Heraclitus and Pareto: The 80/20 Law of Success

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

― Heraclitus

Interestingly enough, Heraclitus may have been on to something with his distribution of people- in statistics, there is something called the Pareto Principle (also called “the 80/20 rule” or “the law of the vital few”) that mirrors this almost perfectly. The principle is named an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, who noted (in 1896) that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. This principle can be plotted with a curve called a Power Law (or Pareto) distribution, which looks like this:

The yellow area is 80% of the population, the green area is 20%.

Essentially, in any group or organization, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. Heraclitus may have been a bit off, but he’s not far from an accurate picture. What’s interesting is that this principle applies in nearly every area of our lives. The same few bands or artists make the majority of the hits or win the most awards every year. (I’m looking at you, Kanye West [21 Grammys, tied with Jay Z], Taylor Swift, and Maroon 5.) The same directors and movie franchises make the most money, year after year (James Cameron, Marvel, Fast and Furious.) Sports aren’t exempt, either- as much as I hate to say it, the Patriots consistently do well every year while the Browns are consistently awful.

You may be thinking- “What does this mean for me? Are we just doomed to mediocrity while the 20% make all the rest of us look like scrubs?” Well, yes and no. Try as we might, we just can’t seem to escape this law- it’s the case in essentially every area of human life. Accept it and move on. However, what you can do with this information is figure out what arena you are (or are capable of being) better than 80% of people at, and focus your energy there. There is no point in fighting to be the best engineer in the world if you’re terrible at math (like myself). On the other hand, if you have the passion and aptitude for something that you can beat most people at, then that’s the direction you should go.

No one is good at everything, but everyone can be good (or the best) at something. The key is to be able to acknowledge the areas where we probably aren’t going to be great at and to have the confidence to pursue excellence where we’re capable of it. That means you have to be honest with yourself, and sometimes, that’s the hardest thing of all. However, if you can’t do that, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson made the comparison between the Pareto Principle and the biblical Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), which goes as follows:

“For it is just like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted them with his possessions. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent—each according to his own ability. And he promptly went on his journey.

The servant who had received five talents went and put them to work, and gained five more. Likewise, the one with two talents gained two more. But the servant who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

After a long time, the master of those servants returned to settle accounts with them. The servant who had received five talents came and presented five more. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master!’

Then the servant who had received two talents also came and said, ‘Master, you entrusted me with two talents. See, I have gained two more.’

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master!’

Finally, the servant who had received one talent came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So in my fear, I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what belongs to you.’

‘You wicked, lazy servant!’ replied his master. ‘You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received it back with interest.

Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw that worthless servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Aside from the fairly extreme punishment at the end, this is essentially the same idea. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” There is a finite number of things you can be great at, and it is your responsibility to take the risk and gamble or invest with these finite resources, rather than to bury them out of fear. The world rewards those who dare and punishes those who dare not.

In what arena will you fight for greatness?

Garrett Dailey

Garrett Dailey is a formerly homeless D.I.Y. philosopher who believes that one cannot understand the universe without first understanding themselves. To that end, he has committed to a lifelong journey to become the best version of himself, and in the process, create a community for others who wish to do the same. May we all be led from ignorance to the truth. Pros aion Aletheia aionios.

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