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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Opinion Addiction
multiple opinions

Multiple opinions are often worth the same as a 100% share in nothing

There's an old joke I used to hear as a kid that went something like this.  Put three Jews in a room and you'll wind up with four opinions.    Today, that joke sounds a tad anti-semitic and dated.  The three people in the room don't have to be Jews and would now lead to fourteen opinions.

Human beings are creatures of opinion.  We love to give them and we love to receive them, with the hidden proviso that the opinion be what we want to hear.  How else to explain people's addictions to visiting psychics?   We pay the psychic money so that the psychic can, ideally, tell us exactly what we want to be told.  If it were the norm to be told we had a year to live, we were going to get fired, our spouse was cheating on us, I doubt people would be in a rush to hear about their futures. 

Back when I lived in California and was reading lots of screenplay books and attending screenplay seminars, I remember one pundit's advice.  He said that after you finished your screenplay, you should give it to ten people you trusted and get their opinions.  If the same suggestions kept coming up, then there was probably something to them.  And when three of the ten thought your screenplay well polished, only then were you ready to submit to the professionals.  This guru must've changed his mind about that in the intervening decade.  I now see up on his own web site that you can submit your screenplay directly to him, and he'll evaluate it -- for USD 2,500.  Maybe he is onto something.  Depending on the subject opined upon, one opinion by a true expert is easily worth more than the opinions of ten laymen.   I still don't think it's worth USD 2,500 for this guy's opinion, but I'll delve into that issue a little bit later. 

There's a difference between obtaining market research and getting opinions that count.  When gathering market research about a new product or service, it can pay to speak to plenty of potential customers in the target market in order to find out what features might be desired, omitted, or improved.  But this consensus opinion approach doesn't always work.  It's become common in the last decade and a half for movie producers to conduct screenings of their films before release to see how audiences will react.  Some films are shot with multiple endings, and the ending which gets the best response in focus groups is the one used in the final print.  But the ending people think they want isn't always the most appropriate ending for the story or best for the film as a whole.  Had J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, conducted market research in advance in order to decide what events to include in the later novels, I think we'd all agree that the final product would've been inferior.

Too many cooks really do spoil the broth.  All the cooks could be world class chefs, too.  Each has his own opinion of how the broth should taste and when you mix all those opinions together you get something tasting damned near awful.

In real life you don't need ten cooks.  You just need one, a person whose recipes you trust.  The author Stephen King has his wife proofread his novels, not one hundred potential readers.  My brother recommending me a restaurant, a movie, or a book is a more accurate recommendation than me going online and looking up consensus averages on these prospects. 

Here's why.

If the product or service in question is a utilitarian one, such as a blender or a garlic press, it's quite easy to judge it.  Does the contraption do what it's supposed to do, well enough and at a decent price? The judge's personal preferences and experience have little bearing on the review.  Anyone can assess its value, no expert required.  But when an opinion is required on something more time-consuming and complicated to assess, the consensus opinion approach breaks down rather quickly. 

Take a camera or a printer.  If you examine average reviews at sites like Amazon, the opinions will skew towards the extreme positive or negative.  People either say the device works as it's meant to or that it doesn't.  Averaging all their opinions together is near worthless.  The mass of people writing such reviews are not experts; they have very little experience to compare what they're using with other competing products.   One user can say he's extremely satisfied with his Canon printer or camera and give it an excellent review.   But had he purchased a Sony printer or camera instead which also worked satisfactorily, he would've given that other device the identical rating.  One real expert in this case, who's used and sampled many similar devices and knows what to look for, is worth more than thousands of posted opinions.      

This applies especially to book reviews.  Reading a book is a relatively time-consuming task.  People usually won't pick up a book unless they have some idea ahead of time that they'll like it.  As a result, the average reviews on most books skew high.  As long as the book doesn't seriously disappoint, it'll get a decent review because the reviewers were already predisposed to it.  Movies, on the other hand, involve just a short investment of time, so skewing is less likely.  The site I consult regularly for movie ratings averages together all the reviewers' assessments, although this site, unlike Amazon, only lists reviews written by professional critics, giving it more credibility.      

But that fact doesn't negate my original thesis, that only one or, at most, a few expert opinions are required to assess whether something is worth your consideration. Even with movie reviews, there are one or two reviewers I could limit myself to on a regular basis to get an accurate snapshot for me of a movie.  The marketplace today is very crowded with products and services.  We rely on others to distill down those vast choices.  Over time we assemble our own list of people and web sites who've provided us in the past with enough recommendations suitable to our tastes to be able to trust them with future recommendations as well. My brother can provide me with credible recommendations for most things because our tastes have proven over years to be similar.  We have similar interests, eat similar foods, have undergone similar experiences.  Amazon provides a feature on their site where they recommend books of interest based on what other buyers with similar past purchasing patterns to yours have bought. 

