Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

The Winner Takes All

In America, the top 1% has as much wealth as the bottom 50%. The richest 85 people own as much as the bottom 3.5 billion.

Shocking, but nothing you likely didn’t already know.

What most of us do tend to overlook, is that the rule of 1% applies to almost everything that can be measured.

Let’s take language.

The’ is by far the most used word in the English language. The top 20 most commonly used words are, in order:

‘The of and to a in is I that it for you was with on as have but be they.’

What’s truly interesting is that the second most used word, will appear about half as often as the most used word. The third, one third as often. The fourth, one fourth as often. The fifth, one fifth as often. And so on.

That means word use is proportional to the formula, 1 divided by rank.

If you were to put that formula onto a graph, you’d get a straight line shooting diagonally from ‘the’ out of the top left corner, to the least used word in the bottom right.

This phenomenon is called Zipf’s law, after the American linguist George Kingsley Zipf. Though he’s not the first to have discovered it.

Zipf’s law doesn’t only apply to English. But to French, German, Dutch, Italian, Korean, Chinese… Actually, all of them.

Even ancient languages we can’t even read.

Zipf’s law means you can accurately predict how often a word is used in any body of work, as long as you know two numbers: a word’s rank and the frequency of the word ‘the’.

Which is kind of scary.

How can something as personal and unique as language be so predictable? Whether it’s the world’s greatest novel or the holy word of God, the piece is a slave to Zipf’s law.

Let’s dial the scary up a notch.

Zipf’s law is not just found in word use. But in city populations, solar flare intensities, protein sequences in immune receptors, website traffic, earthquake magnitudes, how often academic papers are cited, last names, the firing patterns of neural networks, ingredients used in cookbooks, the number of phone calls people receive, the diameter of moon craters, the number of people that die in moors, the popularity of opening chess moves, the rate at which we forget, book sales, classical music played by modern orchestras, and company productivity.

So really, Zipf’s law is a form of the more general Pareto Principle. Which says that 20% of the causes are responsible for 80% of the outcome.

Why do so many complicated events follow such a predictable pattern?

We don’t really know, because the answer is likely a combination of factors.

All we know is that it’s more likely for the rich to get richer, the big to get bigger, and the popular to get popular-er. 

In short, there seems to be no escaping unequal distribution. Even if all players start out with the exact same opportunities, talents and riches, a 1% will eventually arise who own as much as the bottom 50%.

Which raises the billion dollar question: how do you become a top person?

Well, that’s the issue. Although the slots of power are fixed, the people who fit inside them are not.

People are constantly moving up and down through the power hierarchy. So reaching a position of power is no guarantee you’ll stay put.

Simply play ten games of Monopoly and you’ll see just how easily wealth switches hands. And if you see the game through until the end, the result is always the same.

The winner takes all.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach