If I could wave a magic wand and give every person alive the gift of a single piece of knowledge known in a thorough and complete fashion... I might choose to share that the power of small percentages, aggregated, is absolutely gigantic.
The human mind can't grasp this well, as many luminous writers have written about -- from Benjamin Franklin in the early American colonial days, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Paul Graham today.
It's like this -- you add a single percentage point of gain or advantage, and the results wind up being absolutely incredible.
The following table and notes are from Paul Graham's Startup = Growth --
Going from 7% weekly growth to 10% weekly growth means going from a company 33.7x larger in one year to a company 142x larger in one year.
That's a really big deal... yet, for someone untrained in thinking in this kind of statistical advantage way, hearing that customer onboarding could be improved by a single percentage point doesn't sound like a big deal.
That's wrong, of course. It's a really big deal. That's why people like Kai Zau get $1,500+ per day consulting on UI/UX design, and Peter Borden gets budgets of $50,000+ per month to improve customer acquisition for enterprise tech companies. A gain of single digit percentage points, to one specific aspect of getting new customers, translates to radically increased growth.
But okay, let's step back from the technology world, which everyone knows is crazy.
I posted a link to a paper by Gollwitzer et al on "Implementation Intentions and Goal Shielding" recently. There was a nice reception to it, but probably not as big as it should have been.
The paper was on how to do "goal shielding," a mental construct you can use to resist giving in to temptation to break one of your goals. If you observe the graph below, you'll see how having a goal-shielding intention in place reduced consumption of undesirable snacks --
The paper had built up to the technique, and then I saw the graph... and was disappointed.
"Oh, this isn't a magic bullet. It just reduces things a bit."
But wait. That's a 20% gain right there, for just doing some basic mental preparation. ("When I have a craving, I will immediately dismiss the craving." -- read the paper, it's good.)
20% is huge. Most of us -- myself included -- get suckered into looking for something that gives us a +100% or a +500% immediately on things like finances, business, health, nutrition, and so on.
Not many such things exist.
Meanwhile, we'll pass up even large boosts like goal-shielding, which is absolutely gigantic. You get into a basic mindset, prep some words, and you'll screw up your goals around 20% less of the time. Wow, that's a fantastic ROI on your time of reading a short paper and prepping yourself.
A final example -- you can buy Ephedrine HCL legally in Canada without a prescription. Ephedrine HCL mixed with caffeine boosts one's basal metabolic rate -- the calories you burn each day without doing anything -- by around 5%.
It's amazing going around online at the variety of different opinions. Many people say, "Ah, that costs like $40 per month, and it only increases your metabolism by 5%."
I saw 5% and said -- whoa. 5%. That's a big deal. My basal metabolic rate is probably around 2500 calories per day, that's what I burn without effort. 5% higher is another 125 calories per day, or 3750 calories per month.
That's one extra pound of fat lost per month, all else being equal. (Additionally, Ephedrine+Caffeine has mild appetite suppressing qualities, so you probably won't compensate by eating more.) There are potential side effects to ephedrine -- please do your own research carefully -- but for me, I've taken ephedrine before for allergies under a prescription, so I know it's safe and works for me.
If someone with my body makeup does Ephedrine+Caffeine for six months out of the year and hold everything else constant, they'll be six pounds lighter at the end of the year. Eat well and train smartly, and that should lead to being much more lean.
But most people don't think that way. They see, "5%? That's not much, forget it."
That's huge. The gains come at the margin. Get everything else right, of course -- don't just eat three pizzas a day. But once you've got your nutrition and fitness together, a 5% boost in metabolism is gigantic. It's hard to get across quite how big it is.
If I had my magic wand, I'd wave it now and point out that single-digit percentage point advantages -- in anything -- are tremendously incredibly valuable. Pass them up at your detriment. Seize them to your gain. And when someone says, "It's only a 1% difference..." -- then do feel free to smack them on the head, ideally with a magic wand.
This is similar to the idea of Aggregated Marginal Gain used by the British Olympic Team and it definitely shows the power of improving by percentages.
I don't think the problem is with people dismissing the seemingly small percentage but it's more towards our inability to compute the percentage themselves in the long term.
However, there is a corollary of this - illustrated very clearly in this video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umFnrvcS6AQ
Its the effect of compound growth on resource usage, population growth and externalities like pollution. One line I remember very clearly - US was described as having 400 years worth of coal left, at current usage levels. If you introduce 2% growth in usage, the US has something like 80 years worth of coal left.
As always, please do your own research and check my facts. If you have any unusual medical conditions or issues with substance abuse, consult a doctor or therapist. But the below is a method I've used soundly to be able to easily cycle off caffeine when I want to.
Why do so? Well, caffeine is tolerance building and chemically addictive. It starts as a large boon and a performance enhancer, but eventually you need to consume caffeine just to get to normal. It can be disruptive to sleep.
You might function better on caffeine or off caffeine as a general pattern, but either way -- you'll benefit from occasionally cycling off it for a month or two to reset your tolerance level and re-experience life without the cycles of caffeine high and withdrawal, just to double-check and make sure caffeine is serving your current lifestyle well.
At the same time, quitting cold turkey is a pretty brutal strategy for most people if you're a heavy user. I'm busy all year round, which presented me with a conundrum -- if I quit caffeine cold, I take a huge performance hit with headaches and sleepiness. Very bad.
With research and experimentation, I came to a method that works extremely reliably. I've never failed to cycle off caffeine using the below method -- sometimes it goes a little faster, sometimes it takes a little longer, but with patience, it simply works. The below is excerpted from a letter to a friend of mine who is performance oriented, and was inquiring about how to do better with managing caffeine and sugar. Here's my notes to him --
I attended last year's FounderConference, which was at MSFT's Mountain View campus, and captured the content of the event. I also took a panoramic shot that Alain used for the 2011 conference, and in exchange he comp'd a ticket for me to attend this year.
As part of my goal to help entrepreneurs worldwide be more successful (i.e., my fundraising manifesto), I've captured the content of this year's Founders Conference below. This year's event was much larger than 2010, at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, with about 500 people attending.