Me and Yvon; We're 80 Percenters

I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different...
— Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia, Inc.

It’s happened to most of us: we read, or hear something that resonates so deeply with us, that every cell in our body begins to tingle. That this ultimate truth before us can barely be contained.

That’s what happened to me when I read the above quote. “That’s it! That’s me!”, I thought. Reading Yvon Chouinard’s words in “let my people go surfing,’ (part of the Patagonia Business Library) normalized for me something that has plagued me for years: a seeming lack of discipline and stick-to-it-tiveness. 

You see, for a long time, I thought I just had trouble staying with things. I just chalked it up to the Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis I received as an adult. 

“Ah, that must be it! That’s why I move from thing to thing! Too many shiny objects!” 

It actually took me years to see the pattern in myself. The first time someone referred to me as a “jack of all trades; master of none” I was taken aback.

“Wait! I’m good at this thing, and that thing…” I thought.

But the concept of mastery is a whole different level, isn’t it? What have I really mastered in my life?

I’ve played guitar for over half my life. Classical guitar was my primary instrument in college. Will I ever play like Jimi Hendrix or Ana Vidović ?  Or play ukulele like Jake Shimabukuro?

Probably not. 

Speaking of classical guitar, I remember something Christopher Parkening said during a master class I audited. He was recounting stories of being in master classes with Andrés Segovia. After one of those master classes, Segovia gave Parkening some simply, yet profound advice: “Christopher, work very hard.”

That sagely, Yoda-esque advice is some deep once it sets in.

And Segovia lived that advice. I read that he was practicing five hours a day up until the end of his 94 years on this planet.

Work. Very. Hard.

I used to joke that I didn’t want to work that hard. But what I figured out, is that it’s not that I don’t want to work hard. Most of us musicians (except for a rare few) have to put in countless hours of work to do what we do, if we want to do it well. 

That’s exactly what I’ve done, time, and time again. I get completely consumed by something, and it’s all I talk about or think about. It happens with music constantly. For me it’s like the old saying, “a kid in a candy store.” There are SO many interesting things in this world! I want to try them all!

In the past few years, I have thrown my intense focus into learning to play Native flute, folk flute, ocarina, doumbek, riq, pandeiro, bones, kalimba, ukulele…the list goes on. Ah…can’t forget learning how to overtone sing in the bathtub…good acoustics there…

This brief, yet intense focus happens in the kitchen too. One of my wife’s favorite comfort foods are grilled cheese sandwiches. She was reminiscing one day about one of her favorite hang out spots in grad school where she always ordered the grilled cheese with pickles on it. When she asked me to make her a grilled cheese, as she did frequently for a while, I delighted in experimenting. I would present her with different combinations of cheese, heating up the pickles before putting them on the sandwich so they weren’t so drippy, did she prefer the sandwich sliced pickles, the hamburger dills, or did she like it better when I minced the pickles so they would incorporate into the melted cheese more? Butter and grill one side of the bread, or both? Caramelized cheese on the outside of the sandwich? One side, or both sides?

I get obsessive…down to the most minute of details…for a while.

Then I get bored. At least I think I do.

Yvon’s 80 percenter concept makes perfect sense to me.

I reach a certain level of proficiency, and then I’m ready to move on to something else. New challenges, new things to learn.

Now that I think about, I have to laugh at something a college girlfriend said when she was breaking up with me. She said, “We’re just too different…you always have to be learning something, and I…don’t.”

Yet that thought, even as a joke, persisted: “I don’t want to work that hard.”

It’s not that. It’s also not about attention deficit. It’s about learning, and growing, and the desire to never be complacent.

All these things I mentioned? I don’t forget about them. After my grilled cheese phase, I still make grilled cheese. I still experiment, but the level of intensity has shifted. I just learned how to make arepas, and my mind is abuzz with what I could do with them. My mind is also abuzz with kalimba, pandeiro, and ocarina. My interest waxes and wanes, and Yvon Chouinard helped me realize why this is okay for me. 

Here in the United States, we are culturally imprinted with the drive to succeed.

#1 or none!

Climb, strive, achieve!

Of course, our poor millennials grew up with conflicting messages. The cultural imperative to be the best, but everybody gets a trophy just for showing up. That’s a whole can of worms I’m going to leave on the shelf for now.

So am I settling at an 80% level?


To me, it is far more important to live with an ever renewing zeal, and passion than it is to achieve 100% mastery. Don’t get me wrong…we need the Jimis, and the Anas, and the Christophers in this world. We need those people to define the very highest level of human achievement.

For myself, there are so many wonders in this world, that I would rather spending my time learning about (and doing) a lot of them rather than reach 100% mastery at one, or a few of them.

I’m an 80 percenter, and that’s just great for me.