80/20 is the new Half-Ass
The Pareto Principle is making you lazy.
Let me be more precise: The Pareto distribution is a useful model of power law effects in real life. But people are using it poorly, primarily as an excuse to be lazy.
You hear 80/20 rules a lot in premium mediocre circles. If you want to signal that you are smarter than the average 80/20 bear, you might refer to the ”high order bit” instead. Same shit, different status signal.
The spirit of the idea is sound. It’s great for 280 character tweets and 5 minute soundbites. But idk if it’s good for people who finish things. At best, I don’t think it’s sufficient for execution. At worst, it’s just intellectually dishonest.
Look at reactions like this:
“Love this [80/20] framing! Great way to remove the fluff and get to the core”.
I’m sorry but the remaining 80% is not “the fluff”:
- People forget that the devil is in the details. The first 20% everyone knows to say on Twitter. The remaining 80% is the ugly, nasty, hacky, unglamorous shit nobody talks about unless you’ve got time to sweat the details (unless you’ve already moved on to the next 80/20?).
- The more popular the 80/20 meme becomes, the less competition you will have as someone who knows how to take things to the finish line.
- People forget that causal attribution is subject to narrative fallacy. Ask a successful person what their 80/20 was and they’ll confidently tell you in hindsight. The truth is at the time they had 4 other bets also going on that just didn’t work out.
- The popular saying in medical school is that ”50% of what you learn will be wrong — we just don’t know which 50%”. And that is in goddamn medical science with double blind randomized clinical trials. We don’t have 1% of that rigor in popular anecdata which you base your 80/20 inferences on.
- People forget that distributions aren’t always Pareto. When you assert that “an 80/20” exists, you are asserting useful dimensionality reduction. Sometimes complex, or even linear, things just do not have an “80/20”.
- The FAA’s Parachute Rigger Handbook has 350 pages of densely packed advice. Please do not try to 80/20 your parachute packing.
I’m reminded of that classic movie Click, where Adam Sandler finds a magic remote that lets him “80/20 his life”:
Don’t spend your life spraying 20% effort all over the place, hoping for 80% results, only to look back and wonder why you never hit 100% on anything.
Edit: The always excellent David Golden wrote a wonderful response to this piece highlighting the cases where 80/20 is actually very justified, and I agree!
This topic is loosely related to Epistemology, which I’ve written about briefly.