What you see isn’t always what you get

The movie Waiting, starring Ryan Reynolds, is one of my favorite illustrations of a economics problem.

It’s set in a Chili’s-style restaurant and follows a new hire through his first day on the job as he meets all of the usual characters that inhabit such places.

Anyone with experience in restaurants will recognize all of these stereotypes.

There’s the hot hostess who is too young for anyone to hit on except the truly stupid.

The line cooks who are surly to the servers and spend all of their money on hot cars to get hot women.

There’s the older waitress who is bitter and bitchy in the backroom and nice as can be in front of customers.

There’s also the bumbling manager (the only one stupid enough to hit on the underage hostess) who has reached his station in life.

There’s the dishwasher, who is a burned-out professional just looking for a break from the rat-race.

Reynolds plays the cool guy who knows the scene well, always knows what to say, is well liked by all and has stayed too long in a transitional job because he’s comfortable with his competency. He’s charged with showing the new guy around.

I enjoyed the movie, but it also contains a great insight: the most obvious answer isn’t always the true answer.

One of the bits of restaurant culture the new hire is introduced to on his first day is the P…(rivates) Showing game.  You score points by getting folks to look at your privates, as you display it to them in different poses.

Near the end of the movie, the dishwasher explains to the new guy how he thinks the restaurant rebounded from nearly closing down to success.

A few months ago the restaurant was doing poorly and about to be closed. Corporate brought in a new manager.  The new manager hired a new line cook. The line cook brought the p___-showing game from a previous job. That game made work fun for the staff and helped build camaraderie among the workers.

The new enthusiasm and teamwork translated in better service and better service resulted in more customers and the restaurant turned the corner and became successful.

The dishwasher explained that corporate thinks the new manager turned the place around and will promote him, but he’s really just an idiot who got lucky by hiring a line cook who brought in a game the workers found enjoyable.

Maybe the dishwasher was right, maybe not.

He certainly was right that the manager shouldn’t get full credit. But, he did hire the line cook. He might deserve some credit for that.

He got lucky. He didn’t hire the line cook because of his game. He had no idea the larger impact that cook would have on the success of the restaurant. I’m guessing that even the line cook doesn’t know. He was just wanting to make work more fun.

The bumbling manager might get found out when he does get promoted. Or, maybe he will get lucky again.

I give that silly movie a lot credit for inspiring me to look past the obvious answers to try to find the real cause of success or failure.

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