In 1936, the men’s rowing team from the University of Washington won Olympic gold. They weren’t expected to even come close–the team was made up of working class boys who had to compete with elite, well-funded schools on the East-Coast, along with teams from the rest of the world. But they did it, through the only thing true success is made of–hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck. Interestingly, one journalist estimated that in total, the men rowed 4,344 miles in practice, and only 28 miles in competition.
Over the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the 80/20 rule. Otherwise known as the Pareto Principle, the idea is that in certain situations, 80 percent of the consequences come from 20 percent of the causes. Essentially–you might make 80 percent of your revenue from 20 percent of your clients. 80 percent of a project gets done in 20 percent of the time you spend on it, because of tiny breakthroughs that happen along the way. You can read more about the Pareto Principle here. It’s an excellent prioritization exercise.
In economics, the 80/20 rule generally holds. But when it comes to elite performance, I actually think that the ratio between preparation and performance is far more skewed. I’m calling this the Performance Ratio.
The 1936 University of Washington rowing team, for example, had a Performance Ratio of merely 0.6 percent—this is the time they spent in competition relative to the time they practiced ((28/4,344) x 100).
You can apply the Performance Ratio to pretty much any discipline. For example, when I trained for a marathon, I ran 400 miles in training, and 26.2 miles of the actual race. Only 6 percent was the real thing. And for the magic show I’m putting on at GW, the Performance Ratio (~1.5 hours of show/~150 hours of prep) is only 1 percent. And that’s only for this specific show. This ratio does not count the thousands of hours of work that allowed me to create the show in the first place, which would put my Performance Ratio well below half a percent.
The more time, energy, and effort you invest into anything, the lower your Performance Ratio will be. But those results will also start pulling more weight. It’s the decade of doing comedy clubs every night that lands you on The Tonight Show, and all of a sudden each performance benefits from the weight you already pulled, unnoticed, for years.
The fact that most work happens under the radar might seem discouraging–but it is necessary. Tiny improvements, most of which are barely noteworthy on their own, is exactly how greatness is built. There is no other way to create something worthwhile. Houses are built brick by brick. Comedy hours are written joke by joke, which are constructed word by word, each of which involves attention and care.
About a year ago, I was talking to a friend who wanted to start pursuing his art professionally. He made a comment comparing his lack of experience to the success of someone else just a few years older than him. It led my friend to ask “If he is so far ahead of me, why even start?”
This is a totally reasonable question. When you stack your inexperience against someone who is already successful, it can be really demoralizing. I’ve certainly fallen into this trap. It seems like they just landed in their success, and you’ll have to work so much harder for yours.
The solution, I think, is to understand four things: First, the person you are jealous of had to start somewhere, and they were not immediately successful. Their success is the result of tons of small achievements piling up. Second, you can do the exact same thing as them, you just happen to be starting later. Third, by definition, you only hear about people once they are famous. You don’t see the little wins they had to pile up, also invisibly, because they weren’t well known yet. And finally, when this person you’re jealous of started out, there were tons of people who were ahead of them too. If you are successful, there will be people who feel like they are behind you.
There is a ton of asymmetry in everything we do. Big moments–a buzzer-beater, an election, a Late Night appearance–these are usually short periods of time with large stakes that masquerade as success. But the real success is showing up every day, with no audience and no expectations. Put another way, your success is not based on other people noticing you–it is based on giving them something to notice in the first place.
If we work hard and our tiny victories pile up, our Performance Ratios will be small–far less than 1 percent.
Therefore, this is a nice perspective to take when you’re young. Because it means that what you’re doing now is worthwhile, even when you can’t directly see the effort. We must get used to the fact that successes accumulate. Putting in a little work every day does have an impact. You can even see this in as little as a week. But you have to wait that week.
Small wins are really hard to recognize, but as I’ve said before, if you don’t learn to celebrate the small wins, you won’t know how to enjoy the big ones.
Thanks for reading! By the way, if you're in D.C., make sure to grab tickets to my LAST SHOW at GW, Everything I Don't Know, on April 23rd. See you there!