Rules of Thumb: the 50% rule

May 31, 2008

We are often the worst judges of our own work. For manuscripts, we have a remarkably effective, if somewhat brutal, corrective called peer review.

But academics also perform live in classrooms and seminar halls where it is difficult to get a read on just “how we did”. This is partly due to the mind-clouding adrenalin that takes some time to be flushed from our blood stream. By the time we are thinking clearly, the audience has drifted away. Sure, you can somewhat plaintively corner a friend in the hallway to get the scoop, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an inquiry, you know that the critique will be, let us say, somewhat filtered.

Luckily, the problem of getting good feedback is widespread, and we can turn to the Bay Area bluegrass community for one valuable rule of thumb. This is Larry Cohea’s 50% rule. Larry is the banjo player for the long-running band High Country, and, as such, is keen judge of the human condition. Once, when a good friend of mine was complaining about her live performance, he gently lifted her spirits with an evocation of the rule:


if you think your performance was really, really, bad,

chances are it was 50% better than you think it was;

and if you think it was really, really, good,

chances are it was 50% worse.

This rule, like a nice dose of lithium, does wonders for post-performance anxiety. More to the point, it often seems to be true.

Any other RoT’s out there that guide you through the academic life?