Giving your all (plus 0.8 per cent)

Hero of the USSR Alexey Stakhanov, by my criteria, gave around 3,000 per cent.

As we’re getting close to the time of year when people like to make resolutions to try harder, I thought I’d do a quick bit of research to work out how much harder we ought to try, and who should be trying harder to try harder.

I searched for stories where people claimed to give certain percentages (or % or per cent) of effort to find how hard we have been trying in the last few years. I examined a spread from “give 120 per cent” down to “give 80 per cent” on the assumption that anyone claiming to give higher or lower percentages is either a fantasist or lazy enough to ignore.

Ideally any society will have a cadre of capable people who tell you they are giving 110 and 120 per cent. The most noticeable tend to work in professional sports, though as they also tend to assure us they are taking each game as it comes, we can’t assume this is a long term trend. If it is, I’ll be over the moon.

Imagine if we let the 100 percenters carry on as before, then we pair each person who claims to give 120 per cent with someone who wants to give 80 per cent, each person giving 110 with a 90-percenter, and so on. By finding the average I’m effectively measuring who is left over after we do this.

Note that I assume that someone claiming to give 110 per cent is as likely to fulfil that promise as someone who claims to give 90 per cent. This is obviously problematic from a strictly statistical point of view, because it’s what statisticians call “impossible”. So that’s problematic in the sense of “not true”. But I don’t make up the numbers, I just report them.

We need our hyperbolic elites to balance out those who shamelessly give 90 or 80 per cent and aren’t scared to tell the press about it. In normal times a society can celebrate both over- and underachievers, and so will score a solid 100 per cent. Yet, in times of crisis, perhaps more than 100 per cent effort is required – which is why I looked at the statistics for 2009. We’re averaging 100.8 globally, so that’s all right:

I conclude:

1. We’re doing better than we used to. At least, we’re saying that we’re doing better. The global effort mean for the noughties was about 96 per cent.

2. The BRIC countries say they’re trying harder than we are. Anyone who has ever spent a couple of hours in the presence of an Indian company manager, watched all those drummers at the opening cermony of the Beijing Olympics, or looked to see where all your spam comes from will believe this.

3. The UK and the US are above average. Our economies are dead in the water and we’re basically owned by China, but the index shows that we keep telling people that we’re trying; which is endearing.

4. Journalists claim to work harder than politicians. But I’m sure politicians are also claiming another couple of percent in their expenses – not least because they score less than 100 per cent.

5. Surprisingly, sportspeople are below-average hyperbolists. An odd result considering the number of high-profile bullshitters who work in the business. The low score is maybe because, even if they insist they’re giving 120 per cent, they’re giving it twice a week for an hour and a half (though I’m not sure how this would be reflected in the data). Or it might just be that cricket, a game where it’s not polite to try too hard and which is the only sport deliberately scheduled around sit-down meals, drags the average down.

Good news: if you’re worried that your New Year’s resolution might be too testing, you don’t need to try as hard as you think. If your peer group wants to top the charts next year all you need to do is let the press know that you consistently give 101.7 per cent. You’ll be top of my pile for hyperbolic ambition, if not for quotability.

2 Responses to “Giving your all (plus 0.8 per cent)”

  1. 1 Matthew Stibbe December 30, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    You’ve put your finger on something important here. It’s a classic example of the Apprentice-isation of business language. The Alan Sugar show is full of classic cliches – stepping up to the plate, giving 110% etc. Matthew

  2. 2 Brett Hetherington December 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    We used to have a saying when I was a pimply and chubby high school student: “Give fufty!” meaning “I don’t even give fifty percent” (about what you are saying.) I like that expression of indifference.

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