Jeremiah Rogers

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Hamburger Defaults

Shanghai, China

Do you have a default order when you eat in a restaurant? I do and it is a hamburger.

Why a hamburger?

  1. A hamburger is always one of the cheapest things on the menu.
  2. A hamburger is hard to ruin. If in the worst case it is ruined, at least it was cheap.
  3. A hamburger is rarely fantastic and if it is I’m delighted.
  4. Ordering a hamburger lets me focus my energy on the things that matter. Knowing my order as soon as I arrive lets me spend more time hanging out with friends and less time reading a menu.

In more abstract terms this tells you that I’m frugal and favor basic things. Having a hamburger as my default keeps expectations low. If my default order were lobster or an aged ribeye steak I would often be upset: those foods are expensive and hard to cook well. Since my default order is a hamburger I have a good idea of what to expect: how it will be presented, that it will come with fries, how it will taste, and how filling it will be. The hamburger is a part of American culture and everyone understands what it should be.

We tend to make eating out expensive because we consider it a treat, but eating out doesn’t need to be a treat. Eating out does not need to change anything other than where you eat and who does the cooking. This is also how traveling can be cheaper than living at home: I live in a different city every few days, all expenses included, for less than I was paying just to rent my studio in San Francisco. I do this by keeping cheap defaults.

My “hamburger defaults” have slowly crept into other parts of my life. I used to stay in hotels until I realized that I was almost always unhappy with the experience. Hotels are expensive at the base and on top of that they charge you at every turn. Now I mostly stay in hostels: hostels are dirt cheap, high quality, and they throw in a bunch of free extras like wifi, cheap restaurants, and free information about the area. Hostels are so cheap that they almost always exceed my expectations.

Most of my possessions, which all fit in a backpack, are simple. I have a basic $200 Android phone made for the developing world, the cheapest laptop Apple makes, one pair of pants and two shirts. For the things that aren’t an important part of my life I have cheap, satisfactory defaults. For the things that matter I spend what it takes, which is why I carry a very nice camera. Cheap defaults lets me focus energy only on the things that matter.

This can apply to the non-traveler life too. I like cheap, well made cars. When in the US I shop almost exclusively at Costco and Amazon where the prices are low and the service is fantastic. I think about the things that don’t matter to me much and come up with defaults choices I’m happy with. If I find a pair of shoes I love I buy a second pair before the first ones wear out 1.

A final note is that my default restaurant order changes with the culture. There are some fantastic burger shops in Asia, but they generally charge twice as much for American food as for local food. In Thailand my default order is tom yam noodles, in Japan it’s pork ramen, in Cambodia it’s beef lok lak. These dishes are such staples of the culture that everyone will know how to cook them well, how to cook them cheaply, and you’ll get close to the same food in every restaurant.

Photo at the top is of a man riding at night through the French Concession in Shanghai.

  1. Wearing two pairs identical of shoes on alternate days lets one pair air out and makes both pairs last longer. [return]