Fantastic Few And How To Find Them

At the end of the 19th century, Italian economist Vinifredo Pareto noticed that about 80% of the wealth in Italy belonged to roughly 20% of the population. A century later, management consultant Joseph M. Juran observed a similar distribution in quality control and popularized it as Pareto’s principle.

Over time, the observation got known by other names, my favorite being the Law Of Vital Few.

In many situations, a few inputs account for most of the outcomes.

Take venture capital, for example. Nine out of ten startups fail, the saying goes. Investing firms know that, so they diversify their portfolio, funding a myriad of different startups. The huge returns they get from the few that succeed are more than enough to cover the losses from the many which fail.

I’ve seen the Law Of Vital Few in action in my own work. In my blog, 4 out of 205 posts drive 30% of the traffic. I wrote more than a hundred StackOverflow answers, but over 50% of my reputation score comes from a single answer.

The Law of Vital Few appeals to efficiency geeks like myself. Once you identify those few activities that generate most of the benefits, you can focus on them to maximize your gains.

But… How do you identify the vital few?

I didn’t set out to write those four posts to be my most successful ones. I put as much care into them as I did for all the 201 that fell flat. VCs have elaborate processes to decide which startups to invest in, but not even they can tell how it will turn out in the end.

Plus, luck and timing play a huge role, too.

The most successful post in my blog about software testing is not even about testing! It’s about symlinks in Git.

The only way to discover the vital few to focus on is to get feedback from the real world.

And to get feedback, one needs to iterate, experiment, and keep trying things out.

As Naval Ravikan puts it:

Learn from times iterated over time spent. […] Explore, then exploit.

The compound interest from many quick small iterations is greater than the compound interest from a few slow big iterations.

Keep experimenting. Keep trying. Keep sharing.

Cover photo by Sindre Aalberg on Unsplash modified by author.

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