80 Percenter

Last week, I gave my More “Wow”, Please talk at Web Design World Boston. During the talk I mentioned a fantastic book: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. Yvon founded the expensive-but-awesome clothing company, Patagonia. I’ve long been a fan of Patagonia’s stuff, and their dedication as a company to environmental causes (they co-founded One Percent For The Planet, of which SimpleBits is a member) , and so when Josh Porter recommended the book a while back, I ordered immediately.

book coverThe book covers the history of the company, Yvon’s philosophy on design, and being a reluctant business owner. It’s a great read, with a lot of insightful head-nodding.

One part stood out in particular, when Chouinard talks about how he sees himself as an “80 percenter”:

I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me.

I didn’t know it before reading that quote, but I think I’m an 80 percenter as well. For people that love to create things, whether it be a website or a t-shirt or even a beer coaster (ahem) — the web seems to tie all these things together quite nicely. And it’s reaching 80% proficiency (but not 100%) that I think makes it possible to handle all of that at one time.

Ever try talking to (or working with) someone who is 100% obsessed with a single task? The danger is that they’ll get bogged down in details. Every detail. Whereas an 80 percenter might eventually learn to know which details to focus on. And determining which details are important can be just as useful as knowing them all.

At least that’s my interpretation. Regardless, I recommend the book highly.

24 Comments

  1. RB Smail says:

    Great post. I’ve found the 80/20 rule is usually accurate–at least 80% of the time :)–but I’ve never really reframed it in this manner. Well done, especially the insight as to the obsessive 100 Percenter. Talk about diminishing returns.

  2. Dan Griffey says:

    It’s a great book from a great company founder. Everything they stand for is a perfect fit, and sure works for their marketing as well. Even though he is an 80%’er I think he has made the company push beyond, to be an obsessive.

  3. Jesse says:

    I think 80%ing things isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s certainly not going to really shift a paradigm, generate substantial change, or result in a masterpiece. The people that are 100%ers are the ones that pore over details and perfect something. I can think of lots of 100%ers that have left a mark on society: Immanuel Kant, Socrates, Napoleon Bonaparte, Cervantes, etc. Meanwhile, simply striving for mediocrity is no doubt satisfying, but won’t really be remembered.
    I think it’s important to understand your goals and 80% it where appropriate. That said, I think it’s worthwhile to be dedicated 100% to something in order to engender a positive change.

  4. @Jesse: But I’d guess that Socrates, Napoleon Bonaparte, etc. were 80 percenters as well. And it’s because of that ability to focus more narrowly that we know who they all are today.
    Ha! :)
    But I get what you’re saying — the world needs 100 percenters as well. All part of the balance.

  5. Wendy Sharp says:

    Businessweek had an article recently that quoted Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, as saying that the great thing about C students is that they have risk-reward pretty much well-wired. A students always put in maximum effort, but C students first try to figure out whether the effort’s worth the reward. Same idea as the 80%, I think–sometimes good enough is good enough. But that sure is a tough concept for an A-type student to learn!

  6. Shawn says:

    Yvon Chouinard gave a talk at Stanford’s Business school. You can get it free on iTunes.
    Just search for Let My People Go Surfing in iTunes.

  7. Jenny says:

    Two thoughts:
    1) Sorry, but I gotta play the girlie card here. Where would most working mothers place their split? I would put mine somewhere around 60/40. Possibly 50/50. Simply because with the added tasks of running a household and wrangling children, I don’t have enough time to master any one thing. I am content to view myself as a journeywoman who can put her head own and work because the payoff is that I can spend more time with my family.
    2) The recent NY Times Magazine “Year In Ideas” featured this blurb, which I think is relevant here.

  8. Noel Hurtley says:

    You make a great point Dan. The last 20% of anything is minor detail that will deliver little to no return on the amount of time that was invested.

  9. Lucian says:

    @Jenny, I absolutely understand the feeling of not having enough time. I’ve just enough time to maintain the 80% proficiency at what I already know. Learning new things and getting up there is almost impossible given the things we’ve got to do. (I’m not a girlie btw, just a very involved husband and father).
    Most people can differentiate good from bad, but not many can tell (and pay for) the difference between good and great.
    But every now and then, it feels good to create something great.

  10. From time to time I see myself going towards that 100% mark, but then some little voice inside my skull tells me to pull on the handbrake. Working 100% doesn’t ever yield 100% – at least not for me.

  11. Shane says:

    Interesting post. I always wanted to be more than an 80 percenter with regard to my work, and I spent every spare moment reading books and articles.
    The birth of my son earlier this year has changed all that, and I’ve realised that there are more important things in life. Now I’m striving for more than 80 percent in that area.

  12. Sunil says:

    Great book and great marketing. Ever since I heard about Chouinard and Patagonia’s ideals, I always check them first for a needed clothing item.

  13. jen says:

    Let My People Go Surfing is the father I don’t have. It provides guidance and consolation — when I decided to start my own little biz, and when I make decisions about whether or not to make a purchase, trip, decision… and now that I am responsible for raising someone else’s child, I share that wisdom with her and she looks around at other teens wondering why on earth they are focused on such foolish things. Our moments are precious. If one is a 100%r, then great for them. Their passion is beautiful. But we 80%r, or “renaissance” people, have great contributions to offer, as well, and those bits and pieces tend to flavor the others.

  14. peter b says:

    I don’t think there are but a few 100 percenters. When I first read this post I thought “oh crum! I’ve been busted!” but that’s because I tend to confuse my energy level with proficiency.
    I throw myself headlong into various projects. I like to learn new things. I just don’t like learning that extra bit because I’m deeply afraid of being welded to any one thing. There’s too many good things to experience.
    I’ve freelanced at patagonia. Don’t get the impression that 80% effort will cut it there.

  15. Michel says:

    If thus put, I think I would be somewhere in the 80%-ers as well:) …although, to be frank, sometimes I am much closer to 100% (when fighting with IE, for example, when all of my creative power is needed) ;-)

  16. tony kind says:

    Interesting post. I always wanted to be more than an 80 percenter it has been chalange but it was possible. I spent every spare moment reading books and articles.
    Thanks simplebits

  17. matt says:

    It’s a great book from a great company founder. Everything they stand for is a perfect fit, and sure works for their marketing as well. Even though he is an 80%’er I think he has made the company push beyond, to be an obsessive.

  18. it is kind of great point and I have to say that this is the best posting of the month. I used to use online auctionto get all this books.

  19. bwabty says:

    You make a great point Dan. The last 20% of anything is minor detail that will deliver little to no return on the amount of time that was invested.

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  21. Waw……
    It’s a great book.
    Thanks for the information.

  22. Danno says:

    I too love Patagonia gear and this is a book I had on my “to read” list for a long time. When I finally got to reading it … it turns out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.
    It was an inspirational read to say the least (loved learning about the history of the company) and clearly shows that business – on any scale – can be financially successful and have a huge heart at the same time.
    Bravo to Yvon for blazing a very cool trail and to you Dan for shining more light on this excellent book.
    Cheers.

  23. Bryan says:

    When I was younger, and more idealistic, I think i wanted to be 100% at everything. As I get older, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have the time or the energy to do everything, let alone at 100%.
    The day you get old enough to be ok with saying 80% is good enough is a very liberating day. Thanks for the post, and the book recommendation. Patagonia is one of my favorites.