The "One" Idea That Could Change Your Life

I am curious by nature. I love learning new ideas and concepts. Especially ones that cause me to see the world in new and novel ways.

Technically speaking, this comes from my personality trait that psychologists call Openness to Experience, which is one of the Big 5 personality traits. It’s also part of my "Questioner" nature, according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework.

This love of learning new things is generally a good thing...except when it’s not. Sometimes too much information can be counterproductive.

The unbalanced version of me crams my brain with too many ideas that I’m not immediately putting to use. This can lead to overthinking, mental fogginess and, in extreme cases, questioning everything I’ve ever learned. (I once heard someone say, “If you study anything long enough, you’ll realize you know everything about nothing or nothing about everything.”)

But the problem goes deeper than that.

Consuming information is pointless unless you use it to better your life or someone else’s. By constantly seeking new information and failing to take the time to fully digest what you've already consumed, you neither fully absorb it nor use it. It's like chewing a nutritious meal and then spitting it out before swallowing. You don't get any of the benefits.

What's important is not the sheer quantity of information you consume but rather how much of it you retain and actually put to use.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt reflects on this: “We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.”

I often hear self-proclaimed “self-help junkies” lament that there are such an overwhelming number of philosophies, strategies, principles, etc. when it comes to the topic of personal development that it’s difficult to figure out what to do or even where to start.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Here's an axiom I believe to be true: “A virtue carried to extremes becomes a vice.” Another way of saying this is that good things, in excess, often become bad things.

Medicine becomes poison.
Frugality becomes miserliness.
Politeness becomes insincerity.
Utopias become dystopias.

Our current relationship with information demonstrates this well.

We live in an age of information abundance, yet we often find ourselves more confused about certain aspects of the world than our ancestors were. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, as in the domain of science, for example.

But when it comes to the business of improving one's life, many people are drowning in a sea of information yet continually looking for more water. They constantly seek the “next big idea” that will change their life.

I've been guilty of this more than a few times and I can tell you that it doesn't lead anywhere productive.

Less is more

Here’s a solution I came up with for myself. (Although I’m still working on implementing it).

If you're trying to improve some aspect of your life, focus on fully digesting one idea at a time rather than trying to master a bunch of different concepts simultaneously.

In other words, be less concerned with breadth and more concerned with depth.

Pay particular attention to those ideas, concepts, principles, and strategies that instantly resonate with you and that are relevant to your life at the moment. And then use them. Play with them. Mold them to your life. Snuggle up with them and make them yours.

I look at it this way: Even if I only get one good idea from a book and I use that idea to somehow improve my life or someone else's, it was well worth the investment.

Let's say you only read one book a month and that you only get one really good idea from each book. But suppose you actually took the time to absorb each of those ideas, savored them, and applied them to your life in a meaningful way. That's 12 new, life-changing ideas per year!

How many good ideas do you need to change your life? My hypothesis: way less than you think. And I can prove this mathematically. Kind of.

If I only get one good idea from a book and I use that idea to somehow improve my life or someone else’s, then it was well worth the investment.

There's something called the Pareto distribution. It was originally developed by the economist Vilfredo Pareto to describe and predict wealth distribution in a society (most of the wealth is held by a minority of the population). It is colloquially referred to as the 80/20 principle because of the distribution ratio it describes. Tim Ferriss explains it well in the 4HWW:

“Pareto’s Law can be summarized as follows: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. Alternative ways to phrase this, depending on the context, include:
80% of the consequences flow from 20% of the causes.

80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.

80% of the company profits come from 20% of the products and customers.

80% of all stock market gains are realized by 20% of the investors.”

The 80/20 ratio isn’t a precise split but more of a rule of thumb. It’s sometimes more skewed and sometimes less skewed. But the basic principle remains true.

As it turns out, this law accurately describes many natural phenomena and human activities across many different domains, including, science, sociology, geophysics, etc. For example:

  • A few classical composers are responsible for most of the classical music that’s played.
  • A few salespeople in an organization are responsible for the majority of the sales.
  • A few planets contain most of the mass in a galaxy.

You get the idea.

Applying it to your life

Could this law also apply to life advice you encounter?

What if just a few ideas could dramatically improve the majority of your life?

What if 80% of your life could be improved by 20% of the advice you encounter.

What if the ratio was even more skewed? In principle, all you really need is one good idea to radically transform your life. One bit of wisdom that you take to heart and integrate into your life. One core belief that helps you deal with challenges more effectively. One framework that orients you more effectively in the world.

The point is, you don’t need to know every single personal development strategy or philosophy out there. You need to find the ones that resonate with you and use them. 

Elon Musk has been quoted as saying, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”

I won’t pretend to know the contents of Elon’s mind, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that -- given the outrageous goals he pursues -- this single overarching philosophy has been a driving force for much of his success.

Maybe more information isn't what you need. Maybe what you need is to dust off some of those old but perfectly viable ideas you've already encountered. Maybe you've already come across The One Idea that could change your life if only you had taken the time to master it and absorb it rather than hastily moving on to the next.

Go find that idea and put it to work.