The idea hit me in early 1977, during of all things a pistol match. And the ratio that first came to mind that weekend morning still seems about right.
It is a rule — okay, a “guideline” as we now like to say — that explains and to a limited extent influences much of our daily lives. That morning I named it the 20 percent rule. In the — Lord help me — nearly 50 years since that day it has held up pretty well.
The rule is this: 20 percent of the effort gets you 80 percent of the result. The remaining 80 percent of the effort is needed to get that extra 20 percent, to achieve 100 percent mastery. (This applies to pursuits in which perfection is possible; the effort required is increasingly steep, a logarithm.)
The observation came when I realized that though I practiced little — ammunition was expensive (it’s even more expensive now) and a Knight-Ridder newspaper reporter at the time made $150 per week — I was shooting pretty well. I had no doubt that I could become a master pistolero, but to do that I would have had to devote 100 percent of my time to it. I didn’t have 100 percent of my time available. Additionally, 20 percent seemed to be the beginning point of diminishing returns: another 20 percent of my time and effort wouldn’t make me twice the shot I was, and I could use that time and effort to become 80 percent proficient at something else.
The more I thought about it, the more useful my silly little formula became. Fortunately, I was in the reporting business, which required me to be an absolute expert in nothing. But I learned that when writing a story of some significance, achieving 80 percent proficiency in the subject was both relatively easy and essential. I could not calculate the orbital mechanics of a space shuttle flight, but I knew how orbital mechanics figured in and I knew how to find people who could supply the specifics when needed.
It is actually pretty obvious: When you begin to learn something, the most important stuff comes first. Comprising broad principles, it is also fairly easy to grasp. You can learn the parts of a pistol in an hour, and the rules of safe pistolcraft in another hour. By the end of the day — within, say, five more hours — you can be hitting the target at seven yards pretty reliably. The next whole day would be the basics of consistency and the avoidance of bad habits. (I say the basics, because this part never really ends.) Two days, and you are 50 percent there. The remaining 50 percent is refining what you know, becoming more precise, and finally adding the real esoteric things. (They can become extremely esoteric: At Camp Perry, where people shoot rifles on a 1000-yard range, you can spend the morning calculating temperature and wind; you loaded your cartridges yourself or, at minimum, you made sure all your ammunition was from the same production lot you’ve been practicing with. At this point you have spent hundreds of days practicing. You are at 99 percent, and if there is need to dust a chipmunk more than a half mile away, you’re the man for it.)
I have a good friend who can cover the hole made by five shots with a nickel at 200 yards. He’s about 95 percent. He has been at it for years. He cleans his rifle every five shots. So: Zero to 50 percent proficiency, two days. Fifty to 80 percent, a few weeks. It takes a concentrated year to get to 90 percent. The curve rises to extinction after that.
It’s a matter of what you want and what it takes to get there. I know people who shoot 1500 rounds of ammunition in a month, practicing. I can still beat them occasionally, though it’s best to bet on them.
I should explain what I mean by learning 80 percent, because it could be misleading if not sloppy or downright dangerous otherwise. I’m not arguing in favor of mediocrity but instead against biting off more than you can chew, so you can get really good at some of it. You need to learn 100 percent of what you do learn, but you stop when you have learned the part of the subject that you need. To stick with the shooting example, I learned to be reliable at hitting the center of a target seven yards away. Then a target 15 yards away. At 25 yards I got very good, but at this point the amount of practice required for perfection would have exceeded the time and money I had available, and I already could come very close to the center pretty much all the time. I could safely and happily forgo learning to hit with precision a tiny target with a pistol shot at 100 yards. It wasn’t something I’d likely ever need or want to do. If I had a need to make a hole in something a football field away, I’d use a rifle. Even at 25 yards there weren’t many situations where an inch’s difference would matter much to me. I was at about 80 percent, in 20 percent of the time it would take me to come close to 100 percent.
Here’s a field that requires perfection each step of the way: flying airplanes. Anyone with good eyesight and average intelligence can fairly easily (though not inexpensively) learn to fly what is legally called an “airplane, single-engine, land” in a few months. But it needs to be learned thoroughly — if you plan to learn just 80 percent, stop off and order your tombstone on the way to the airport. Once that is mastered, you might want to learn flying at night, flying by instruments, flying multi-engine planes, flying a seaplane, and so on. You need to utterly master every step. But you do not need to do all those things, and becoming a proficient pilot of a single-engine airplane under visual flight rules with some instrument training for emergencies takes about 20 percent of the time and money that it takes to become a fully qualified commercial pilot.
The surgeon must excel at every procedure he does, but he might decide to leave some procedures to others.
As a practical concern, this means that you can learn a great deal about many things with far less time and effort than it would take to know absolutely everything about them. And once you have achieved a degree of proficiency, everyday experience will teach you what of the rest you need. And, probably, where you can go to find it.
I know some politics and political philosophy. I have a longtime friend who can give you the breakdown by county, nationwide, of the 1972 presidential election, by percentage for each candidate. I’m at 80 percent, while he’s at 100 percent. The problem is, that’s all he knows. He gave it 100 percent, and I gave it 20 percent. I think my return on investment is better. (Also, his political thinking is abysmal.)
