The 80-20 Rule and Your Career

The 80-20 rule was formulated early in the 20th century by an Italian economist named Pareto. The “Pareto principle” came from his observation that 80% of outputs come from 20% of inputs. This is often true in contexts such as wealth distribution within a population, sales productivity among members of a sales force, and so forth.

The 80-20 rule provides a framework to evaluate career development. Consider what steps are effective in progressing through your career to reach your goals. Categories include knowledge acquisition, skill development, networking, and mentoring relationships. How many people within your field are willing to systematically devote themselves, even in small ways day by day, toward achieving significance? You know the likely answer: “very few.” If Pareto’s principle holds in your industry, the productive 20% achieves 80% of the results. The other 80% are in the realm of mediocrity — at best, they are “just getting by.” Many people — you know who they are because you interact with them every day of the week — hate their jobs and wish they could find a way to enter a new industry in which the grass would undoubtedly (so they think) be greener. Among these colleagues you do not expect to find any members of the productive 20% group.

How much effort does it take to rise above the mediocrity? Woody Allen says that 80% of success is just showing up. All too many people simply drop out. Or they are willing to settle for “bare minimum productivity” rather than implementing a disciplined, goal-oriented lifestyle. They are not willing to take the steps to work themselves up and out of their current job into a new position in which they can better utilize their skills and realize their potential.

The next time you are in a room full of colleagues listening to one of those motivational sessions about ways to “get ahead” in your career, consider that 80% of the crowd (at least) will likely give no thought to the speaker’s tips and tricks after they leave the room. Even if more than 20% pay attention and give a little thought to the concepts, how many are likely to take significant steps toward implementing the suggestions? You can guess my answer: “very few.” This opens a golden opportunity for you to position yourself in the productive 20%, assuming the recommendations you follow will truly help your progress. This is how to think about the concept that “80% of success is just showing up.” Most people aren’t willing to discipline themselves consistently and sustainably.

Here is yet another way to think about Pareto’s 80-20 rule in your professional life: Ask yourself, if 80% of your achievement comes from 20% of your efforts by default, how can you optimize the productive 20% of your time, efforts, and resources that you invest? At the very least, you can start to deliberately note areas of waste in your life — waste of money, waste of time, waste of energy, or waste of other resources and opportunities. And then you can develop plans to eliminate the waste and rise above mediocrity.

I have tucked away Pareto’s 80-20 principle in my mind as I consider small ways, day by day, to develop my skills, gain new knowledge, and build relationships with colleagues and mentors. How many of my competitors within my industry would simply rather settle for mediocrity than attempt to build a significant career? If the answer is about 80%, then I have a golden opportunity to launch into the productive group within my field. That doesn’t mean the journey is easy — far from it, else many others would stand in line to sign up. Rather, the point is that the opportunity is wide open for the few who are willing to “show up” — to systematically and consistently discipline themselves to achieve their professional goals.