The 80/20 Rule

I tell everyone I manage or lead on a project, that it is my job to make sure they are 80% comfortable and 20% uncomfortable.  That 20% uncomfortableness is where I expect them to push themselves, or where I will push them to do things out of their comfort zone. I’ll be there behind them if they have questions, and I’ll do everything possible behind the scenes to make sure they are as successful, but I let them make the decisions.  Either things go well and they grow confidence, or things go wrong, and it’s time to troubleshoot and learn.  To be completely blunt, I usually hope things are slightly wrong so they learn more.  If everything goes right, I feel that I failed them and should have had them try that task earlier.  The goal of the 80/20 rule is to make sure the long-term growth of someone is being prioritized and worked on, and not lost in the current task.

The origin of this concept came from a man, John F., who led a class I took.   I really enjoyed the class and thought I learned a lot, but it was years later that I realized how much he taught us without trying to teach us.  I learned so many life lessons in that class that made me a better human.   The 80/20 rule was only one of them.

We were completing a drill and he said, “You should be missing 10-20% of your shots on these drills otherwise you’re not learning”.  He continued on to say, “If you’re missing less than 10% you’re not pushing yourself hard enough and you’re stagnant.  If you’re missing more than 20% of your shots you’re overwhelmed or pushing yourself too hard and you need to slow it down.”  He proceeded to make sure we were pushing ourselves throughout the class.  On one drill when I hit 100% of my shots, I was pretty happy with myself and expecting his approval.  He walked by with an unsatisfied look and simply said I needed to push myself harder.  As dense as it sounds, this was a pivotal moment in my life.

I was, and maybe still am, someone who was ashamed of failure and more than happy to miss less than 10% of the shots I took.  My instructor’s response shocked me.  It was one of the first times someone had been disappointed that I did a drill or an activity really well.  I went throughout the rest of the class pushing myself until I started missing my shots, not realizing that my brain was rewiring itself.  When I started to miss 10-20% of my shots, John finally came over and started working with me on what things I could do to improve my technical abilities.

There was something really profound about his teaching style.  It’s entirely possible that it was just an odd lesson I learned, but John has been teaching for a number of years and is widely regarded as one of the best instructors in his field.  I’m inclined to think that his teaching style is designed to not only make you better at what you are learning but also make you a better person overall.  This is something I can only aspire to achieve.

John’s class was one of the first instances where I was taught that failure is not only ok but an essential part of learning.  As Brene Brown might put it, John removed one of my shame triggers and showed me that my perfectionism numbing mechanism was getting in the way of me improving myself.

If you’ve worked with me, or if you will work with me, you’ll most likely hear the 80/20 concept.  Now you’ll know where it came from.  Now you’ll know I’m much more interested in your long-term growth and much less interested in your short-term dopamine rushes.

More about the 80/20 concept???  I could do a really poor job explaining why the 80/20 method works, but The Talent Code and the Art of Learning, go into a deep dive of the subject and explain it better than I ever could. If only I had read these books earlier in my life!  If you want to know how humans learn and why failure is an essential part of improvement, those two books are amazing and I suggest you read them.

If I’m not going to go into the science behind 80/20, why am I writing this?  Frankly, I wanted to know why I use the 80/20 method.  I usually write because it’s therapeutic for me.  I have something on my mind, and I begin writing.  I keep writing until I can semi-coherently explain what’s on my mind.  It’s a purely selfish act.  It’s a stream of consciousness that may or may not make sense to anyone but has cleared my mind of things that were weighing me down. People have said they enjoy reading my posts, so I try to put some things out to the world.   Maybe I’ll expand on why I write when it starts weighing down my mind more often and I have some more time to stream that part of my consciousness.

For now, my head is clear and I’m happy I took the time to have some introspection.  I’m happy I had such amazing leaders that helped shape who I am today.  I’m hopeful I can impact someone else’s life a fraction of how those leaders impacted mine.


Michael Levandoski, PhD.
Michael Levandoski, PhD.
Dr. Michael Levandoski, Jr. grew up in Morristown, New Jersey having a passion for science at a very early age. It was around 5 years old when he carried with him a dull, blue Styrofoam case containing a microscope for which he used everywhere he went. From viewing insects to plants to food under the microscope, his curiosity was never satiated. He participated in science fairs while in elementary school, putting in hours of dedication and creativity. His scientific inquisitiveness carried with him into adulthood, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics with a heavy focus on RNA processing from Rutgers University. His career in science has led him to move from New Jersey to Los Angeles, to his current home in North Carolina. Presently, as a Research Scientist, his work is focused on pathogen genomics and large-scale data analysis and data visualization. He has presented posters at national conferences and has served as a subject matter expert for infectious disease research. One of his unique strengths is using his programming skills to analyze massive data sets to aid in machine learning projects and explain complex biological phenomena in easily understandable ways to non-scientists. He is a big proponent of thinking “win-win” to join multidisciplinary teams so that he and his colleagues can succeed in various projects. Aside from his scientific achievements, he would say his biggest accomplishment was marrying the love of his life and collegiate homecoming queen, Edith. Together they enjoy hiking, traveling, and exploring local cuisine. Their happy home consists of 3 rescue dogs and 2 cats, which means there is never a dull moment. In Mike’s spare time he enjoys his lifelong hobby of martial arts. He is practicing Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and wrestling, where he encourages and inspires newcomers to break out of their comfort zone and test their limits just as he did. One of his core principles is that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak, and he tries to embody that idea physically, mentally, and spiritually across the spectrum of his passions.

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