Column: Is it possible to give more than 100 percent?

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From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

There’s a commercial on TV in which a window manufacturer claims that its windows are 2,000 percent more airtight than their nearest competitors’ windows. Wow! 2,000 percent!

What is a 2,000 percent increase? I’m not a mathematician, but it seems to me that an increase of 100 percent in a quantity means that the final amount is 200 percent of the initial amount (100 percent of initial + 100 percent of increase = 200 percent of initial); in other words, the quantity has doubled. Does that make sense? So, for example, an increase of 800 percent means the final amount is nine times the original (100 percent + 800 percent = 900 percent = 9 times as large), right? So, if you agree with that, does it seem right that 2,000 percent means that the final number is 21 times the original (100 percent + 2,000 percent = 2,100 percent = 21 times as large)? Right?

So does that mean that this manufacturer’s windows are 21 times more airtight (and energy-efficient) than their competitors’ products? Does that seem possible to you? This maker’s website says, “There is literally not a window in the world with a better air-sealed rating than our windows.” I’m impressed.

All this talk about percentages makes me think about some other areas, particularly in sports jargon – where 110 percent seems to be a very popular concept. You know: “We gave it 110 percent out there. We left it all on the field.”

If you’re a student of language (or maybe math), you’re probably thinking that scientifically there isn’t such a thing as 110 percent! That’s because 100 percent is perfect, it is the best you, or anyone, or anything can attain, and that is pretty much impossible to achieve, let alone maintain. I’m pretty much in that group. I always wince whenever anyone — usually an athlete — rattles off a phrase like “we gave 110 percent out there tonight.” It’s impossible to give more than 100 percent, right? That’s what “percent” means.

Then I started to really put some thought into it. So for argument sake, let’s say there is actually 110 percent – percentages greater than 100 are possible.

Whenever I hear an athlete give a speech about giving 110 percent effort in whatever it is he was doing, I just wonder how much help they are actually giving me. You should wonder, too.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say that someone actually does give 110 percent. How long do you think that person will be able to sustain it? A day, a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a full month? The point is 110 percent is not sustainable over time for you or for anyone. In fact, my guess is that this is most likely a leading cause for burnout and failure.

Take a car for example: Suppose the speedometer indicates the car has a top end speed of 120 miles per hour. If you put the pedal to the floor and the car reaches that top speed of 120 mph, how long do you think the car will maintain that speed? How long will that car hold together? What do you think will go first — the engine, the drive train, or maybe it will run out of gas or overheat? I think it’s safe to say that a car or anything else cannot maintain 100 percent effort all the time.

The same goes for us; how far do you think you can go if you applied 110 percent effort all the time? A day? A week? Maybe a whole month before you would stop? That is my point. You would eventually wear out and quit. Most people would quit. That’s maybe a good reason why a lot of people fail — because they burn themselves out too soon.

Maybe a better approach would be to have 100 percent commitment as a goal and to apply your best effort consistently — even if it’s only 75 percent. That way you would avoid burnout and maintain your enthusiasm. Staying consistent day after day will more likely help you become successful.

I guess it’s all about defining what counts as 100 percent effort. Let’s say “100 percent” is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100 percent. It’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking. Maybe that’s why cross-country runners can put on a burst of speed in the last 100 yards of a three-mile race after supposedly giving it “all they had” over the course.

I think I’d better quit here. I’m confusing myself — and I’m giving 110 percent to understanding this.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.