The Significant 1%

There’s very little in life, and in our own lives, that we’re in control of—but that little matters.

My name for this “little” is “The Significant 1%” and it’s been on my mind a long time.

I was reminded of it watching Breaking Bad for the first time earlier this year (don’t judge). It’s a great show that’s well shot, well told, and profound in how it explores the human condition. But what most struck me was how long it took the main character to take responsibility for his actions. In the very first episode, Walter White learns discovers he might not have a lot of time left to live. Faced with this grim reality of death he proceeds on what ends up being a very dark path. But as he got increasingly entangled and did ever more atrocious things, he remained insistent that he “had no choice”—to him every action was simply a response to how others behaved, and not what he really wanted to do. 

It took Walter White a very long time to admit he was really doing it all for himself. Instead of taking responsibility he was only interested in placing blame. He was caught up in the things he didn’t have control over, and that became his excuse to refuse to take responsibility for the things he did.

And if we’re being honest, which of us doesn’t relate?

Responsibility versus blame

The two might seem similar but they’re very different—and lead to very different outcomes. 

Blame is about the past. Responsibility is about the future

Blame wants to know who created the problem. Responsibility wants to know who will take charge of it

Blame focuses on all that has gone wrong. Responsibility is interested in what can be made right.

And so, while most of us will (rightly) refuse blame for what we’re not responsible for, we can always take responsibility for what we’re not to blame for. Heck, we do it every time we take on a new job, which often involves taking up whatever was messed up—or just left undone—by the previous employee.

The Significant 1% is about taking responsibility—while also relinquishing control.

This means accepting 2 things:

  • Most of your life is out of your control: let’s say 99%
  • The remaining 1% you do have control over? It matters.

That 1%, of course, is your behaviour: your choices, your responses, your actions.

Archimedes reputedly said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand on, and I can move the world.” The lever is your actions, and The Significant 1% is your standpoint.

You might even call it your locus.

What’s your locus standi?

If you’re familiar with psychology you might recognise in the Significant 1% the concept of locus of control: the idea of where the centre of events in your life is located. People who see their circumstances as due primarily to their own actions have an internal locus. People with a more external locus, on the other hand, see things in terms of external forces, whether that’s other people, luck, fate or even spiritual forces. 

On the face of it, an internal locus of control might seem better than an external, but like all things in real life, it’s a little more complicated. So here’s what we’ve found.

People with an internal locus of control are, as you might expect, more likely to be proactive and have higher self-efficacy (the confidence that what you do makes a difference). On the other hand, when catastrophe hits, an external locus of control helps you accept you’re not in control of that much. There’s even research suggesting that suicidality can be worse in communities where internal locus is the norm: they’re more likely to consider those whose lives aren’t going well to be somehow personally at fault, instead of merely unlucky.

The idea of The Significant 1%, then, combines the best of both worlds: it offers us a way to acknowledge external locus of control (that there’s a lot of life that’s outside our control) while maintaining an internal locus and taking responsibility for what we do (and the attending consequences).

The Significant 1% gives us permission to take responsibility without needing to convince ourselves we’re in control.

It’s a bit like a kite: the acknowledgement that we’re not in control sets us free to fly, while the recognition that our actions are significant keeps us grounded. And it helps us avoid that thing some successful people do where they struggle to accept that acknowledging the role of luck (or privilege or God or whatever) in their success does not negate their having worked hard.

Why is all of this important?

Personal struggle. Well, like much that I write about, it’s important to me personally and professionally. As I’ve written about elsewhere, there have been times I’ve struggled with finding meaning to life, and although my faith offers what I find a compelling story in which to situate myself, it’s helpful to remember that my actions are significant.

Professional courtesy. It’s also useful in my work, and in my personal life, because I often meet people I can’t do a lot for, and it’s helpful to remember that the “little” I cando for them, the little ways I can help, are significant. But it’s also helpful because when I really believe that I can help them believe it too. 

Practicality. Thinking in terms of the Significant 1% frees me to focus on action. It reminds me that even when I get overwhelmed, even when things feel out of my control, what I do matters. I sometimes still need help remembering that, but at least there’s a difference between not knowing something at all and needing to be reminded of it.

I end as I began, with another story, this time one in which seemingly insignificant people changed everything by taking the actions that they could in the face of vast complexity and uncertainty: The Lord of the Rings. And so I leave you with the words of Gandalf:

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

Go on and act—because, let’s face it, you must.


I thank Zachary Fleischmann and Lev Naginsky for their feedback on early drafts.


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