…those who can count, and those who can’t.
Last time I wrote about some of the things my father used to tell me and my brothers, and the various pieces of advice he handed down about life in general. I mentioned something I called the 20-60-20 Rule and I said that I would explain what it was in the near future. Well, the future is now, you lucky people.
About ten years or so ago, I got myself into some fairly serious financial difficulties through bad decisions. And then I compounded those difficulties with arrogance and an ostrich like tendency to stick my head in the sand. I don’t know if any of you are huge Keanu Reeves fans. I can take him or leave him myself but I did see a movie he was in called ‘The Replacements.’ There is a scene in that movie where he talks about how fear is like quicksand and struggling against it just makes you sink quicker.
This is exactly how I felt trying to deal with this on my own.
Finally I had to acknowledge that I couldn’t do it on my own and I called my father. Making that phone call is one of the top five hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my entire life, and easily the most humbling. My father helped me find my way out of that particular maze without just stepping in and fixing it for me. The details of how he did that are not germane to this particular entry, but do deserve to be elucidated on in the future as there were and are a wealth of temporal and spiritual lessons to be had from the way both he and I responded to the situation.
As we finished up, he told me something that has always stuck with me, and that I have, in turn, passed on to more than few people. Chances are, if you’ve ever asked me for advice or for help with a problem, you’ve probably heard some form of the following.
“In this world”, my father told me, “there are generally three types of people. There’s a bottom 20%, a vast middle ground of 60%, and a top 20%.[At this point he paused, as I still do when I tell this story, to mentally check that he’d gotten his percentages right.] Now this bottom 20%, they tend to just bumble through life, and bad things constantly happen to them, and they’re always constantly at a loss as to why. And it’s because, you see, they make mistakes, like everybody does, but they never learn from them. And not only do they not learn from their mistakes, but they also fail to apply the lessons that they don’t learn in a wider context.”
“And then you have this vast middle ground of 60% of people. These people bumble through life as well, but they have it a little better than the bottom 20%. Because when they make mistakes, they do tend to learn from them, but only as far as that specific situation is concerned. They never manage to apply that lesson in a broader context to their lives, or construct a general life principle from it.”
“That top 20%, though, these people go through life, and yeah, they inevitably make mistakes as well. You can’t avoid doing that. But they learn from those mistakes. And more importantly, they know how to apply those lessons in a broader context. They can formulate general life principles from those events.”
“Now, that top 20% is where you want to be. Yeah, you’re probably going to slip down into that middle 60% occasionally. Nobody is always on the ball. But as soon as you realize that you have, you need to smarten up and fix it. And whatever you do, you don’t ever want to slip all the way down to that bottom 20%, because those people lead unhappy, unfulfilling lives.”
I’ve tried to be in that top 20% ever since I heard that little speech. Occasionally, I have slipped down into that middle 60%, but when I realized it, I did smarten up and fix it. I think I’ve also managed to stay clear of that bottom 20%. Because I’ve been there and I’m in no real hurry to go back. And because like the city of Detroit, it’s a place that seems almost deliberately designed to make you regret being there and make you want to never come back.