Go VIP in Your Mind

From Tao Dan Park in Saigon

If you travel or live in Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia you’re likely to be pitched a lot of “VIP” services – VIP bus or train rides, tours, hotel rooms and the like. These propositions always get my eyes rolling and when you find yourself in this situation I recommend that you be highly skeptical.

At least in this part of the world, VIP offerings are not premium luxury services at all. VIP (and similar labels like “Executive”, “First Class” and “Luxury”) are used to massage the ego of the potential customer and get him to part with more of his money. (I don’t want to push gender differences too much but with their focus on status and rank I do think that, generally speaking, men are more susceptible to this sort of strategy.)

If the labels were more honest they would be something like this (in the case of a bus trip):

“Comfort bus”

Translation: Almost unbearably cramped and uncomfortable. There’s no AC and your body is tightly squeezed between your fellow sweaty passengers. Three chickens are squawking loudly and there may even be a goat in the back somewhere, with all the attendant smells.

“VIP bus”

Translation: Bearable, to the extent that an economy seat on a long haul flight is bearable. The type of seat, amount of space, level of service and food is similar.

Of course, names like “Bearable Bus Ride” or “Tolerable Tour” aren’t going to get tickets flying out the door so you’ll be sold a lot of “VIP” or “Executive” services instead.

As a resident of Saigon, the most common VIP pitch I get is at my favorite spa, where for most of my first year in the city the receptionist eagerly tried to sell me the VIP room (bigger room, bigger table, more ornate decor). These offers always annoyed me a bit as I dislike sales pitches and never choose the VIP room. Mercifully after months of this they finally stopped and started giving me the regular room without any upsell or fuss.

I find VIP spa rooms pointless for a very simple reason – the point of a spa visit is to close your eyes, relax and enjoy the different treatments you’ve selected. Who cares how big the room is? Or how nice the paintings on the wall are? Customers of the “full-bodied and fabulous” variety (what’s the latest polite euphemism for obese over there in the States?) might find some appeal in the larger table, depending of course on how “full-bodied” and how “fabulous” they are. But in spite of an alarming potato chip addiction that’s not among my problems. I just don’t get the point of a “VIP” room at the spa! 

If we really think about it, how much we enjoy a spa visit has very little to do with the size of the room, the spa table or the decor. On the other hand, I think our enjoyment of this or any potentially pleasurable experience depends a great deal on how the experience plays out in our minds. In other words, how we think and feel about it.

So the truly meaningful way to enhance an experience like this is to upgrade it in our minds. What exactly does this mean? How can we upgrade a life experience in our minds?

For me at least, by far the biggest factor in how much I enjoy this sort of experience is how much I remain in the moment and savor it (and not let my mind wander around and think about other things). If I jump on some runaway train of thought, the spa treatment is still going on in the background and, like cool music in a bar, definitely contributes something to the enjoyment of that time, but I’m not really savoring the experience as I should be. I’m a poster child for this bad habit but I don’t think I’m alone.

With spa visits – or any good experience in life – isn’t it better to stay in the moment and savor the experience? In fact, wouldn’t letting ourselves enjoy that time to the fullest be a much more pleasurable upgrade than a bigger room or prettier paintings on the wall? In other words, I’m suggesting that we pass on the cheesy VIP upsell and go lux in our minds.

I think there’s another important way in which experiences like this can be enhanced internally, by the way our minds think about them, and that’s through a spirit of gratitude. I sometimes catch myself evaluating a service or any sort of experience in real time, going through its strengths and weaknesses in my mind. More and more though I’m coming to realize how unhelpful this is, and how much it gets in the way of enjoying an experience. When I do this throughout an experience I give myself the worst kind of downgrade.

I’m always much happier with any experience when I stop to be grateful for it rather than critique it in my mind so more and more I’m making a point of doing that.  “Wow! This is #$%@ing awesome! It’s 2 pm and I’m enjoying this incredible spa treatment instead of working in some office. For the second time this week!” (By the way, this 4-star spa in Saigon costs $20 USD for a visit so please don’t imagine I’m some big spending high-roller.)

I think the spa is a particularly good example of the value of upgrading an experience in our minds, but if we think about it many or most life experiences are like this. The easiest and possibly most rewarding upgrade of all is to improve how we think and feel about life’s experiences.

Take an Uber ride, for example. Here in Saigon, when I need to go somewhere that’s too far to walk, I use Uber almost exclusively. I find the economy Uber X service completely adequate and generally choose that but sometimes a luxury Uber Black car arrives. This is a lot like getting a free upgrade to Business Class but here it’s done by algorithms on the company’s servers (rather than by the airline checkin staff who liked your look). This is of course an actual physical upgrade and when an Uber Black car shows up I’m definitely very stoked (and free flight upgrades are of course an even bigger cause for celebration). And unlike the spa, where I fail to see the point of a bigger room, I do think there are some clear advantages to the premium service (significantly more leg room, a nicer interior etc.).

But with an Uber ride as well (or almost any life experience where you can choose different classes of service or levels of material comfort), I’d like to suggest that the most pleasurable potential upgrade is one we can do in our minds. With the spa and other treats in life, I advocated for staying in the moment and savoring the experience. Of course “savoring” may be a bit of a high bar for an Uber ride, especially in urban Southeast Asia, which can be a bit gritty and smog-filled. But if we think about it, almost everything we experience in this world has a positive or negative valence and our own minds do so much to determine where it falls on the pleasure-pain continuum.

An Uber ride or any everyday life experience isn’t inherently awesome, ordinary or miserable. Our minds make them that way. There are more and less helpful ways to let an experience play out in our minds, and self-awareness and good choices can add to our enjoyment even more than a surprise upgrade to Uber Black.

