Don't Eat the Wish Sandwich

Don’t Eat the Wish Sandwich

“Have you ever heard of a wish sandwich? A wish sandwich is the kind of a sandwich where you have two slices of bread and you, hee hee hee, wish you had some meat…” (The Blues Brothers, Rubber Biscuit)

In his memoir, actor Rob Lowe credits Austin Powers and Wayne’s World creator Mike Myers with using “wish sandwich” to describe poor choices we all make driven by hyper-optimistic, hopeful, and ultimately self-delusional reasoning.

Think of a “wish sandwich” as an opportunity that has compelling elements, but is doomed by either a missing ingredient, or a damning flaw that cannot be overcome. The absent element, or the flaw pushes the opportunity beyond an acceptable or rational risk.

Have you ever moved past a failure or disappointment and thought “I really should have known better,” or “I should have seen that coming from a mile away?” Assuming this sounds familiar –  you put it behind you, live and learn, and try to avoid repeating similar mistakes going forward.

Why am I Writing About This?

An article in The Information got me thinking about a current batch of high profile free-agent tech executives, and which of their recent career choices were big, fat wish sandwiches (Yahoo!, Twitter, Vessel…).  Even in the cases where these executives made a lot of money, their career moves did not elevate them as executives.

Big jobs and corporate acquisitions are often driven by an appetite for wish sandwiches (AOL+Time Warner?, Verizon+Yahoo!, Yahoo! + Tumblr and many, many more). Wisdom requires balance and perspective — in these cases, insight into our tendency to see the world the way we want it to be, despite evidence of what it really is.

At the same time, I am not advocating inaction or risk aversion. If you never take risks and never fail, you will miss out on a lot of opportunity. Taking risks make sense and success is impossible without failure.

So what can guide us? How do we recognize the difference between a worthwhile risk and a wish sandwich?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use your experience: Examine your past. Recognize the times you ate the sandwich and reflect on your reasoning. Maintain the self awareness to recognize your tendencies and weaknesses for future choices.
  • Do the hard work. Perform your due diligence and gain the knowledge and perspective you need.
  • Start with your wish and evaluate backward. As part of the hard work, start by writing out the “outcome” you wish for. Then work backward and list out all of the things that have to happen for that outcome to be realized. Assign a % chance to each thing happening and make sure to link the events that are dependent on each other. Finally, write out the consequences of each thing not happening.
  • Account for opportunity cost. Even if a wish sandwich seems like your best choice, be aware that making one choice will occupy your time and energy and cut off other possibilities that could soon emerge.
  • Be patient. (Steve Jobs reference alert). As aggressive and impatient as Steve Jobs was about achieving the impossible by casting his famous reality distortion field and driving employees to their limit, he also waited until he felt the market timing was right for his innovations. he seemed to get better at this over time.
  • Accept that you will still eat a wish sandwich. Because you are not perfect, when you do eat a wish sandwich, recognize it asap, mitigate the damage, and if at all possible, move on. Warren Buffett is quoted as saying “Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be a more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

The best boss I’ve had in my career, after a disappointment, told me to process and learn, but get over it quickly. “We look forward, we don’t look back” he said.  His advice has become a core part of my emotional business IQ.

Back to Rob Lowe

Lowe‘s “wish sandwich story” is about his choice star in the short lived CBS drama “Dr. Vegas” over ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Both debuted in around 2005.

Lowe made this choice despite the clearly superior Grey’s script and concept. In “Dr. Vegas” he says he “chose a ‘vision,’ a ‘promise’ of what could and should be, ‘potential’ and ‘hope,’ something I ‘wished’ to transform into something better, and swallowed it whole.”

What emotion/logic equation drove Rob Lowe to pick a clear fixer-upper over a high potential script?

It started with Lowe’s admiration of FX’s Nip/Tuck — a genre bending medical drama centered on two plastic surgeons practicing together in Miami (and later LA). Debuting in 2003, Nip Tuck was an early example of the current “golden age” of cable TV.

Nip/Tuck was in the leading edge of a generation of character focused, edgy, darkly funny cable dramas that includes Breaking Bad and The Americans and The Walking Dead.

Lowe was especially drawn to the portrayal of the narcissistic, womanizing Dr. Christian Troy. Christian’s combination of confidence, arrogance, aggressiveness, self-loathing, and vulnerability (driven by a traumatic backstory) created a complex and captivating character.

Lowe liked the series and character so much that he arranged a meeting with its creator Ryan Murphy. Over lunch, he learned that Murphy had written Christian for him. Murphy even confessed he had a picture of Lowe by his computer as he created the show.

It turned out, the opportunity was screened and declined by Lowe’s agent without him ever seeing the script. Lowe’s feeling of missing out and his desire to stretch for this kind of role and series whet his appetite for a “wish sandwich.”

Contributing to his excitement were personal phone calls from TV legend Les Moonves, head of CBS, who wanted Lowe to star in Dr. Vegas. In the show, Lowe would star as Dr. Billy Grant — the in-house doctor at a high-end casino. (a little funny that Lowe was aiming for much more depth and complexity than another character he played named Billy in St. Elmo’s Fire).

Lowe knew the script was weak, but hoped and wished he could transformthe show into his version of Nip Tuck. He envisioned contemporary, edgy stories that included real people — not just a focus on money, cheesy sex appeal, and “glitz.”

Then came a pivotal choice. Before his commitment to Mr. Vegas, ABC approached Lowe for the role of Dr. Shepherd Grey’s Anatomy (eventually played by Patrick Dempsey). Despite a clearly stronger script and concept, Lowe chose Dr. Vegas.

The difference between his Dr. Vegas wish and reality revealed itself quickly. Despite star power, which included Lowe, Amy Adams (pre-Junebug/post Catch Me If You Can), Joe Pantoliono, and Tom Sizemore (pre celebrity rehab); Despite “good people” and “good intentions;” Lowe describes the end product as “cutesy”, “faux sexy”, and “devoid of danger” — the opposite of Nip Tuck.

Dr. Vegas was cancelled after ten episodes. Grey’s Anatomy is well into its second decade.

Lowe notes that the first half of a one-hour drama’s audience ratings reflect interest in the stars and premise, while the second half reflects engagement in the story. With Dr. Vegas the drop-off was clear. Game over, But clearly Lowe moved on quickly with many meaningful subsequent roles. He has a resilient character.

Resilience is a crucial character quality for success. Lowe says the key to success in show business is to move forward quickly following both failure, and success. This lesson applies well to any industry or career.

As you’ve been reading this, you’ve no doubt been thinking of the wish sandwiches you’ve eaten.  Look before you leap – as Elvis Costello sings, look into the Deep Dark Truthful Mirror – lest you end up as the next Dr. Vegas.