The Bluford Principle

We spend Christmas Eve every year at my in-laws in Modesto, CA, a little over an hour drive from my hometown of San Jose. We always have a great time there during the Holidays. My children get to see and spend time with their cousins, whom they don’t see very often. My wife gets to hang out with her siblings, whom because of life’s commitments- kids and work just to name a couple- she also sees a lot less than she probably should. And I get a mini-vacation, a few days that, because there are more adult eyes to look after ours and the other children, I get to relax and unwind a little.

As the stoplight turned green and we proceeded through the last busy intersection on the final stretch of road before my in-laws’ home, I noticed a man standing in a used car lot, which because it was nearly nine pm on Christmas Eve, had been closed for several hours. He was bundled up next to a streetlight, smoking what I’d hoped was a cigarette. “Look at that man,” my daughter said. “He must be cold,” my son added. Upon hearing my children, my eyes immediately glanced at the temperature gauge in my car. It read 36 degrees. Those readers who reside in the Northeast, or even the Midwest or South for that matter, might not see a man standing in 36 degree weather as particularly alarming. For a California boy, though, witnessing this man standing alone, on a street corner, in almost freezing weather, on Christmas Eve no less; was a perfect opportunity to empty my bucket (referring to the great book, How Full Is Your Bucket? If you have children and haven’t shared with them the kid version of this wonderful book, you definitely need to pick it up) and also teach my kids a valuable lesson.

It sounds so simple. “Appreciate what you have.” We make it poetic at times. “Be sure to smell the roses.” And sometimes it’s beaten over our heads by our moms. “Boy, there are people in Africa that wish they had half of what you have!” (That last one is courtesy of my mom, bless her soul.) But the truth is we all- or at least most of us- suffer from this affliction. The problem, I’ve determined, is not that we are all ingrates, as my wife hilariously proclaims at times. The issue is that it’s hard to feel that way–grateful and thankful– while working from a model or view of the world built on ill-advised and unproductive reference and comparison. I’ve gone so far as to name it. I call it the Bluford Principle. Why the Bluford Principle? Well, mostly because I haven’t heard anyone else refer to this dilemma, on which I’ll elaborate in a moment, in quite this way. And maybe a little because I just like the way it sounds.

It’s a twist on the Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the 80-20 rule, which states that for any event or phenomenon, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. 80% of sales, for example, come from about 20% of a company’s customers. Or on a personal level, 20% of your friends create 80% of your stress. If you think about this principle in your life, you’ll find how amazingly accurate (and reflective) it really is.

But my approach is a little different. The Bluford Principle, my version of the 80-20 rule, is really a double-edged sword. At its core is a drive and desire to be the best you can in everything you do, or at least anything that is important to you. This drive, however, can quickly turn into a limiting trait that keeps you from recognizing, let alone enjoying, any accomplishments.

Imagine a continuum of growth. On the one (for sake of imagery, let’s say the left) side you have a complete novice, the beginning stages of knowledge and skill acquisition. If you are a football player, this is when you first suit up at age seven or maybe even before that when you toss the ball in the backyard with your dad. If you’re a bodybuilder or fitness freak, this might be the day your parents bought you your first weight set or the first time you joined a gym. For an actor, it might be your very first audition for that school play. For a parent, maybe it was the day you brought home your first child. The Bluford Principle really can be applied to almost anything at which you desire to be your best.

Unfortunately “YOUR best” becomes “THE best”. And that is the switch that can be damaging. At the beginning, obviously at the initial skill acquisition stage but probably for a while thereafter, you compare yourself with your peers, those equal to or slightly better or worse than you. I just start learning Microsoft Excel and feel I’m pretty good compared to others who use the application. I sing in Karaoke bars and in church and, looking around, know I’m pretty good. But as we get better at whatever it is we are doing, our focus switches from those that we are as good as or better than to those that are slightly or much better than us. Even, and this is the damaging part, as that part of the continuum gets smaller and smaller. The guy who is in the 90th percentile in Math or Science, or at baseball or dancing, or in wealth or popularity, doesn’t recognize or accept that he is better than 90% of the world at what he does. Instead, he focuses his attention, energy, and too often stress on the 10% of those who are better than he is. The woman who finished in the top three for her age group in the marathon is likely more focused on the two that beat her than on the hundreds that didn’t.

The world, me included, certainly doesn’t help matters. The other day I was watching an NFL football game. One particular player was having a very bad day at the office, performing at what even he’d probably consider a low level. I actually had the nerve to say “This guys sucks.” And even though I caught myself, more understanding than most probably because I played football at the college level and realize how hard it is to do what those players do, I am certainly not alone. Couch potatoes do it all the time. We watch a professional athlete lose and are quick to call her a choker. Or we can say that a finalist on American Idol can’t sing. We do this all because of the reference and comparison model we are using, the same one these athletes and singers are likely using; the same one we accountants, mechanics, and parents use for ourselves. Instead of focusing on the left (larger, sometimes huge) side of the continuum- where the population that is NOT as good as us lies- we focus on the right (smaller, sometimes much smaller) side- where the SMALL number of people who are better than us lies.

The trick, then, is to balance the drive and ambition that fueled your efforts as you climbed the continuum with periodic reflection and recognition of just how far you’ve come. Not only is this more productive, it is healthier. Because as much as we are competitively driven individuals might hate to admit it, there will always be someone faster, bigger, smarter, prettier, or just more accomplished. And if we spend all of our energy focused on these few, we’ll, well, miss the whole parade.

No matter how you prefer to remember it, make sure you do. Smell the Roses. Appreciate what you have. And remember, like my mother used to tell me, that people in Africa (or that beginning runner or weightlifter, novice singer, or first-time accountant) wish they had half of what you have. So, yes, when driving your way down the road of success, it’s certainly important to pay attention to the windshield and where you’re going. It’s as important, though, to peak now and again in the rearview window to see and appreciate, where you once were.

And that’s the Bluford Principle. (That still sounds kinda cool 😉)


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