In Saigon, for example, by far the biggest potential obstacle to a pleasant (or at least pain-free) Uber ride is the traffic. I’ve noticed that for rides within the central area during rush hour it’s almost always much faster to walk, and I’ve actually stopped using Uber at peak times for any trip shorter than about 2 km. Heavy rain of course makes walking less attractive, but then again this slows down Saigon traffic even more, so even in the rain I’m inclined to put on some ugly, practical shoes and walk. At any time of day Saigon traffic can be a pain though and this is probably the easiest way to suffer during an Uber ride.

There are helpful and unhelpful ways to be stuck in slow moving traffic though, and I think this is particularly true with Uber (or in a similar service or a taxi) where it’s not our job to negotiate the traffic. And I think that self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings and, where appropriate, better choices have a far larger impact on our enjoyment of that time than Uber X vs. Uber Black.

At worst we can of course feel extreme irritation in this situation and shake our fist at the heavens and curse the gods for condemning us to this experience, all the while texting out regular updates to whoever is waiting for us (“Hey, I’m still stuck in traffic 😭. Fucking Uber! I should have walked!”). I’ve probably done this more than anyone but more and more I’m really starting to appreciate how unhelpful it is. Inside our minds, we’ve added something that’s actually much worse than the traffic jam outside the car – a lot of emotional agony, which of course does nothing to make the river of cars and motorbikes start to flow.

Simply noting the delay in our minds (and perhaps sending a single text to our friend, spouse or whoever we’re meeting) is not just a much better way. If we think for a moment it’s really the only sane choice. Unless you happen to be part of a motorcade shuttling the president of the United States around a chronically traffic choked Southeast Asian city, there is absolutely no way to get the car to go faster! And the irritation we’ve invited into our minds has of course made us feel worse. To my mind, when we do this we’ve downgraded the experience far more than going with a Kia instead of a Lexus.

For me one of the many cool things about Uber is that I’m not in charge of the driving. Motorbiking around Bali, the mountains in the north of Vietnam, Goa and other beautiful places in this world is one of my great pleasures and I’ve written a few blog posts about this sort of experience. But in Saigon, Bangkok and other large Southeast Asian cities, driving is more of a Darwinian struggle to survive and get to your destination than a pleasurable activity.

In the back seat of an Uber though, with a cool Spotify playlist playing in my earbuds, fighting the other drivers through slow-moving Saigon traffic is not my problem (and for this reason alone I have no plans to ever drive in Saigon or any large city in the developing world). The most pleasant Uber rides are when I listen to some good music and reply to messages from friends. Or read a book on my phone. Or if the ride is long enough I might even do my daily meditation in an Uber (I’m up to 30 minutes a day). In other words, an Uber ride goes well when I don’t fight in my own mind against something I can’t control, and remember to enjoy the things I can. If we think about it so many everyday life experiences are like this.

One of these days I’m going to try to do an entire post without mentioning meditation. In the context of this idea of upgrading life’s experiences in our minds, I’ll simply note that meditation is simple, straight-forward training in awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Through this heightened awareness we begin to see how our own minds detract from our pleasure (or increase our pain) and can choose more helpful approaches (staying in the moment and savoring pleasurable experiences, simply noting difficult circumstances that we can’t control, gratitude etc.)

Back in the Uber, I’ve definitely noticed that even in typical Saigon traffic the rides are much less painful – and can even be enjoyable – when I simply note the traffic and send a single apologetic note to my friend that I’ll be late. And go back to enjoying that modern jazz playlist and chat with my friend or book. The rides are only really unpleasant when I let myself get wrapped up in and annoyed by the traffic. “This sucks! I wish I walked!” (With the worst rush hour traffic, I have on a number of occasions gotten out of the Uber and walked, and this is how I hit on my current strategy of avoiding Uber altogether during these times.)

And as with the spa example, I find that bringing a spirit of gratitude to an Uber ride (and so many life experience) is so helpful. How cool to have your own private car and driver whenever you need it! And for such an affordable price – Uber X within central Saigon costs about half of what a New York City subway ride costs, and at about 1.5x the basic service the Uber Black car is still less than the subway.

And let me offer a psalm to Spotify, which is my own personal soundtrack to any pleasant Uber ride. Is it not incredible that virtually every song ever made is yours for a monthly cost of less than the price of one CD? It’s quite possible that I’ve discovered and enjoyed more new music in the Spotify era than I did in my entire life before Spotify. What a wonderful time to be alive! I’ve definitely noticed that a spirit of gratitude does so much to enhance an Uber ride or almost any life experience.

In celebrating the rich rewards of upgrading any life experience in our minds, I’m not arguing against actual physical upgrades. Business class flights are of course a huge improvement over economy. Living in a comfortable apartment or home of course actually feels better than living in a hovel. Going even modestly premium with a hotel room choice is going to be much more comfortable than a backpacker hostel. This post is not at all an argument for austere frugality, and if your means allow it the more comfortable option may very well be a good choice. I’m not going to jump off some new-age deep end and suggest that everything is in our minds.

But whatever level of service we choose, and in fact with most life experiences, how much pleasure (or pain) we feel depends so much on how we think about it. With every life experience it’s worth remembering that the most rewarding upgrade of all is always available. And it’s free! By deeply savoring and feeling gratitude for life’s pleasures (and dealing with the pains in helpful ways) we can have an experience that’s truly luxurious. In our journey through life, with a bit of awareness and a shift in how we think, we can go from a painful economy seat to a luxurious first class ride.

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