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The Pareto principle: telling the story


One day in my documentary studies class, we were discussing a reading that mentioned that 90 percent of the photographs submitted in a photo competition were about 10 percent of the world. I asked: is the other 90 percent of the world important, and if so, why aren't people focusing on it?

In the context of my project, this meant that when I'm documenting the life of a fourth grade student, is it fair to have lunch and PE time make up a disproportionate amount of the photographs I take? Students are at this school for 10 hours a day, they don't have art or recess and these two hours are the only time students aren't in class.

In a few weeks, I'm going to be telling a story about my first love at a show. Will I cherrypick details as I’m preparing my story for the sake of crafting a better narrative? Yes. Will I make everything 100 percent innocent and pure? Yep. Were the awkward moments only endearing? In my story, they will be. Will I do everything in my power to make my story sound like the first 10 minutes of the movie “Up”? Heck yeah. First love is a topic that begs for the edges to be blurred, for the colors to be a bit more vibrant. In this form, the story is still relatable.

I’ve been hosting prospective freshmen in my dorm. When I describe Duke to them, the workload will likely seem just a bit more manageable, the food at Marketplace will be just a bit more appetizing and the buses won’t really be that much of a hassle.

What does these descriptions say about the ways in which we remember our own lives? To point out that magazines and social media are not real life is so obvious that it need not be said. But what about a documentary project that's attempting to provide an objective portrait of someone's life? What about the narrative I craft about my own life When I think back on my own k-12 schooling experience, how much of the 7 hours a day I spent in classrooms will I actually remember?

It makes sense that a disproportionate amount of my memories and photographs should focus more on the exciting bits. This follows the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. 80 percent of social media is about 20 percent of life. 80 percent of the news is about 20 percent of the world. 80 percent of what we remember about our lives will be about 20 percent of the experiences. 80 percent of the work in a group project will likely be done by 20 percent of the world.

And yet the question still nags me—what about the other 80 percent of life that's crammed into the remaining 20 percent? Isn't that important as well? Romanticizing our lives allows us to smooth out the wrinkles, makes our mental images more pleasant. On one hand, rewriting the past it in a way that fits our life narrative better gives us a stronger sense of self and can be deeply satisfying. On the other hand, letting ourselves place so much value on this altered image makes us lose track of the tinier things.

In a conversation with one of my friends about her unwillingness to talk about her background, she blurted out, "I don't want to just be known as ‘that girl’ who comes from ‘that school.’ I'm more than where I'm from, and if I tell people about where I’m from, that’s all they’ll know about me.”

How bad is it that when I'm walking around Duke on a nice day, all I can think is: "This can't be real life. This must be a poster or something." (Though to be fair, I don't think I've ever seen a poster that spanned my entire field of vision.) How bad is it that when I feel like I should be proud of something, all I can think of is how it's not nearly glamorous enough? I worry that constantly expecting more is only going to desensitize us to the more subtle beautiful things.

When we recognize that so many parts of our lives are carefully crafted in a way to only present a rosier view of reality, then we are relatively safe. It’s when we fool ourselves into believing that life should also be 100 percent glamorous that we fall into the trap of constantly expecting more, of losing sight of all the things that make life beautiful.

Of course, this sense of contentment is a difficult feeling to balance with the feeling of wanting to achieve more, to do more, that seems to be a necessity to being a Duke student at times. But underneath the pervasive “Duke culture” that appears to make up the predominant 80 percent of culture here at Duke, maybe there’s a more subtle part of ourselves that likes to be content with ourselves.

Amy Fan is a Trinity freshman. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Amy Fan | fangirling

Amy Fan is a Trinity senior. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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