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I was a university student in Business Management when I first heard the term Eighty-Twenty Principle.  It was applied quite simply to the balance between inventory and profitability.  In essence, it said that eighty percent of your inventory will produce twenty percent of your profits, and, conversely, twenty percent of your inventory will produce eighty percent of your profits.

This was not a lesson in fixing this inequity.  It was simply given as a fact of life that had to be understood and lived with.

Sure, you could try to nudge a bit here or there to get closer to a 70/30 version (especially in quite small businesses), but in all likelihood, it would only be temporary and you would eventually settle somewhere back toward the norm.  The rule prevailed.  Or perhaps it was a universal truth of sorts.  Why?

Well, for instance, a large enough supermarket, with a large enough inventory would be in error if they didn’t keep a proper assortment of product to satisfy their customers.  The customer would opt for, let’s say, “one-stop-shopping” to purchase their requirements.  If one went to the grocery, and could only find the high mark-up items but no milk and bread, off they would go down to the all-purpose grocery to get their goods.  Simple enough concept, even when applied to a variety of business and business activities – i.e. 20% of your sales staff produce 80% of your sales, etc.  However, the rule seems to serve well elsewhere.


I was less than overwhelmed by this bit of lecture data while on a career path that interested me little to begin with.  It was logged in along with such pithy turns of business phrases as, “Always buy sheep and sell deer.”  Yeah, took me a while to substitute cheap and dear to grin for that boring lecturer too.

However, over the years I noticed a host of people who complained constantly about things that were easily justified by this simple fact of life.  Examples?

  • There are hardly any good teachers at this university/college/department.  I’ve only found a few decent ones.  Why don’t they hire more good ones and get rid of the rest?
  • Most students don’t give a damn about studying and learning.  There are only a few in each class that seem to get it and really perform well.  We should get rid of the others.  (Eliminate the bad 80% and 80% of the remainder will be a drag on the really good ones.)
  • Except for a few good ones, all politicians are self-serving, ignorant bastards that ought to be kicked out of office!
  • There probably haven’t been more than maybe eight or nine good presidents in US history!  What a shame.
  • And so on.

Well, so what?  Isn’t that normal?  Isn’t the answer simply the eighty-twenty principle at work?  Admittedly, there are numerous other reasons at work here.  Just bear with me.

And still the variant complaints come from all directions.  Most artists will never be rich and famous!  Good, how would we know who are the good twenty percent without all the others?

Most writers never get published!  Good.  Who wants to wade through all the drivel?  (Hell, even eighty percent of the published ones are bad these days.)



The point has become clearer to me over the years, and it functions like a mind-altering drug if you just inhale.  THERE IS NO 100% VERSION OUT THERE!  Perfect isn’t coming, so go for the compromise, since it is ALWAYS a compromise – a trade-off where the 80% or the 20% is all you get.

Just settle for what is about right at any point in time.  Accept that 80% of artists, writers, business executives, financial advisors, contractors, administrators (ok, sometimes you may have to shoot for 95/05), rocket scientists, and, scarily, doctors, just suck to one degree or another.  Acknowledge that you should only expect good food at a few restaurants, and don’t get upset when you find one of the good twenty percent and then get stuck with one of the eighty percent of poor service staff, or order one of the eight out of ten dishes that are pretty mediocre.  The world is as it should be, and you just had a normal dinner out.

And, don’t forget, it can work the other way round.  Twenty percent of people are probably not thieves and crooks.  That leaves 80% that are just regular folks.  Still, keep your hand on your wallet.

So relax.  Accept what won’t change, and, for god’s sake quit complaining about the injustice of it all.  It is perfectly just – at least 20% of the time.

(Disclaimer:  Before you complain that this abstract is one of the 80% that suck.  Remember that, as with any system, there are glitches and exceptions to the rule.  Some really good writers and artists just don’t get lucky and join the 20%.  However, exceptions don’t change the rule, even if this is one.)


About the Author

Gerald Cannon

I growed up po and ignant in Alabama. Then I went off to college and became a socialistic atheistic business school grad with an MBA. Not wanting to add evil capitalistic bastard to my resume, I obtained an antidote degree -the MFA. What a difference a letter makes. Now I teach college and make art. That's more fun and I'm less prone to drift toward the dark side. So, at the advanced age of sixty.... I have chosen mind over matter, joined the League of Defensive Pessimists and have no better answers, only fewer questions.

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