Monday, January 21, 2008

What percent?

Watching a story about Rudy Giuliani's inexplicable decision to avoid serious campaigning until the Florida primaries, I heard a CNN anchor utter the oft-quoted aphorism, "90 percent of life is showing up." As it turns out, the anchor was subject to percentage- and scope-inflation. Wood Allen's original line was a little less expansive. To illustrate, here's a copy-paste from a William Safire New York Times piece on that topic that ran on August 13, 1989:
A DISPUTE WAS BEGUN in this space recently between President Bush and Gov. Mario (pronounced Marry-o) Cuomo about the accurate quotation of the philosopher Woody Allen.

The President quoted him as saying, ''Ninety percent of life is just showing up.'' (His speechwriters later assured me that Mr. Bush has used that reference frequently; it's one of those things that get stuck in a public speaker's head and he never needs prompting to use it.) The Governor, in his equally frequent usage over the years, says, ''Most of life is just a matter of showing up,'' and the expression in a self-help best seller is ''Eighty percent of success is showing up.''

Readers were promised that clarification of this seminal thought would be sought from the author; Mr. Allen has responded to my query.

''The quote you refer to,'' Mr. Allen writes, ''is a quote of mine which occurred during an interview while we were discussing advice to young writers, and more specifically young playwrights.

''My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.

''In the midst of the conversation, as I'm now trying to recall it, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.''

Why that particular percentage? ''The figure seems high to me today,'' Mr. Allen says, ''but I know it was more than 60 and the extra syllable in 70 ruins the rhythm of the quote, so I think we should let it stand at 80.''
That being said, whether it's 80 percent or 90 percent, the goal of success or life itself, Giuliani had better show up with something amazing.

Incidentally, Keith Olbermann (just this evening) compared Giuliani's strategy to those of the folks who chose to keep the shark in Jaws off camera for most of the movie, believing that absence creates suspense. He emphasized, though, that the same strategy can mask a deeper problem:
Mr. Giuliani might do well to remember that in real life they kept the shark off camera mostly because the shark machinery didn't work too well.

[The] first time they put the damned thing in the water it sank right to the bottom.
January 30th follow up: Well, after a disappointing third-place showing in Florida, Giuliani's out of the race.


Anonymous said...

How lovely that Mr. Allen would take the time to clarify for us. For me, the metaphysical meaning of suiting up, showing up, and taking my place in the universe is key to my success. Only then can I walk forward toward a goal.
I also liked very much his concern with the flow of words. The right number of syllables in a thought is so important.
later gator

highway163 said...

Thanks for your comment! Yep, I too enjoy hearing an expert discuss the nuts and bolts of writing.