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The Magic of 30

By Marty Nemko

We’re all taught to honor perseverance: in looking for a job, in trying to get your idea adopted, whatever. But how do you know when you’ve persisted long enough that further effort is likely to be a waste of time?

An answer lies back in that Statistics 101 course you may have taken. If so, you may recall doing an experiment in which everyone in the class was asked to flip pennies a large number of times and keep track of the results. During the first few coin flips, because of luck, a number of students probably got a large percentage of either heads or tails. To get most students to average 50 percent heads and 50 percent tails usually requires about 30 flips. By 30 flips, most of the luck factor gives way to the reality that the true probability of getting a head or a tail is 50/50.

The magic of 30 has broad applicability.

In the job seeker workshop I did last night, I must have recommended it five times to individual attendees.

For example, a woman had created some designs for children’s furniture. She asked, “I’d like to manufacture and sell them. How do I do that?” But after a bit of probing, it was clear she lacked the expertise and financial resources to start a manufacturing company. I encouraged her, instead, to send a couple of her designs to the 30 children’s furniture companies most likely to want to buy them. If she sent her designs only to a few companies, they could easily be rejected for “luck” reasons: the decision maker’s taste was different from hers, a company could have an oversupply of similar designs, it’s going broke, etc. But if 30 companies said no, that probably indicates that additional inquiries are likely to be fruitless and that she’d be wiser to try doing something else.

Another workshop attendee was a Hewlett Packard engineer whose job was offshored to India. I suggested that she pitch herself to the senior person in charge of engineering at 30 small companies—small firms are less likely to offshore. If she got no encouragement from any of the 30, it’s probably time to upgrade her skills, move to a part of the country with a stronger job market, or change careers: perhaps most jobs in her field are getting offshored. If, however, in applying for the 30 jobs, she had been the #2 applicant a few times, it’s probably worth her pitching 10 or 20 additional employers.

A client of mine has been a print broker for 22 years but sees the industry declining rapidly. He said that his favorite part of the job is closing deals. He also mentioned that he loves gourmet foods. I suggested that he pitch himself to the sales manager at 30 gourmet food manufacturers and, especially, food brokers, since he is a broker.

Another client is wondering how long she should keep trying to be a successful artist. I suggested that, in the next year, she set up 30 opportunities for her work to be widely seen: galleries, art shows, open studio, showing her work in restaurants and banks. If that doesn’t yield a clear indication that her artwork will offer at least enough income to pay her rent, she should consider relegating her art to hobby status.

I too use the magic of 30. When I write a book or article, I typically send it to 30 prospective publishers. If I don’t get at least one yes, I am confident that the rejections aren’t the result of bad luck. I can move on to the next project feeling good that I had given it a fair shot yet hadn’t persisted too long, wasting my time and that of publishers.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Don’t apply the Rule of 30 rigidly. For example, sometimes, it becomes apparent before 30 rejections, you should give your idea up. On the other hand, if you deeply believe in something and promulgating it doesn’t require much effort, keep pitching.

Calvin Coolidge said, “Persistence is omnipotent,” but I believe that needs to be tempered by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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