“What I like about you,” my father once said in his only sentence that ever began that way, “is how you can concentrate on something and exclude everything else.” I took it as a compliment — we take our sustenance where we can — but later wondered if he was being sarcastic (that makes more sense) and in any case I have decided he was wrong. Yes, concentration is an important skill. When you’re at the needle bow of a sailboat in heavy seas attaching the halyard to the spinnaker as waves submerge you every few seconds, it is essential to concentrate on getting the shackle locked onto the head eyelet and on nothing else. But it can be taken to the extreme, when you are so involved in your video game that you don’t notice the house is on fire. One-hundred-percent concentration is needed the instant you pull the trigger, but only then — before that you had better be making sure no one has wandered onto the range.
We think of the greatest athletes, where 1/100 of a second can be the difference between victory and defeat. We admire them for their dedication to their sport. I will never win a footrace, nor fling a shot put any great distance. But if others and I are running away from a bear, I don’t have to be fastest, I just have to not be slowest. I can fling a heavy object far enough that it doesn’t land on my own feet. And I haven’t given even 20 percent effort to those activities. We admire the bodybuilders (the few who aren’t roided out) and our internal Walter Mitty thinks that we could do that and one day we will. That requires 100 percent dedication, and most of us aren’t willing to make that commitment. I fling around the weights a few times a week and do other exercises that build strength. Probably a couple of hours a week total. I’ll enter no contests, but I can do a half-dozen chin-ups on a good day, which is not bad for someone my age. Again: 20 percent effort, 80 percent results. And I have 80 percent of my time and effort left over for other things.
The comedian-commentator-smartass Bill Maher is a good talk show host. I do not watch all he does, but I don’t think it’s a waste of time to watch some of it. A few days ago I watched part of an interview he did with the actress-gameshow host-genius Mayim Balik. Fairly early on the discussion turned to “general knowledge.” Maher noted — I’m paraphrasing and extending here; he can correct me if I’m wrong — that general knowledge was once not just thought a virtue but was expected of everyone. Facts such as how the federal government is organized. (Knowledge no longer required of television reporters covering the federal government, it seems.) There once was a set of facts without which you were not considered equipped to live a normal life. General knowledge is now almost nonexistent; it’s certainly not something that people take pains to acquire. Now we have memes, rumors, internet lies served up by bad people and devoured by us, and the latest goings on in the lives of low-wattage celebrities who have no actual effect on our lives. Our political decisions, which do effect our lives, reflect this. We do not feel obligated acquire 80 percent of the knowledge and skills necessary to live a useful life. Once we did.
We are obsession-obsessed. Giving 100 percent to something 100 percent of the time may lead to our obtaining one narrow objective, but it leaves us vulnerable everywhere else. We might be experts in our field, but we’re sitting ducks elsewhere.
It turns out that my observation at the pistol range had been discovered by others, most famously the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto 70 years earlier. He applied it to income and resource distribution, yawn, but the 80:20 ratio applies elsewhere. It has been observed that 80 percent of a project can be done in 20 percent of the time the whole thing takes. If you look around you’ll find a dozen examples in your own life and the world around you.
It came to mind last week in a discussion with a friend over, of all things, pocket knives. You can buy a very good pocket knife for under $40. Or you can pay $400 (or more) for a slightly better pocket knife. If your purpose is to have a tool that you use to cut things, either one does the trick. The more expensive one has maybe 1 percent better steel — won’t rust as quickly or as badly, may remain sharp slightly longer. If you aren’t willing to clean, oil, and sharpen your pocket knife you probably can get by with a $5 keychain thing, or better still no knife at all. Functionally the 20-percent, $40 knife is as good as the trendier, far more expensive one. That’s the 80-20 rule in action as to products — and in fact the cheaper knife will get you more than 80 percent of what you do with a knife, while the expensive one is itself not perfect — nothing is — so it will not bring you 100 percent.
The principle does not apply to everything. The U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated since World War II that winning 80 percent of a war is not winning at all. A boat that has 80 percent of its hull will sink. A criminal who is law-abiding 80 percent of the time will (or would, in a society where laws were enforced) soon spend 100 percent of his time in jail. No clever observation will save you from the obligation to think.
It applies in many areas, more than we recognize. We sometimes hear of “the perfect being the enemy of the good.” Our demand for 100 percent sometimes means we’ll miss out entirely. Sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.
I’m thinking more, though, about how we live our lives, how we allocate our time and attention. Would you rather know 100 percent about one thing, or 80 percent about each of five things?
Would you prefer to have a decent general knowledge of the world around you, or microscope-level knowledge about one very limited field and be ignorant of everything else? Let’s even assume that we’re talking here about time outside the specialized field in which some of us, perhaps most, make our livings. Our “spare time.”
(Please note that while I use time here, what I really mean is attention.)
I think we ought to give at least 20 percent to gathering general knowledge, to being up-to-date on the world around us. To face world crises with a pretty good sense of the region, of its history and the opposing factors. What used to be called “an eighth-grade education.”
It was my good fortune to work many years ago in a New York newsroom with the great reporter Lester Smith. One morning before a newscast the writer shouted out a question — which sector of Beirut was Moslem. Lester and I both answered it instantly and gave the same answer. (“West Beirut.”)
One of the anchors, Rodger Skibenes, then made a joking observation. “Lester knows everything important,” he said, “and Powell knows everything else.”
It was my finest moment. And it was because I spent 20 percent of my time learning 80 percent of world events.
We can’t know everything, but with a little effort we can know almost everything — and the places to find out the rest when we need it.