Fyre Festival

Fyre Festival: A Mentalist’s Perspective

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of the now infamous Fyre Festival. A joint venture with Ja Rule and delusional serial entrepreneur Billy McFarland, the music festival was created as PR for the Fyre music app, but quickly went up in flames through a variety of frauds and deceptions. 

Promised luxury oceanfront villas and expertly crafted meals on a private island, concert-goers instead arrived to FEMA tents, wet mattresses, boxed sandwiches, and no music. The festival was promptly canceled and guests were sent home, but not before the damage was done. If you haven’t already, check out either of the documentaries streaming on Netflix and Hulu. They each provide a slightly different angle on the downfall of the festival.

As a mentalist, I couldn’t help but to consider the psychology behind the team trying to assemble this. Enter the Dunning-Kruger effect, one of the dozens of cognitive biases that seem to universally affect our decisions (learn more about cognitive biases). As described in a 2014 paper, the Dunning-Kruger effect “suggests that poor performers are not in a position to recognize the shortcomings in their performance.” In other words, those who are completely incompetent at a skill tend to know so little that they don’t have a realistic baseline for what their knowledge should be. This can be dangerous because it leads to reckless decisions based on overestimated abilities. 

A graphical depiction of the
Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a 1999 paper entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Kruger and Dunning created a series of tests based on humor, language, and logic. As suspected, those who scored in the bottom 25% overrated their skills by much more than their peers, and those who scored the highest (experts) tended to slightly underrate their skills (part of why successful, qualified leaders don’t pretend that they have all the answers).

The Fyre team set out to create an incredible experience from the beginning, but nobody knew what they were doing. That wouldn’t have been as problematic except that they didn’t seem to realize how over their heads they were. In particular, Grant Margolin (Fyre’s CMO) seemed to ignore advice from those with far more experience. A few great Grant quotes from the documentary:

  • “Let’s just do it and be legends!”
  • “I’m not a perfectionist, but everything needs to be perfect.”
  • “I’m a marketing prodigy!”
  • “I asked for sushi chefs!!” (after the food budget was cut from $6 mil to $1 mil.)

We’ve all heard the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  In this case, Margolin operated under an assumption that his talents far surpassed his actual abilities. 

I’ve seen the same with mentalists and illusionists who have come to me with requests for advice on their programs. Too often, they don’t have enough performance time under their belts and their show needs a heavy amount of lifting to make it viable. After giving helpful thoughts, the comments are nearly always a defense of why they don’t want to change. And yet they wonder why their careers aren’t going in the direction they would like. You may have found the same problems interacting with both staff and other executives at your workplace.

A takeaway for all of us is to assume that there are always those who know more than we do. There is a fine line between being a visionary and being a fool, and the Fyre Festival should serve as a reminder to show humility in our cognitive self-assessments. You will become a better leader by thinking like an expert, not by pretending that you are one.

Kevin Viner
Kevin Viner

I'm a professional mentalist who travels the world performing. Beyond my profession, my interests include writing music, guitar, aviation, martial arts, and mathematics.

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  1. Thank you for your sage thoughts Kevin. The first place where I see this phenomenon is happening in spades is in Congress. Sad.

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