Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 81st percentile

Six miles northeast of San Jose City Hall, Alum Rock Park spreads across 720 acres in the Diablo foothills.  It's a beloved destination for downtown dwellers.  Families barbecue by the horseshoe pits; schoolchildren take field trips to the Youth Science Institute; couples walk hand in hand along the Creek Trail.  And on a Saturday afternoon, you'll join a steady stream of walkers, runners and bikers if you head for Eagle Rock and its 180-degree view of the Santa Clara Valley.
 
Go just a little further, though, to the Todd Quick trail off the North Rim, and you'll access the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve.  Other than your own footfalls, the only sound you're likely to hear is a moo from cattle grazing freely on the hillsides.  (They’re part of a plan to reduce invasive species and bring back native plants.)  On a weekend in July, while Eagle Rock was enjoying its typical popularity, I ran into a grand total of three other hikers - and two grey foxes- in two hours.  

Coming back down the switchbacks, it occurred to me that I had crossed into the 81st percentile.  By design, it doesn’t get much discussion.  The Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule, states that for many things, 80% of results come from 20% of causes.  It's an invaluable management principle.  By focusing on the 20%- the critical few- you get the best bang for the buck.  Cross over the line and you start yielding diminishing returns.

In our personal lives, though, that long tail of the distribution curve is where interesting things happen.  Once we surface from our awkward teenage years and realize that following the herd isn't all it's cracked up to be, the world opens up to us- and a small deviation in our patterns can land us in a surprisingly different place.  On that Saturday afternoon, I didn't free-climb Half Dome or go heli-hiking in Banff.  I just turned right instead of left in my local county park, and it changed my experience significantly.

This got me thinking about how often we navigate the world along programmed neural pathways.  If I looked just beyond my largely cruise-controlled life, I wonder what I would find.  What musical treasures transcend Today’s Hits on 97.3?  Could a 30-minute meditation take me deeper into stillness than 15?  And why do I habitually run for half an hour, even when I have time to go longer?  Where are those touch points that, with a small, deliberate effort, yield surprising rewards?  

I know that “81st percentile” is technically a misnomer, but the point is that you don’t have to get extreme to live more expansively.  Most of us will never cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope or dance with the Bolshoi Ballet.  But a gentle stretch away from our dialed-in routines is an exponentially richer world waiting to be tapped.  We have unprecedented, virtually effortless access to information today.  It’s all in how we use it.

I tested my theory at work today by Googling “NPR music blog.”  There was a review of a band called Grizfolk.  I typed it into Pandora, and presto, I was listening to a stream of artists I’d never heard of: Shaye, Appleton, Amie Mariello, Lynn Maas.  I was excited.  I kept exiting Powerpoint to see who was playing and write down their names.

And then I ran for 35 minutes.

This certainly didn’t make me hip.  It didn’t make me a bad-ass.  It just made me happy.