Sunday, June 1, 2014

The 80-20 Principle: The Secret to Success?

If you've ever taken a class on job efficiency, I'm sure you've heard of the 80-20 principle.  Basically, it says that 80% of the results comes from 20% of the effort.  What this means is that you can often spend 80% of your time and effort trying to achieve the final 20% of your results.  This is often called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Often, 80% of the results is good enough if you have a million things to do.  If you spend only 20% of the time on the project, then you can produce results quickly, impress your superiors, and move on to the next project.  On the other hand, if you want perfection when it's not really required, you could spend hours just getting that annoying font perfect, or the calculation of a non-consequential number perfect.  In other words, you could be wasting time when other projects are awaiting your attention.

Makes sense?  It's a very good principle to follow in business.  I've found it helps me greatly at work.  When I see others ignore it, they tend to work more inefficiently and end up working long hours.

However, there's another side to this principle that I'd like to explore.  As I come near an end to my five-year midlife crises, I've come to a realization about myself.  I am naturally very good at several different things.

For example, as I was finishing my Masters in Music, I needed 3 more credit hours.  Just for fun, I took Physics 2 (skipping Physics 1).  Without hardly any effort at all, I was able to pass at the top of the whole class, even beating that one Chinese dude that wanted top.  Heh heh heh.  

I am also good at sight-reading.  Put something in front of me, and I'll pound it out on the piano.

My whole life I've been living the 80-20 Principle without realizing it.  Everything was just so easy that I felt like I didn't need to put forward the extra effort.

That is until I hit 40 and realized: "Why doesn't anyone read my stories?" and "Why won't people listen to my music?"  The answer is very simple.  I had never really worked hard in life to achieve the 100% perfection.  I had been getting by on 80% in many aspects of my life, but get this ...

Whatever you do, there is somebody else in this world who can do it better than you.  If you want to get published, you're going to have to be in that top 1% of all the writers of the world.  80% just doesn't cut it.  Sure, your stories may be fun to read, and well written and all that, but are they 80%?  Or are they 99%?  The magazines will be publishing the 99% stories, while the 80% stories will be long forgotten.

Here's another example.  Chopin wrote the Etude opus 10, number 1, which is so difficult, even Horowitz avoided playing it in public.  (If you can find a recording, I'd be interested to hear it, but I can't seem to find one.)

The Etude is actually very easy to memorize.  It's basically all chords with a moving bass line and the melody interspersed almost randomly in the right hand.  So, I worked it up, giving it my usual 80% effort, and I posted it on YouTube thinking I was hot stuff.  Here's that recording (listen for about the first minute or so):

But then, I was brought down.  One You-Tuber (who has since deleted his comments) pointed out some technical difficulties that was ruining my performance.  He basically opened my eyes that this was a terrible performance.  Sure, my performance may be cool and impressive to some who don't play the piano, but any experienced piano player would cringe and stop listening after the first 15 seconds.

With this small amount of effort, it's no surprise that I'm not currently playing in Carnegie Hall.

So, I worked up the Etude again.  After spending a whole year on technique and smoothing out issues, I got it to this 95% performance (again, you only need to listen for about a minute) ...

It's not perfect, but this second performance is much more bearable.  Also, check out the difference in times.  2:17 vs. 3:19?  Yes, I got it to be faster!  And yes, it's impressive.  I bet most of you can't hear why it's not going to get me into Carnegie Hall.  I still need to finish up the last 5% and get the piece closer to 100%.

Here is a professional recording (listen to the first minute or so)...

Ashkenazy plays this very well.  He's at least 99% if not at 99.5%.  He's mastered the dynamics.  He plays it slightly faster than I do.  He has fewer errors.  He's found a way to add feeling into the piece.

Now for the coup-de-grace.  Go back to my second recording and listen again to the first minute or so. Now, can you hear the difference?  Yes.  If I ever hope to get noticed, I need to get to that 99% level.

It's the same with writing fiction.  Have you ever read a book that was so good that you almost feel like "I'm not worthy"?  If so, you have experienced the 99%, and that's exactly where you need to be if you want to get published.

So, what does this all mean?  Basically, you must decide what you want to excel in.  You can put forward 20% of the effort in most aspects of your life and be happy with the 80% results.  But where it really matters, you should put in the other 80% effort (what Bradbury called Perspersistence) and do whatever it takes to bring your work much closer to 100%.

It's not too late for me.  I want this.  I want my fiction to be published.  I want people to perform my compositions.  I want to do something good in this world and leave my contributions.  I know exactly what I need to do next.

Who's with me?

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