As a popular science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon laboured for decades defending good science fiction from critics who claimed all science fiction was bad. He argued that science fiction was no different from any other literature: while most are indeed bad, some are excellent.
This principle should apply to all endeavours, from creative literature to film and advertising, medicine, law, software apps, and even leadership. In every field, only a few exemplars rise above the morass of mediocrity.
As Sturgeon highlighted, if all you’re looking for are bad examples, there’s plenty to find. Hence his eponymous law, “nothing is always absolutely so”, more popularly cited as Sturgeon’s Revelation, “90% of everything is crap.”
This could just be another way of articulating the Pareto effect, AKA the 80-20 principle. But I think it’s more nuanced than simply an objective measure of what we do and the results we get.
Thing is, who decides what’s good or bad? Who’s the observer doing the measuring? And what are their criteria?
It seems most sources I’ve found on Sturgeon’s Law reference generalised ratings, like a travel establishment’s stars, how many accolades are lavished on a TV commercial, or how many weeks a book listed as a best seller.
Closer to the work of entrepreneurs, we love to cite the Big Four as paragons of the consulting world, the stars to aspire to emulate. But they’re good examples for only a specific audience – usually big corporates with big budgets. I can’t think of too many scenarios where a small business hiring a Deloitte or E&Y would be good. It would be really hard to churn out anything that's both appropriate to small business and within a reasonable budget.
Within each rating system, behind each average rating is a collection of high and low individual reviews. High-ranking billets on Trip Advisor have a collection of poor reviews. Low-ranked restaurants often have a few good reviews.
Affirming Sturgeon’s Law, there are very few of anything that are all atrocious or all excellent. If you look deeper at individual ratings, I often see that bad ratings come from people who shouldn’t be there – they’re not the target market.
In your business, “good” is defined by your audience. Just like the Big Four are good only for some clients, your work could be the best thing for just your niche, but 90% crap for everyone else. Whether it’s your internal leadership, your advertising, or the thing you sell to your customers, you don’t get a say in defining “good”. Only your target audience has that right.
Applying Sturgeon’s Law to your business, you have 2 priorities:
1. define exactly who it is you’re trying to please and,
2. get their regular input and feedback on how you’re doing.
Without this, having a business that rises above the 90% crap would be a crapshoot.