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Thursday, February 16, 2017

80 Percent of Success or Life or Something

Another fine week tucked under the belt like a nice, crisp button-down. Yessiree. Highlights of the week included Valentine’s Day, when I took a break from my month without sugar to eat some chocolate and enough Sweethart candy hearts to make my tongue raw. I have since returned to my sugar-free month and my tongue is healed. 

Another highlight was the 9th Grader’s orchestra concert. This was not a school concert. It was a concert by the repertory orchestra of the Empire State Youth Orchestras for which she plays French Horn. While we were waiting to go into the auditorium at Voorheesville High School, the husband and I took our nerd walk in search of a spot to sit and read. We finally found benches in a lobby somewhere in the vast complex of high school and middle school. The husband pointed out a plaque with the motto, 80 Percent of Success is Showing Up. The husband is quite helpful in providing blog fodder for me. I was grateful because I was not sure what I was going to write this week. But that motto is a good one, not just for a blog post, but also for times like these. By "times like these" I mean difficult times, times when it’s hard to read an entire newspaper article, let alone a book, because of, well, because of the times. “May you live in interesting times,” is another old saw that seems pertinent. Not sure if it was meant as a blessing or a curse originally. Probably both. But, my, we do live in interesting times. 

So, yeah, showing up is 80 percent of success. 

Showing up at what? Readers, you may well ask. And I will say -- showing up at that thing you are supposed to be doing. For me, it is writing a draft of a book. Showing up means closing my Internet browser and opening my Scrivener file. Showing up means getting off of Twitter, where I follow a fascinating array of conspiracy-minded counterintelligence journalists and pundits, each of whom, like me, seems to think that constant worry and “tweeting” will help prevent disaster, and putting something down about success in my draft. To borrow writer Anne Lamott’s terminology, I’m just trying to show up and write a shitty first draft. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be something. What do you need to show up to do? Show up and you’re almost there. Four fifths of the way there, to be precise. 

Speaking of precision, that quotation was unattributed. This bothered me, since it was hanging in the lobby of a school. Well, it would bother me anywhere, because I am an educated person who was taught to always attribute my sources, as well as a person who worked for five years in a library. Also, facts matter, and statements were stated by someone, and that is a fact. This unattributed quotation bothered me especially, however, because it was hanging in the lobby of a school. A school that ought to be teaching the importance of attributing facts - and opinions, if we're really going to get into it. Sources matter. 

“That’s by Woody Allen, I think,” I said to the husband. He was, of course, dumbfounded by my encyclopedic knowledge. I made a mental note to check the truth of my statement later. And so I did. And Readers, my search for the originator of that phrase took me on an interesting journey. 
According to, the phrase has several variants: 

  • Ninety percent of success is just showing up.
  • Showing up is 80 percent of life.
  • Eighty percent of success is showing up.
  • Seventy-five percent of life is showing up.
  • In life, 50% of it is showing up.

Originally the quotation appeared in the failing New York Times (fNYT) in a 1977 interview with Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the movie “Annie Hall.” The fNYT quoted Brickman attributing the following to Woody Allen, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” 

Which is not about success. It’s about existing. 

But then, in 1989 William Safire asked Woody Allen about this quotation. And, according to the website, “Allen replied with a letter in which he asserted: ‘I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.’”  So was Marshall Brickman mistaken when he attributed the saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life” to Woody Allen? Had Woody actually said, “80 percent of success is showing up”? Or "Showing up is 80 percent of success?" Or in the intervening twelve years since the comment was first made, had Woody incorporated the slight change into his memory? Is there any way to know? 

This confusion must mean something, Readers. And it does. It means several things. For one, words get twisted all the time. Each of the iterations of this quotation means something a little different. Yet they all mean in essence the same thing. For two, a fact can be a difficult thing to verify. That Woody Allen said, "Showing up is 80 percent of success," is a fact. It's also a fact that Marshall Brickman said that Woody said, "Showing up is 80 percent of life." Each of these statements are opinions. There's no proof that showing up is any percentage of anything - except perhaps of showing up. Opinions and facts are often mixed up. This reminds me of my high school history teacher, Mr. Wood. Mr. Wood blew my mind when he taught us that primary sources for factual events that definitely happened often conflict. One diary mentions one view. Another letter recounts another version. Did ten people die? Or none? Or twenty? Depends where you were situated when the event unfolded. Everyone’s got his or her viewpoint. Objectivity is nigh impossible. Nevertheless, a fact is a fact. Video and photography can help clarify. But they can also mislead. 

For three, at least in part success is about showing up, a.k.a., putting in the effort. That is a fact. 

And so I did. 

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