Giving Makes a “Good Enough” Life Truly Great

Emtzs1_wooden_tzedakah_box
TOO MANY CHICKPEAS
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd (Rabbi) 

Asian trappers have a neat trick for catching monkeys. They hollow out a coconut through a small hole, fill it with chick peas, and wedge it firmly between rocks or fasten it to a tree. Smelling the chick peas, the monkey gingerly sidles over to the treasure trove, surreptitiously slips his hand into the hole, grasps a fistful of goodies, and… oops… he’s stuck – stuck between two options – drop the peas and slip his hand out, our hang onto them and get caught himself. The monkeys are smart but the peas win out. 

We’ve all got our chick pea traps – obsessions big or small that cost us our freedom. Businesses that devour our families, inboxes that gobble up our days, diversions that distract us from our greater goals. The lesson is obvious. Sometimes you just have to let go. 

The art of letting go is much more than a self-help tool. It’s also integral to a pervasive megatrend sweeping world culture and world markets. Analysts call it the Good Enough Revolution and it stands on a tripod of three factors – simplicity, convenience and low cost. Until recently technology has been driving product offerings to greater and greater heights of quality, with more and more features. But all that is changing now. 

Take for example the MP3. These highly compressed audio files have quickly become the industry standard even though sound-wise they are of low quality. The explanation is that they are also simple to use, convenient to store and share, and very inexpensive. 

The same thing happened in the video recording market. Pure Digital owners Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein launched the $150 Flip video camera in a world where a mid-priced Sony was running $800. Like the MP3, they slipped in at the bottom of the market and two years later are the best-selling video cameras in the US. True, the images are grainier, the viewing screen is tiny, there’s no color adjustment and no optical zoom. But it takes 10 seconds to figure out how to use it, fits in your shirt pocket, and costs very little. 

The list of good-enoughers goes on: we get facts from Wikipedia, breaking news from blogs, telecommunications from Skype, and ads from Google. The US military today relies on the new unmanned MQ-1 Predator that cannot fly as fast, as high or as heavily armed as most craft. But it’s simple, portable and relatively cheap – the MP3 Effect. 

What about the perfectionists of this world? A perfectionist will certainly care that Wikipedia isn’t quite as reliable as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that bloggers don’t use fact checkers, that Skype drops calls, and that Google ads don’t grab attention. But when it comes to most things, do we really need perfection? Are you investing your life savings based on wikinformation? Are you treating a lethal condition based on a health blog you found? Are you calling a once-in-a-lifetime business contact on a VOIP line? Surely these are the times to raise the bar – to pay more for quality – but those times are rare. Most of the time, good enough is just great. 

A good-enough guy works to live, he doesn’t live to work. Good enough means sometimes letting a loved one be right even when wrong. Good enough earnings let you take more meaningful jobs. Depending on the day, good-enough parents might drop the dishes to play ball or drop the ball to do the dishes. A good enough attitude lets you know when to drop the chick peas for things that matter more. 

But how do we know how much is good enough? Is there a way to quantify our priorities? Analysts and managers have a tool to do just that. It’s called the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule and it’s named after a turn-of-the-century, Italian economist who noticed that 20% of his countrymen owned 80% of the nation’s wealth. Since then, a flood of observations of all kinds have supported the general idea. 

Business analyst John Reh says that “Project managers know that 20 percent of the work (the first 10 percent and the last 10 percent) consume 80 percent of your time and resources. You can apply the 80/20 Rule to almost anything, from the science of management to the physical world. You know 20 percent of your stock takes up 80 percent of your warehouse space and that 80 percent of your stock comes from 20 percent of your suppliers. Also 80 percent of your sales will come from 20 percent of your sales staff. Twenty percent of your staff will cause 80 percent of your problems, but another 20 percent of your staff will provide 80 percent of your production. It works both ways. 

“The value of the Pareto Principle for a manager is that it reminds you to focus on the 20 percent that matters. Of the things you do during your day, only 20 percent really matter. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results. Identify and focus on those things. When the fire drills of the day begin to sap your time, remind yourself of the 20 percent you need to focus on. If something in the schedule has to slip, if something isn’t going to get done, make sure it’s not part of that 20 percent.” 

In the 80/20 Rule, good-enough marketers of good-enough products see a way to turn good-enough profits. Practicing Jews see a way to spend those profits – on tzedakah, or charity. 

Ever since Sinai, Jews have been tithing their produce and their income and giving it away. In temple times, ten percent went to the Levite (hence the term to levy a tax), and another ten percent went to holiday celebrations and gifts to the poor – about 20% altogether. Today, Jews are obliged to give at least a tenth of their earnings to charity and Chassidim, Chabad included, still give a fifth. According to the Tanya, the fifth we give brings purpose and elevated significance to the rest. 

Perhaps the two 80/20 rules are related intrinsically, embedded in nature and society like the divine proportions of the golden rectangle. Be that as it may, there is something more to the charity rule. While clever businessmen trade off their 20’s against their 80’s to maximizing their gains, the simple Jew has it all – the 20% he gives away is a mitzvah and that’s his forever, while the 80% he keeps becomes exalted along the way. 

That way you get to have your chick peas and eat them, too. 

And since tzedakah brings Moshiach, there will be enough chick peas to go around for everybody, monkeys and trappers included. And on that day the whole world will know that letting go of 20% really was the way to make a good enough world truly great. 

Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada.
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