Why a cigarette butt on the ground represents the worst of humanity and how "Paretos" can save us

Updated: Feb 13

Sadly, this photo wasn't staged

I wrote this in 2014. I called it "The Metaphor."

If ever there was a metaphor for what’s wrong with humanity, it’s the cigarette butt on the ground. It was produced by a company that, lusting for profit, created addicting poison. It was consumed by someone with little sense or self-discipline and without regard for…

  • his or her health

  • the ripple effect of the inevitable health care costs associated with cancer and other smoking-related diseases

  • the harmful effect that secondhand smoke has on others

  • the potential dangers stemming from throwing a cigarette butt on the ground: fires, land and water pollution, animals mistaking it for food…

  • the “I’m lazy, apathetic and someone else will clean it” message it sends to everyone, especially to kids

  • the opportunity cost - the money spent on cigarettes could have been used to help someone. Or given to a cause. Not squandered on a toxin tossed onto the street

  • all that he or she was taught in school and in life about how bad smoking is for... the whole fricken' universe!

Now it's 2020 and time for a reality check.

My original (quixotic) intent was to get the bad guys to change. Even I wasn't delusional enough to think that Phillip Morris or the Altria Group would. But maybe individuals could. Maybe they'd quit smoking. Or at least stop littering.

When I taught, it was my job to teach every student. Each August, as the school year was starting, my goal was for 100% of my students to learn 100% of what I'd teach. It never happened of course, but I tried to reach reach them all.

Not anymore. Now retired from the classroom, I can allow myself to face the truth. Some people won't ever listen. Some people won't ever "empty their cups." Some people won't ever learn. Some people won't ever evolve. Some people won't ever improve.

I've written before about the Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule). It says that a small percentage of inputs (20%) cause the majority of outputs (80%).

In most instances, though, I think 20% is way too generous. It's probably more like 5%, 2%, 1% or a fraction of 1%. In other words, whether it's positive or negative, a tiny group's impact is mightier than the masses'.

On the negative side, most people aren't criminals. But consider the harm that the small percentage of criminals cause. On the positive side, most people aren't medical researchers. But consider the impact that the small percentage of medical researchers have had.

Only a small percentage of people smoke and drop their butts on the ground. But enough do that it matters. And I'm almost certain that an even smaller percentage of people pick those butts up. But enough do that it matters.

So, whether you're curing cancer or sanitizing sidewalks, it's to you "Positive Paretos" that I'm addressing. Forget the masses. We could never count on them anyway. What have they ever done?

The key word is small. A small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. So instead of focusing on the assholes who hurt us, let's empower the angels who help us. We probably can't discourage the butt thrower downers, but we can encourage the butt picker uppers.


Start with seeing them. Recognizing them for what they're doing. I know that researchers Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, Jonas Salk, Barry Marshall and Frederick Banting didn't do what they did for recognition, but when we shine the light on them it allows the rest of us to learn from and be inspired by them. We can see what's possible.

Right now, virologists we don't know are working on eradicating the Coronavirus.

Who? Where are they?

That's the point.

Almost everyone knows Patrick Mahomes, Lizzo and Billie Eilish. Almost no one knows Robert Gallo, Tony Fauci and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. (They're world class virologists, ages 82, 79 and 72. I tried to find rising stars working in virology labs, but couldn't. Again, my point.)

Wikipedia photos of Billie and Françoise. Which one will be familiar to kids? To adults? Which one has positively impacted the world more?

But they're there. They better be or we're doomed. We need more of them, too. What are they now, the 00000000001%? If that.

Let's recruit more positive Paretos. I wish we could find a way to pull back the curtain on Gallo, Fauci and Barré-Sinoussi's work so kids could learn what it takes to be them and want to be like them. Not many will, but more might. There has to be potential positive Paretos among us.

A tiny percent are capable of impacting the world on a massive scale. I'm not going to cure the Coronavirus. But a large percentage of us are capable of making a meaningful impact. I can pick up cigarette butts. And so can you.

Literally and metaphorically.