This time honored tradition had now been distilled into a 30 minute express meal.
The purist in me was appalled, but the experience designer in me was intrigued.
As I reflected further, a bigger question came to mind:
What does a 30 minute, 12 course meal signal about how our appetite for experiences has evolved?
Has social media and the endless abyss that is the Internet shortened our attention spans to the point that we don't want to sit for long, multiple course meals like we used to?
Meanwhile, one of the best restaurants in the world, Noma, has shuttered its doors. And while there's a question about whether these restaurants are unsustainable because of how they exploit aspiring chefs through unpaid apprenticeship programs, there's also the question of whether these experiences are going out of style.
Jeff Gordinier, reporting on the closure of Noma, says:
Part of what we’re witnessing right now is (to borrow a phrase from the kids) a vibe shift. Vibe shifts are baked into the natural order of things. (I interviewed David Bowie in 2002 and he was realistic about this. “The young have to kill the old,” he said. “The young, if they want to achieve their own platform, have to diminish the reputations of the ones that have gone before. That’s how life works.”) Styles of music and film and fashion come and go, rise and fall. Old systems break down. New generations lobby for change. It’s no different in the world of gastronomy.
The effort to dopamine ratio
How do you measure experiences?
Can you quantify what it felt like when you saw your favorite artist play live at a concert?
When you reconnected with a friend in person after having not seen them from years?
When you first set foot in a new city you had been dying to explore?
With each of these experiences, there's a rush of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone in your body; think of it as your vibe hormone.
When you have a great experience, your body releases a flood of dopamine into your system. You feel good, motivated, alert, and focused. At the extreme, you feel euphoric.
Our bodies crave dopamine. And companies have engineered products to play on this need.
When you swipe to pull down on that Twitter feed, you're hoping, even expecting, some news that will excite you. The anticipation starts the release of dopamine, and it's heightened even further when you see notifications.
There's even a multi-sensory experience in London called Dopamine Land.
Have we evolved into a culture that’s looking for the cheapest, fastest dopamine hit possible?
The vibe shift might be that we’re looking for low effort, high dopamine experiences. And the reality is that the dopamine rush you'd get from a 12 course, 3 hour meal isn't astronomically higher than the rush you'd get from a 12 course, 30 minute meal. The time constraint of 30 minutes might even create a sense of urgency that will further excite you.
But how does this affect us long-term and our “tolerance” for experiences?
I'm consciously thinking of how to balance the effort and reward of experiences I'm doing or building. Because if it’s too easy to get the reward, it cheapens the experience.
As you go about your day, notice when you’re “hacking the system”: getting a quick rush of dopamine with little effort. It’s those moments that are rewiring how we think about and select the experiences we explore.