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The Magic 90/10

One of my favourite ideas for life was given to me in casual conversation by the very great photographer Laurence Haskell.


He was describing his process to me. When setting up a shot, he explained, it generally took him 20% of the time to get it looking 80% right, then 80% of the time to make it that last 20% better.


His constant frustration was that clients rarely understood this and would wonder why he was taking so long when things looked ‘perfectly fine’ to them. The explanation always came when they saw the final shot. What he had done in that last 20% was the difference between a good shot and a really great one.


I loved this idea so much I wrote it into our employee handbook at This is Real Art. I think it can be applied to almost anything.


The problem is – and this is what prevents so much mediocracy from becoming greatness – that this last 20% requires such a disproportionate amount of effort that it is often hard to justify.


It’s also risky. Sometimes it takes even longer and sometimes that final push yields not very much. If 80/20 is a hard ratio to sell what about 90/10, 95/5? On a practical level these kind of odds are hard to plan for in budget, time and resources.


But we’ve all had moments where just when you feel you can’t do any more a great break-though comes. So how do you know when you’ve done enough?


My general rule is not to stop when it’s painful. Actual physical discomfort is usually a sign that I need to push on. If I’m enjoying myself too much, it’s possible I’m tinkering and it’s time to put down the tools. I’m aware this makes me sound like a bit of a martyr but in any endeavour that requires tricky problem solving, this has proven to be a good strategy.


The reality is that most of us, most of the time, don’t do the extra 20%. So, risky and painful as it may be, it almost always pays off as a way to stand out from the crowd.


Next time you’re planning a project take a leaf out of Laurie’s book: assume 80/20 will be the ratio and allow for it. That, and practice not stopping at the hard bit. Easier said than done but worth giving a go.

Kate Leury Nielsen, 2010.

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