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Magical thinking all around us

Beware of big dreamers who don’t sweat the details

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When Billy McFarland, CEO of Fyre Media Inc., developed the Fyre app as a tool for booking music acts, he dreamed up a doozy of a promotion with rapper Ja Rule: Fyre Festival 2017, two weekends of sun, fun, and rock ’n’ roll on Norman’s Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. A promotional video of bikini models and speedboats promised an experience “on the boundaries of the impossible.”

The promoters didn’t recognize the boundaries of the impossible, because neither had ever staged a festival. False advertising forced a change of venue from Norman’s Cay to a parking lot on another island. That eliminated the luxury accommodations. Other oversights, dominated by wishful thinking, eliminated the gourmet meals and most of the rock ’n’ roll. Attendees who had unwisely ponied up thousands for the party got instead a windswept parking lot, along with soggy sandwiches, FEMA tents, and torrential rain. Billy McFarland got six years.

Fyre Fest—“the greatest party that never happened”—became the subject of two documentaries and ranks as a metaphor right up there with dumpster fire, train wreck, and epic fail. Another public event, less drastic but more consequential, might achieve similar status: the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

Bernie Sanders seems to think he can materialize his socialist dream by yelling about it.

It too began with an app, or at least it ended with one—an app developed in just two months and introduced without adequate instruction or testing. That lack of care churned the kickoff event of the 2020 presidential campaign to a soggy mess. The hardworking farmers and small-town tradesmen of Iowa, who take seriously their role as the nation’s electoral bellwether, are not to blame. It was the Iowa Democratic Party and the app developer (ominously named Shadow Inc.) who failed in their due diligence. But there’s another shadowy cause, and that is the widespread slippage of base-level competence.

Incompetence has always been a human failing, conspicuous at the highest levels of leadership. It may be due to promotion beyond ability, or ignorance, or just plain laziness. Or another reason that might be called an abundance of magical thinking. Magical thinking is a term used by psychologists to describe the tendency of very young children to believe that their thoughts affect the outside world. Wishing Mom and Dad would stop fighting, for example, could burden a child with unreasonable guilt if Mom and Dad end the fights by getting a divorce. Magical thinking is a kind of solipsism that kids generally grow out of. An adult consumed by such illusions is called schizophrenic.

Unless he or she is a candidate for president. Elaborate promises are nothing new in political campaigns, but the size and scope of this year’s Democratic vision is breathtaking. Even when the more moderate candidates suggest scaling back plans to overhaul the health system or eliminate poverty, Elizabeth Warren chides the naysayers for failing to “Dream Big.” “Big” must mean canceling the Constitution, which would have to be Step One of achieving her to-do list for the first day in office. Bernie Sanders seems to think he can materialize his socialist dream by yelling about it.

Beware of magical thinking on both sides this election cycle, but dreamers abound everywhere. “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it,” said everybody from Muhammad Ali to your kindergarten teacher. They never add that somewhere between Believe and Achieve is a lot of stuff: planning, coordinating, hard work, setbacks, tedium, failures, and thousands of details. Since we don’t dream in details, the gaps between here and there are too readily filled with magical thinking. And that leads to last-minute sloppiness and long-term incompetence.

Yet we serve a God who is not only supremely competent but a master of detail, from the design of a butterfly’s wing to the order of the cosmos. While tending to the details of ordinary life, we can still Dream Big, as long as our dreams are compatible with His.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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