The 90/10 Principle



Have you ever heard of Dr Stephen R. Covey's The 90/10 Principle? It is an excellent device for demonstrating exactly how 10% of life is what happens to you, whilst 90% of life is influenced by how you react to that stimuli.


It doesn't matter who you are, or how enlightened you endeavour to be, the truth of the matter is: shit happens. There will be times in your life when you're certain you're always in it, it's just the depth that varies. There will be innumerable circumstances in your “four score and ten” years, where you will have zero control or influence over the negative occurrences you will inevitably experience from time-to-time. There will be leaves on the line, moronic parking outside the school, or a flock of wildebeest crap over your newly polished car – but it's not what happens to you that matters, as much as your response to it.


And there is a difference between responding and reacting, however slim the dictionary definitions would have us believe it to be. In reality however, the difference is often vast. A response is a deliberately measured, moderate and thoughtful reasoning, whilst a reaction is more likely to be defensive and emotionally charged by comparison. Which modality you choose (and it is a choice, you always have a choice) will dictate the outcome of your circumstances. Let me share a couple of classic examples of how this all works...


You're packing for your summer holiday, trying to include all that you and your family will need whilst away from home, and the washing machine floods mid-cycle (the washing machine's cycle, not yours. Necessarily.) You have no control over the thingummy wotsit that's just gone AWOL in your washer dryer, but you do have control over how you respond to this unfortunate series of events. Option 1 would be to buy into the whole blowing your own gasket cliché, bawling at the kids for... you know... breathing, and asking if it's okay for you to be that shade of puce for so long; or your could try Option 2.


The thing is, the whole time you're mentally threatening to hunt down and disembowel the manufacturers of your washer dryer, you're wasting time! Your priorities are still the same; you still need to prepare and get away on holiday, so you'd be better employed clearing up the water damage and heading out towards a functioning machine some place (friends, family launderette) to finish that laundry. When crisis kicks you in the nards, your first and only thought must be W.I.N: What's Important Now? Here's another classic scenario for you to consider...


It's Monday morning, you're having breakfast with your family before leaving on the school run and then work. Your son (bless his little cotton socks) knocks over a glass of orange juice, straight into your lap; your work clothes are soaked and covered in juicy bits. Oh the joy, this is just what you need on a Monday morning. What happens next will be directly influenced by how you choose to respond, or react. Let's play this out as per Option 1.


You leap up from your seat, admonishing your son until he cries and offers his life savings to meet your dry cleaning expenses. Your spouse dares to tell you to calm down and keep it in perspective, so you fire an expletive-filled volley of verbal abuse in their direction too. You go upstairs to clean up and change, but now you're running late for the school run. Your spouse can't help as they are performing open-heart surgery on a dragonfly at 9am, so this is seriously going to screw up your day. Your right foot becomes heavy, and the journey to school feels like a qualifying lap around Silverstone, for which you are duly rewarded a speeding ticket. Suffering the typically moronic school run parking slows you down even more, resulting in the kids being flung into school late. Oh, and because of the Saving Private Ryan re-enactment before you left the house, you managed to forget your briefcase, which is also someone else's fault. Now you must return home to collect it, before you can finally complete this very bad day – at work.


So exactly why did you have a bad day?


a) Did the spilt orange juice cause it?

b) Did your son cause it?

c) Did the traffic police officer cause it?

d) Did you cause it?


Well of course you caused it! You personally had no control over the orange juice being spilt, it was an accident. Accidents, by their very definition are unfortunate incidents that happen unexpectedly, or unintentionally. Admittedly there are deeper psychological theories which argue there are no accidents; but that's another blog for another day.


How you chose to respond, in the seconds that followed the orange juice's great escape, unleashed a set of consequences that toppled like dominoes, ultimately leaving you alienated from your spouse and children, with a £60 penalty and points on your licence. What a day! Option 2 would have been kinder to everyone involved, and was less likely to result in a £60 fine. Had you responded thoughtfully and moderately to the juice accident, reassured your son there was no real harm done (but he needs to be more careful in future), you would have had time to change your clothes and retained the presence of mind to remember your briefcase – without anyone wistfully remembering what life was like when you were sane. Well, more sane.


The difference is clear. You had two scenarios, which both started in a exactly the same way, but each ended differently, in accordance with how you responded either rationally or irrationally. Taking a breath before you leap – or counting to ten – can make all the difference to an outcome. If someone cuts you up in traffic, it may be dangerous and idiotic of them, but when you ask yourself “What's Important Now?”, surely getting to your destination safely, and for your life to go on unharmed is more important than allowing road rage to control you, or worse? Drive to arrive – especially if you have loved ones in the vehicle with you.


Hunting down and verbally disembowelling the customer services agent at the washing machine manufacturers isn't going to achieve a great deal either. If you can engage politely with these people, explain the details of your situation calmly to them, you are likely to illicit a sympathetic response from them – rather than a defensive reaction. It Pays To Engage With Charm – we all know what offended waiters do to our food en route to our table.


By writing this article and sharing the long established concept of the 90/10 Principle, I am endeavouring to empower you to make better choices, to understand the power is always yours. You decide, you get to choose – you always have a choice. Choose to respond, not react, for the best possible outcome.


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