But if someone or some site has no idea what your tastes are, they are in no position to offer an opinion.  I could never figure out why people at restaurants ask the waiter what he recommends, and why the waiter immediately offers a recommendation.   It's a different story to remark to the waiter, "Excuse me, sir. I'm a vegetarian.  What do you recommend?"   You're essentially asking the waiter to recommend the chef's best vegetarian dishes.  But when no information is proffered to the queried, his answer is like visiting Amazon for the very first time and being advised to buy a certain album or book or vacuum cleaner.  The information is worthless without any of your particulars.  

Five years ago, I completed work on a trilogy of books I'm still very proud of.  I knew they required some editing and rewriting, but the overall ideas and story, I felt, were intact.  I've since re-read them and agree with that original assessment.  Since I had no trusted person who was willing to read the books in their entirety to offer me opinions I could take seriously, I sent out excerpts of the books based upon my judgments alone.  Most agents sent back form letter rejection notices.  Only one wrote back a halfway personal letter (I now think it was a just a modified form letter) suggesting I hire his brother-in-law, a freelance editor, who could, for an hourly fee, read the books and provide me his opinions.  I threw the letter in the trash with no regrets.  Why?   Because there are no shortage of people willing to offer their opinions for a charge (or even for free!!!!) when they haven't yet qualified themselves to offer any. 

Those who've become ultra successful in their fields had coaches who helped them along, provided them with opinions, advice, support.  Top athletes like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer continue to have coaches whom they pay a very substantial sum.  Here's the difference.  Those top coaches already had insights into their clients' strengths and weaknesses.  They had solid track records of helping other professionals.  They were prequalified as being coaches with opinions relevant to the athlete's current achievement level and continued success. 

How had this freelance editor done any of that for me?  To him I was just another paying gig.  This editor would have taken on anyone willing to pay his hourly rate. I could be semi literate, mentally retarded, a terrible writer.  As long as I paid, he'd play along.   Rewriting a book is serious work.  Unless I had complete faith that the editor had complete faith in my abilities and felt he could steer them into a productive and profitable path, it was not a task I felt very confident embarking upon . . . with him.

That is why I wouldn't recommend paying that screenwriting guru $2,500 to assess a screenplay.  It's not out of lack of trust in his abilities.  It's out of a lack of trust in the submitter's.  I am sure this screenplay critic could find plot and character holes and offer a decent opinion to improve any screenplay.  But what if the screenplay isn't very good to begin with?   I would guess that most screenplays submitted to him aren't, which is why he charges a high submission price, to at least discourage the lowest of the low from submitting.  Since he has no prequalification process for submissions, I've got to question how many of the screenplays he critiques ever become saleable.  The $2,500 is, thus, a poor investment for most.  The average aspiring screenwriter may be in need of some expert's opinion, just not currently in need of this expert's opinion.   

It's little different than me seeking out Tiger Woods' former personal golf coach, Butch Harmon, for instruction.  In 2005, Harmon charged $500/hour.   With Harmon's credentials, there is no doubt he could offer valuable opinions to any aspiring golfer.  And if I were already on the Forbes 400 rich list with money burning a hole in my pocket, why not hire him?  But for most people with golfing abilities as rudimentary as my own, are they really going to see a huge difference after a couple lessons hiring the $500/hr coach over the $50/hr one?  You have to learn how to walk before you can learn how to run.    If I'm going to pay someone for an opinion, I'd like to pay the lowest price necessary to get the expertise relevant to my personal needs at this moment in time.  Anything more than that is an extravagance.

And let's not lose sight of one thing.  Whether I pay $2,500 to that screenwriting guru or $300 to a lesser known one, whether I hire Butch Harmon for $500+ per hour or a local golf pro for $30, I only hire one expert for his opinion at one time.  I don't submit my screenplay to ten screenwriting editors or hire ten golf coaches simultaneously.  You don't need that many opinions.   You'll find either that multiple opinions converge so often as to be superfluous or differ so much as to be worthless. 

Some pop sage once said, "Opinions are like assholes.  Everybody's got one and everyone thinks everyone else's stink." If opinions are really like assholes, being in possession of too many could stink up your entire life. 

Collect with care, from only reliable sources. 

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