Are you choosing to succeed?

In 2003, the American Punk rock band Greenday were putting the finishing touches to their new album titled Cigarettes and Valentines. As it was nearing completion, the master tapes were stolen…so the album was never finished. Consequently the band decided to scrap the whole album and fired up by what had happened wrote and recorded “American Idiot” which won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, with one of the tracks “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” winning a Grammy for Record of the Year. Unsurprisingly Greenday’s career in the music industry took off with the success of the album.

90/10 Principle

I was recently reading something that made reference to a “well known” psychological principle known as the 90/10 Principle. In essence, this states that10% of life is made up of what happens to you, and 90% of life is decided by how you react.

This principle was popularized by Stephen Covey, a well known figure in the business wold. However, if you Google the principle, you’ll find plenty of examples but they largely circle back to those that Covey himself originally used to illustrate his thinking.

Quandry time

If I were to look at this critically, a genuine principle would be supported by reams of supportive research or academic papers by lots of different academics. However, if you Google the principle, you’ll find plenty of examples but they largely circle back to those that Covey himself originally used to illustrate his thinking. Try as I might, I can’t find them (if anyone is aware of any such references, please let me know). So is this really an accepted psychological principle? I’m not sure.

Yet, intrinsically, the thinking makes sense. Marshall Goldsmith often quotes the example where a person is in a bad mood because their flight was delayed. He suggests that in these situations you have somehow outsourced responsibility for the mood you are in, to the airline. So the 10% might be the plane is delayed (what has happened), whereas the 90% is how you have chosen to respond to it.

John Lennon stated it a little more prosaically with his lyrics:

“life is what happens to you whilst you are busy making other plans”.

Its an interesting principle

We are well used to principles in business. Pareto (80/20) is probably one of the most frequently quoted principles that there is. However it is normally used to apply to something – performance, populations of people and the like in a way that objectifies them. The beauty of the 90/10 principle is that it reminds us we are pretty much 100% responsible for what happens to ourselves. Perhaps more accurately stated as we are 100% responsible for the things that we have the power of choice over.

Are you driving the bus?

Sometime we kid ourselves that other people are in control of our lives. We hold ourselves back with unfounded assumptions about “what other people would think”, or we have fixed expectations about what we should be doing, or ought to be doing based upon a world view that we have adopted based upon the un-validated opinions of other people.

Reality check

Back in 2003, Greenday faced some difficult choice when their master tapes were stolen. They could have tried to recreate their stolen music or they could have given up as examples. Instead, what did they do, they ignored the 10% of life that just happens (10%) and focused on using the 90% that they could control to redefine their careers and achieve musical success. In some ways this was driven by the fact that they didn’t think the stolen album really represented their best work, so they resolved to try harder on a different project. Incidentally American Idiot was re-written as an award winning Broadway Musical in 2010.

We all have choices. When life happens to you (thank you Mr Lennon), what do you do about it? Perhaps it is time to start thinking about what you CAN DO rather than focusing on what you can’t?

In this respect Covey is 100% right – things happen in life. You can’t stop what happens most of the time, but you can decide what you do about them. If life isn’t working for you, are you making the right choices? If you need some help, perhaps it is time to speak to a coach?