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  • Writer's pictureDavid Tong

“90% of Everything is Crap!” A reflection on success, science fiction and cycling

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Here’s an uplifting idea to contemplate as you look back at your achievements this year.

“90% of Everything is Crap!”

This is known as Sturgeon’s law and surprisingly, I believe it points to something really quite positive and helpful.

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer in the 1950s who got fed up with people telling him that sci-fi literature is crap – he reacted with the epithet that now bears his name. This could be dismissed as sour grapes but the simple truth - one that is easily missed when we first encounter Sturgeon’s law - is that exceptional performance is in fact a rare phenomenon and if we acknowledge this it could help many of us at work.

The data, and think here of the bell curve of performance, bear this out but we tend to ignore this because we are blinded by stories. Over the last 20 years we have lived through a cult of ‘excellence’ where best-selling business texts and biographies of business heroes have told wondrous tales of exceptional outcomes. These are created to entertain but are they helpful when we think about our own performance?

Trying to emulate our heroes is unlikely to work because success is individual and contextual. Also if we set out with the goal of becoming the star this can distort our behaviour, for example we may forget the team and become overly self-centred. Another reason we cannot mimic success is that a lot of important lessons arise when things go wrong, and these are stories that don’t often get told. As the scientist Thomas Edison famously put it, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.”

I sense that many of us are better off not wasting time trying to ‘hit the ball out of the park’ but instead focusing on methods of improvement that relate to our context, that we can control. We can start this process by thinking a bit harder about what is going well at work, what is not and what we can change. And here perhaps is the most important bit - we must be honest with ourselves – are we giving our best or holding back? Only we know the answer and can determine what this means for us.

This type of careful approach to performance improvement reminded me of the theory of marginal gains. This was an approach that powered the British cycling team to many years of Olympic success. They worked out that in the hyper-competitive world of top-flight sport paying attention to small changes could add up to make a big difference to their overall success.

Foolishly I thought this only made sense for those working at an elite level as they tried to find an edge, but we can all embrace this logic. If we pay attention to our behaviour at work and make adjustments, trying out new things from time-to-time, we too can grow and develop and hopefully lock in these improvements to nudge ourselves along the bell curve of performance.

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