Pareto’s Law Is The Antithesis Of Excellence


It’s a sunny day in 1896 in Lausanne. After his morning coffee, Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto takes the usual stroll through his well-tended garden.

An engineer at heart, the new chair of political economy of the University of Lausanne meticulously tracks the performance of his vegetables. Today the peas are up. He grabs a few sample pods from the nearest row of plants and goes back inside.

At the kitchen table, he starts counting. One pod, two pod, three pod, four. Five peas, ten peas, twelve peas, more. As he lines up each pair 45 peas emerge from 15 pods.

Just as Vilfredo is about to pin down today’s observation in his tracking sheet, he pauses. Hm. Those first few pods lie next to an awfully large number of peas.

He counts those again. 36 peas from the first three pods alone? Even more oddly, just 9 peas from the remaining 12. That’s a lot of blanks.

Pareto goes back through the last few weeks’ results. There it is again. And again. About one fifth of the pods contain four fifths of the peas.

Like lightning, it hits him. The newspaper! He bolts into the living room. Where is it? The coffee table? No. The shelf? Not here either. There! Already in the trash.

The day before yesterday’s newspaper. “The rich get richer. 80% of Italian soil owned by elite minority,” the headline reads. How minor? His finger runs along the page and stops. 20%. One fifth.

As the wave of insight washes over him, he feels the pressing urge of all creative minds: to share his insight with his world. To contain it for later generations.

In a rush of adrenaline, he grabs his coat and hurries out the door.

There’s a paper to be written.

It’s Popular, But It Won’t Make You Popular

Fast forward 111 years. Publisher number 27 finally gives a young aspiring author a break. Little does Crown Publishers New York know they just signed their golden ticket.

Tim Ferriss brings a lot more to the table than a brilliant book. He plans his marketing to a tee as well. But even he couldn’t have engineered the global phenomenon The 4-Hour Workweek would become.

On page 70, he keeps Pareto’s legacy alive. The chapter “Pareto and His Garden: 80/20 and Freedom from Futility” has been read over a million times. There’s only one problem with it:

Pareto’s principle is the polar opposite of how Tim wrote the book.

It may seem like Tim is often out for what he calls the minimum effective dose, but truthfully, if it weren’t for his manic obsession with his work, we wouldn’t celebrate him remotely as much.

Do you really believe focusing on 20% of what makes a good book lands you on The New York Times bestseller list? Most of the time, not even giving 100% does.

Tim isn’t alone in his seeming quest for effectiveness either. Thousands of bloggers, authors, books and information products now serve us the ultimate life hack on a silver platter. Except greatness can’t be hacked.

People search for Vilfredo Pareto’s ideas 90,500 times each month. They want the end result without end game work. But the feats that seem the easiest take the longest to pull off.

The important truth you need to remember

There’s nothing wrong with Pareto’s Law. It opens doors for us. It’s a key so universal, it allows us to get started any time, anywhere, with any passion of ours.

Our problem is we get stuck in Pareto’s cycle. We start hacking everything. It’s hard to let go. Even when you really need to.

No, your first blog post doesn’t need fancy formatting. Or good editing. Or any editing. But your 200th one sure does. It better be astonishing. That will take an astonishing amount of work. You can’t bypass that.

Use Pareto’s Law to unlock gates to places you can’t access otherwise. But don’t live a Pareto Life. When you find your path to greatness, go all the way.

I know a dedicated engineer who did, and we still remember him today.


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