One of my main interests is how to learn and acquire new skills as efficiently as possible. Recently I’ve started thinking about this in terms of the Pareto Analysis.
Pareto Analysis is a very well-known concept in engineering, science and statistics. It is a simple insight, but nonetheless inspires a lot of thought. Let’s see what we can learn from it in self-development terms.
The Pareto principle is the observation that that 80% of the effects in a dataset tend to come from just 20% of the variables.
This concept has various implications depending on the area its applied to: engineers might say that 80% of the variation in a data set comes from just 20% of the effort, scientists might say that 80%, doctors might say that 80% of the complications arise in 20% of the patients, and so on.
In simple and applicable terms though, Pareto would say that 80% your returns tends to come from 20% of your efforts. The lesson is then to try to find that 20% and focus on making the biggest change in that area.
While this is obviously not hard science, it’s an observation that one can see return in many areas of life.
However, what if we turn the Pareto tool on itself? For a second, this might get more mathematical then most are interested in, but:
If it is generally true that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort, could it also be true that 80% of the 80% of results comes from just 20% of the 20% of effort?
And finally, could 80% of the 80% of the 80% of results be achieved by expending just 20% of the 20% of the 20% effort?
I don’t blame you if you’re lost at this point 🙂
What happens if we try to push his concept to the extreme, and try to find out the most efforts we can derive from the least amount of results? Here’s the math:
20% of 20% of 20% = 0,8%
80% of 80% of 80% = 51,2%
To simplify this a bit: an extreme application of the Pareto principle seems to imply that we could achieve just 50% of the results in an area, by applying around 1% of the energy!(Again, this is not science.  I’m simply using this principle as a thought experiment.)
“This isn’t even my final form.”
Let’s look at some of the continuums of skills in the real world. It’s often quoted that in order to be an expert at something, one has to spend 10000 hours on this area; for simplicity sake we could view this as the “100%” mark.  1% effort would then be in the range of spending around 100 hours looking into a certain area.
Running is a very interesting example. At the godlike end of the running continuum, we might have Usain Bolt who sprints 100 metres in less than 10 seconds. An incredible performance enabled only by rigorous training and at least some genetic factors.
But consider the following: in high school I was seriously bad at athletics, yet I still ran the 100 metres in a bit under 15 seconds. While that’s considered a poor athletic performance, this is barely 50% more than Bolt’s record-shattering performance. In perfecting his craft, Usain Bolt has essentially spent his life at shaving just 33% of a highschool senior’s sprinting time.
Almost everyone in the world could run 100 metres in less than 20 seconds; it’s just a brief 18 km/h pace. Essentially, anyone who’s just 1% skilled as running, is already half as good as the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen.
(Not all skills strictly follow this pattern, especially if they’re not very “natural” for humans. For instance, swimming has much clearer skill disparances: Michael Phelps can swim 200m freestyle in 1: 43 minutes, which may be 3 or 4 times as fast as a 1% person.
However, with just 1% of expert time we’ll be able to swim quite comfortably, and will actually be able to not drown in most circumstances. Once again this is a huge benefit compared to a very small investment.)
I believe many skills in life follow a similar pattern. Attaining 1% of skill expertise will never translate into any records or success in an area, but it can get you a big chunk of the possible achievements nonetheless.
Probably goes for this little guy as well.
Here’s what I take from this experiment:
1) You can get many of the benefits of a skill, with minimal effort.
Getting a taste from many different skills can really expand your capacities. For instance:
– Being a good guitar player might take 10000 hours. But knowing a few chords and strumming patterns, may help you be a hit at the party and entertain many people.
– Becoming a formidable combat fighter might take 10000 hours of conscious effort. But just 100 hours may help you keep your calm in a violent encounter and bring yourself to safety.
– Few of us are interested in winning public speaking awards or win political elections. But a few presentation classes or Toastmaster sessions gives you an edge on many of your competitors.
2) Be smart about practice.
Once you know that in many areas, you can “achieve” 50% of the skill results of experts in just 100 hours of practice, you’ll get much more demanding about how fast you want to see results (in a good way). No need to waste months with a non-ambitious plan.
People like Tim Ferris make this much easier by providing tips and walkthroughs, who give you a clear path towards getting better in an efficient way.
3) World records may come at the 90% percentile, but conversation comes at the 1% percentile.
Few of us will have to set world records participating in triathlons, LAN parties, Star Wars marathons or wine-tasting. However, most of us will find themselves in a conversation with hobbyists of these disciplines (or at the very least, have to be nice to them at parties).
The difference between putting 0% and 1% of reading in one of these disciplines is hard to overstate. Those with 1% experience will be able to ask solid questions and spend an evening in any social situation. Those who have 0% experience will be left clueless.
Hope you enjoyed the thought experiment, and let me know what you think!
 While some skills explicitly follow Pareto benchmarks, many certainly will not. This blog article contains at least some examples of both (running and swimming). Pareto is not so much a law of nature as it is a principle of statistics: most of the variables you include in any dataset are almost always irrelevant and have little effect on the end results (due to your poor understanding of the dataset); thus a small subset will tend to contain all the juice.
 Seeing it as the 100% expertise mark may seem inaccurate. The calculation doesn’t hinge on this though; make it 95 if you like.