How to Give 110% Without Getting Angry Or Turning Green


December 1, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…

We are coming up on another Story SlamMN! Tuesday at Kieran’s Irish Pub.

As regular readers know from previous posts, the theme for Season 5 is Stories Beyond the Cliché. December’s cliché is “Give 110%!” The Online Slang Dictionary says that to “give 110%” means simply to give “one’s best effort.” But that doesn’t quite describe the way it’s used.

Of course I’ve heard people say “go out there and give 110%” – though I did not know if it was a business metaphor or a sports metaphor.

The answer is apparently yes. It seems if you can’t speak sports clichés, you can’t really communicate in the business world. There’s even a sports caster, Jen Mueller, who has built a business around teaching people how to talk sports, and use sports metaphors, to enhance revenue and productivity.

I’ve written elsewhere about how a phrase, used over and over until it loses its meaning, becomes a cliché. Where “Give 110%” is concerned, one of the most infamous examples in recent memory was on Donald Trump’s reality TV spinoff, Celebrity Apprentice.

You may remember Lou Ferrigno.

He is most famous for his role as The Incredible Hulk, the Big Green Guy you don’t want to see Bill Bixby become when he gets angry. Here he explains his work ethic:

A classic business cartoon by Randy Glasbergen turns this expectation completely upside down, with one coworker saying to another “I always give 110% to my job: 40% on Monday, 30% on Tuesday, 20% on Wednesday, 15% on Thursday and 5% on Friday.”

Humor aside, there is in fact a lot of pedantic outrage around this cliché.

The division seems to be between the grammar geeks and the math. On the one side you have the grammarians, who insist that giving 110% is inaccurate and a travesty upon the English language – you can’t “give 110%” any more than you can be “a little bit pregnant.” On the other hand, you have the mathematicians jumping up to explain that yes, of course, you can have percentages higher than 100% – such as when  Google’s Android Market grew by 861.5% in 2011. The percentage makes sense in this context because it measures exponential growth.

Fun fact: this is the only cliché of the slam season to have an academic paper dedicated to its explication – one that actually restores some meaning to the phrase.

Economist Stephen Shmanske published “Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort” in October 2010 in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. For Shmanske, the key to understanding the 110% phenomenon in sports is to define 100% as “the maximum effort that you can reasonably consistently sustain.”

But there is a different type of effort that can be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. This “optimal effort” is what people are referring to when they speak of “giving 110%.” Shmanske was studying basketball, but the easiest analogy can be found in running. A sprinter can run faster than a long distance runner because effort has to be sustained only over a short period of time.

Using that analogy, they say, giving 110% is a reasonable metaphor for striving to outperform yourself, to create a new personal best, top a previous record, or exceed expectations.

Nothing wrong with that idea, in and of itself. But when it is applied to work life in an organization that operates with scarce resources or in a highly competitive environment, – and nonprofits like those I have made my career in often do both – the fear is that what we give in 110% sprints will become the expected norm, and then 120% will become the sprint. And that this will happen repeatedly. With no down time, no time to recharge, reflect or renew. That will make us angry, envious, exhausted and burnt out.

"When my friends ask me what I'm doing this weekend" - From When You Work for a Nonprofit

“When my friends ask me what I’m doing this weekend” – From When You Work for a Nonprofit

I know myself well enough to understand when and where I am vulnerable to this.

Perhaps that is why I am still waking up from anxiety dreams. The ones I figured would go away when I finally got the full time job that started last Monday. You know the kind of dreams I mean. The flight you missed. The class you flunked, so you don’t really have that degree after all. The stage you walk onto with memorized lines from the wrong play.

Well maybe you have other anxiety dreams. Those are my personal favorites. When they begin to happen regularly, I pay attention. And I make promises to myself.

Here is how I will keep myself from becoming angry and green:

  1. First, I will recognize the difference between sustainable effort – my consistent best – and my optimal effort under pressure;
  2. Second, I will take responsibility, when my optimal effort has been tapped too often, for re-creating myself, by setting aside time for what Brenda Ueland calls “moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” to nourish my imagination.
  3. And third, despite my introverted nature, and a job which encourages isolation – or perhaps because of it – I will make a special effort to spend time with those who value me for who I am, not what I produce.

What about you?

When you undergo a transition that requires you to “give 110%,” how do you keep your equilibrium? How do you nourish the creative and re-creative qualities that sustain effort over time?

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting c 1630

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting c 1630

13 thoughts on “How to Give 110% Without Getting Angry Or Turning Green

  1. Love it…such a great post!


  2. Annecdotist says:

    Keep on outing those cliches, Paula! I do think the mathematical argument is closer to the grammatical than you suggest here – certainly something can increase by 110 percent (i.e. slightly more than doubling it) but I don’t think we can use 110 percent of what we’ve got, even in the farthest reaches of wacky mathematics (I wait to be corrected on this).
    Sorry things are still stressful at the moment. I’m like you in sometimes failing to recognise that I can’t give my optimum all the time. But we have to say no, even to our own ambitions and remember we are limited human beings!
    Thanks for another fab post


    • Yes, in some ways it is a relief to be limited. I am enjoying staying home tonight and catching up on my reading and commenting. No story will be forthcoming; the blog post is going to have to be enough for now.


  3. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Congratulations on your new job! Sounds like you’re committed to figuring out a good work/life balance. Should I say 110% committed? :)


  4. joyezeka says:

    ish! Started a new company in April and I’ve had to give 110%! Maybe 150%! Keeping my equilibrium is one tough one for me, its burning me out! I really look forward to the day that I will be able to balance work, life and family. Then maybe my anxiety dreams of getting a job that starts on Monday will stop! Great post as always Paula.


  5. jan says:

    Interesting post! I always figured that if I gave 110% that would be 10% over what I could give and keep on breathing!


  6. Love your “Here is how I will keep myself from becoming angry and green:” I need these three steps so I don’t Hulk out. Thank you. :-)


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