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More fun with fifths

Four weeks left in 2020 when the first fifth of the 21st century comes to an end. Here's an interesting take on that theme called the Pareto Principle.

Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer born in the mid-1800s noticed that 20 percent of the peas in his garden generated 80 percent of the productive plants. This observation led him to extrapolate similar relationships. He determined that 80 percent of Italy's land was owned by 20 percent of the people at the time. He went further: 80 percent of production came from 20 percent of active companies. The Pareto Principle was announced, embraced and established. Fast forward to today and you can read about "the 80/20 rule" in Forbes magazine and many college-level business courses.

I admit this is fun to think about: 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the action. Kevin Kruse, author of the Forbes article, takes it farther. His go-to suit is one of five he owns. He shops in the perimeter of his grocery store, roughly one-fifth of his choices. And he asks managers to think about their top performers in sales, entrepreneurs to think about their contacts, freelancers to think about their contacts -- notice that most of your business comes from 20 percent of your focus/effort/top contacts.

And now this is a principle. That sounds important. Immutable.

Another admission, once I started thinking about this. I noticed I used roughly 20 percent of the spices in my kitchen; I wear the same 20 percent of my clothes and shoes most of the time; I've read (front to back) about one-fifth of the books on my shelf; I listen to a small portion of the music I have access to; I certainly do not watch on TV the bulk of what is available to me. Once I began to internalize this it became clear to me that I am missing out on a lot of my options; so, by extension, the person (or maybe personality) that I am could be a lot more.

Still, here's my question: Is this a principle? A truth? An immutable law of nature, like gravity? Or is it just an astute, clever observation that has found its way into late 20th century business school curicula?

What if the 20 percent of the 21st century that matters happens between 2050 and 2070? Who says it has to be the first fifth? People always surprise me. Why do we expect an economic theory to work with humans? Sure, the observations are significant. Twenty percent powers the other 80. But that doesn't mean that's are all there is. I'm much more of a humanist than an economist, so I'm disinclined to accept this theory as a universal truth on its face.

As we move forward to the end of the first fifth of the 20th century, let's look at the human part of the theory. The learning, the changing, the starting anew. The surprises of being human, the sudden insights, the spiritual revelations, the deaths and births. The unexpected influence of outside factors. The unexpected, period.

Let's look at what we want to work out and work on that. Let's accept that there's always something that we cannot predict that will definitely happen.


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