Research: The 90/10 Rule Explains Why Some Ideas Survive And Other Ideas Die
This is one of the most interesting, but unknown studies on virality that I’ve read in the last 10 years…
Brian Uzzi, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the Kellogg School of Management, performed a landmark study where he delved into the citation patterns of 20M+ academic studies across fields since 1950 in order to understand what makes the most high-impact studies unique.
A fascinating and universal pattern emerged.
The most high-impact studies had a 90/10 pattern:
90% of the studies they cited were conventional studies in their field
10% of the studies they cited were atypical studies in other fields
For example, in a clip from a lecture on the study (see below), Uzzi shares how the Origin Of Species by Darwin, one of the most important academic books of all time follows the 90/10 pattern:
The Origin of Species by Darwin is full of this blockbuster idea that changed the way we think about ecology, biology, economics, stratification, and all human systems.
And you think about this book as being really full of radical new information, except if you actually take a look at it… The full first 90% of it is fully conventional knowledge. It was knowledge that was well understood, well documented and accepted as truth… It's only in the last 10% does he ever get to the actual big idea.
In a way, what he wound up doing was he took extreme novelty and he embedded it in deep conventionality.
Next, he talks about another one of history’s greatest academic books, Principia, by Isaac Newton:
He first invents the calculus to derive the laws of the universe. But when he publishes his laws of the universe, he first goes back through the painstaking process of reproving everything that he had derived with calculus, with conventional geometry. He then publishes it with conventional geometry and the laws of physics. It's not until the fifth edition does he decide to put the calculus in it as well. This made us begin to think that conventionality plays an extremely important role in how we think about science, and what makes for high impact science.
You can watch an abbreviated overview of the study by Uzzi in the video clip below:
When I first heard of this study, I thought it was interesting. It further cemented my mental model that creativity is about combining interesting things in surprising ways. It also cemented the power of using 6D thinking to find atypical combinations, although I didn’t have the 6D word at the time.
But, I ran into a roadblock. I didn’t really know what to do differently because of the 90/10 pattern.
Fortunately, that changed. I recently had a breakthrough after a coaching session with developmental mastery coach Anand Rao…
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How To Use The 90/10 Idea To Create High-Impact Ideas (for paid subscribers)
What I now understand is that when we share ideas, we aren’t sharing a new idea into a blank slate…
Rather, we are sharing our ideas into a network of pre-existing, internal ideas based on life experiences. This network includes emotions, memories, values, etc:
Great ideas succeed because they resonate and stick with what’s already in someone’s brain. By linking an idea to someone’s memories, experiences, and associations, we can help them see how the idea is relevant and important to their life.
Let me give an example. Imagine slowly running your fingernails down a chalkboard...
With just a few words, I was able to help you recall one or more memories where you put your fingernails on the chalkboard just to see what the brouhaha was all about. You also probably felt that ick feeling that only fingernails on a chalkboard can make you feel. I’m just sharing words on a screen, but those words are powerful because they trigger your pre-existing knowledge, and your pre-existing knowledge is where the feeling resides.
So, perhaps what the 90% conventionality does is that it primes readers to see why the new idea is important and relevant based on their past knowledge, on what readers already know.
Thus, even though an article is just a few hundred words, it can be profound because it can recontextualize tens of thousands of hours of life experiences. More specifically, ideas can help us:
Have more insights by showing how ideas we previously thought were disconnected are actually connected as part of a larger phenomenon.
Remake our priorities by showing how ideas we thought were unimportant are actually important.
Connect us to humanity by helping us see how traits we thought were rare are actually common.
Craft a new identity for ourselves by showing how personal traits we thought were bad are actually good.
Craft a new life story by recontextualizing the meaning of various life experiences.
For example, in the book Quiet, Susan Cain helps introverts see their quietness as a strength that’s important for organizations rather than a weakness.
The best depiction that I’ve ever seen of the importance of the 90/10 Rule comes from the movie Inception when a team attempts to break into someone’s mind via their dreams and change their thinking. Rather than assuming a blank slate and trying to lecture the person, they take the time to understand the person’s network of life experiences and make a small augmentation that changes the meaning of the experiences…
So now the question becomes, how do we use the 90/10 on a practical level within content we create?