I got interested in the 80/20 rule more than 10 years ago, when Amazon added a feature to their Author Central site that showed each author how they ranked among all the other authors. I immediately realized that this revealed exceptional insights about the earnings of all published authors. (Amazon removed this feature after a few years, maybe because they realized that it gave away more information than they had intended.)
How could this feature give away “too much information”? Because sales of books follow (approximately) the 80/20 Rule: about 80% of the money is earned by the top 20% of all authors. And the 80/20 Rule is “recursive,” meaning that 80% of 80% of the money is earned by the top 20% of the top 20%. Doing the math, that means that 64% of the money goes to 4% of the authors.
And likewise, 80% of 80% of 80% of the money goes to the top 20% of the top 20% of the top 20% of authors. Doing the math again, that means that 51.2% of the money goes into the pockets of the top 0.8% of authors. Or, if you want to round those numbers slightly, the top 1% of all authors get about half the money.
If that sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say, all I can say is that you don’t have be a socialist to acknowledge the simple fact that this is reality. There are deep mathematical reasons for this, and it’s the way markets work.
If you’re still wondering how this could be “too much information,” I’ll refer you to a blog post I wrote a few years ago that showed how much information you can extract from a single data point. Based on one piece of information Amazon revealed, I derived a mathematical formula to estimate the number of authors who sold at least X books per year. Just plug in X and you get out a very good approximation. That formula was valid in 2014. The formula for our current year would be somewhat different, but not very different. Because the 80/20 rule is a good approximation to reality.
Is the 80/20 Rule Bad News?
A lot of writers see the 80/20 rule as terrible news. They would summarize the situation as this: “There are a few big winners and a lot of big losers.”
I don’t see it that way. For starters, there are a fair number of people who earn a decent amount of money from their writing. Yes, only a very few earn millions. But many, many authors earn thousands or tens of thousands. And quite a few earn hundreds of thousands. That’s not bad news. That’s good news. It’s possible to get paid well for your writing.
But there’s better news. The 80/20 rule applies to many different aspects of life. One place where the 80/20 rule probably applies is my famous Snowflake Method. A small number of words can summarize most of the design of a novel. A small amount of design work can provide the blueprint for most of your novel.
But for this blog post, I’m going to focus on how the 80/20 rule applies to another aspect of life that’s important to all of us—learning new stuff.
An example is in order.
The 80/20 Rule In Learning a New Language
Let’s say you decide you want to learn a new language. As a random example, suppose you decide to learn German. A quick search of the web tells me that there are more than 300,000 words in one standard reference book.
That sounds overwhelming. How could you ever learn 300,000 words? It would take a lifetime.
Yes, it would take a lifetime, but I guarantee you that most native German speakers don’t know all those words. The reason is because some words are more common than others. Some German words are extremely common, and others hardly ever get used.
And the 80/20 rule is a very good estimator for how many words are super common. 20% of the words get used about 80% of the time. The calculation I did above applies here. 1% of the words get used about 50% of the time.
So if you learned the 3000 most common German words, you’d be able to understand half the words you come across in a typical German document.
In fact, it gets better than that. If you run the calculation out a bit further, you’ll see that by learning just the 100 most common German words, you’d be able to understand about a third of the words you find in a typical German document.
That’s actually pretty amazing. You could learn 100 words in a week. And you’d be able to read a German newspaper and see those words all over the place. Even with that very limited vocabulary, you might be able to get the drift of an article.
Of course, you wouldn’t understand everything. But you’d understand something. And then if you take several more weeks and expand your vocabulary out to 500 words, you’d be able to understand about 41% of the words in a typical German document. That’s amazing!
No, you wouldn’t understand the whole German language. Yes, you would be able to get along if you suddenly found yourself in a random place in Germany. (Actually, since a great many Germans speak excellent English, you’d probably be fine, even if you spoke no German. But why would you want them to have all the fun of speaking a foreign language, when you could have some of that fun yourself?)
The 80/20 Rule in Learning Anything
The 80/20 rule applies to learning just about anything. If you learn the 1% of the concepts in any field that are most commonly used, you can get a grasp of about half of what gets said in that field. I must emphasize that you won’t have a complete grasp. You’ll have a very incomplete grasp. But you’ll understand it surprisingly well, and that has value.
As a practical example, you can learn the absolute basics of Photoshop by watching a one-hour tutorial on YouTube. You won’t be a great graphic designer after one hour. But you’ll be able to open somebody else’s amazing Photoshop file and see how they put it together. And you’ll be able to make at least some simple tweaks to it—fix a spelling error, or adjust the colors, or swap out a logo. And that could be extremely useful to you.
But A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing, Right?
You might be thinking that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and therefore it’s dumb to learn just a little about a subject.
I don’t agree. It’s dumb to learn just a little about a subject and then imagine that you’re an expert. Ask me about the arguments I’ve had with ignorant people who thought they knew more physics than me because they watched some YouTube video for an hour.
If you only know 1% of a subject, then you only know 1% of that subject. There’s no way to change that. But if you maintain your humility and remember that you only know the basics, you can easily stay out of trouble. The people who get in trouble are the ones who think that knowing 1% makes them an expert. Do a search sometime for the phrase “Dunning-Kruger Effect” to see how common that is.
So why should you learn that 1%? Because knowing 1% gives you the ability to talk to an expert and ask intelligent quetions that few other people would even think to ask. And when you’re doing research for a novel, the ability to pick an expert’s mind is gold.
There are experts out there who would be happy to help you figure out something for your novel. Maybe they’ve spent a lifetime studying a particular subject. And you come to them and say, “Look, I’m a complete novice in your subject, but I’ve got this question….” And then you ask something that proves you took the trouble to learn even a tiny bit about their subject.
Most experts will be thrilled to see that you took that trouble. Most experts will go the second mile in giving you their insights, once they see that you cared enough to learn even 1% of their subject.
That’s why you might consider becoming a 1% novice. You can’t possibly spend a lifetime on every subject that interests you. But you could spend a month to become a 1% novice. And knowing a little about a lot of things can be valuable.