Expectations – and the 80/20 Rule
In 1905, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed a detail about the peas in his garden: 20% of the pea pods seemed to be responsible for yielding 80% of the peas. This struck Pareto because his research into economic productivity had concurrently shown him that 20% of Italians were responsible for generating 80% of the nation’s wealth – a figure that later matched what he found to be true in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The surprisingly widespread applicability of the principle led to the coining of what we now know as the Pareto distribution, or more casually, the 80/20 rule, which can be observed throughout economics and business – and states that 80% of effects will come from 20% of causes (for example, in a publishing house, 20% of books will generate 80% of profits; or in banking, 80% of profits will come from 20% of clients and so on).
However salient the 80/20 rule might be in the economic (or horticultural) realm, we remain reluctant to apply it to the area where it might truly help us most: our personal lives. Here too we constantly see a principle akin to the Pareto distribution, namely that 80% of positive elements can be traced back to 20% of causes. Or, to put it more negatively but perhaps more legibly, 80% of all inputs are likely to be partly or to a substantial degree sub-optimal. Only 20% of anything will be worth the candle.
The reason why we might need to get this principle clear in our minds is that we live – in practical terms – as if quite the opposite might be the case. We continually proceed under the assumption that most of what we will meet with will be pleasant, formative, cheering and redemptive – and that we should budget for disappointment in only a small and exceptional number of cases. And then, invariably, when the opposite emerges, when we encounter some of the repetitively frustrating and appallingly imperfect nature of existence, we howl with frustration, bitterness and surprise.
To proceed with greater statistical verve and therefore more grace, appreciation and calm, we would be wise to embed the Pareto 80/20 rule firmly in our world view at the dawn of every new day. Some of its principles will look like this:
– Most parts of every city will be ugly, dispiriting and an insult to our longing for order and optimism.
– Most conversations with most people will leave us feeling misunderstood and desolate.
– Most sexual opportunities will not come off.
– Most projects will go wrong.
– Most governments will be corrupt and unimaginative.
– Most of our natural habitats will be destroyed
– Most days will be sad.
– Most marriages will be intolerable.
– Most glances in the mirror will be a catastrophe.
– Most interactions with our children will be maddening.
– Most books are terrible.
– Most of life will be a waste of time.
Such is the true applicability of the Pareto principle. Far from being a recipe for gloom, heeding to it will guarantee that we will not so regularly collide with one of the sharp edges of reality. Of course, our work is for the most part wrong; of course our love lives are unhappy; naturally most of the sex we’ve had has been regrettable, inevitably most people are a waste of our time. Demagogues, advertisers and pedlars of sentimental bromides will constantly urge us to hold out for more – or incite us to get furious that we haven’t yet been given it. We should turn away from their aggravating counsel. We have not been singled out for unusual punishment; our lives are following a course that can be observed as much in the operations of a widget factory as in the fertility of plants or the profitability of nations. We need not question our relationships, our employments or our membership of the species. Most of it is no good – and that is exactly as it should be.
But this disgusting truth, once digested, only makes the rare 20% all the more worthy of reverence: those few friends who do open up properly, those occasional nights when it works out, those family members who are undefended and interesting, those days when we feel strong and purposeful. These aren’t anything like the norm, and nor were they ever meant to be. They are the succulent morsels of the otherwise ineluctably thin harvest we must subsist on – and therefore the bits that we must treasure and draw hope from before darkness returns.