• By
  • Carl Bialik

Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC’s entertainment division and TV studio, recently sold his independent production company. “I wanted to put 190 percent of my energy” into the NBC job, Mr. Silverman told the New York Times.


That may be an impressive amount of effort in Hollywood, but 190% wouldn’t cut it in sports. It falls 10 percentage points short of the commitment soccer player Didier Drogba recently pledged to the Chelsea football club, and of the amount of effort that tennis player Justine Henin stated she gives on the court. Presumably that’s not enough in tennis, because Ms. Henin was ousted in the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open by eventual champ Maria Sharapova in straight sets.

Athletes have nothing on Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz, who told a Miami crowd in December he would give “1,000 percent.” EFE News Service reported, “He kept his word.” That seems to be the going rate in music, as Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus recently said, “I’m 1,000 percent committed to the people I’m working with now.”

Rarely is rhetoric so meaningless as when percentages of effort or certainty top 100. Wall Street Journal readers know that profit and stock-price gains can clear 100% — that explains why Forbes last month dubbed Warren Buffett “Mr. One Million Percent.” But the most confident or committed a person can be to his job, team, sport or belief is 100%.

Yet in the realm of rhetoric, 100% sounds positively paltry. Pledging any less than 1,000 percent commitment these days may be a sign of wavering. “I’m 1,000 percent committed to the clergy and the Jewish community,” a Florida spiritual leader recently told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” The president of the New Jersey Senate said the incoming chief executive of a state agency responsible for security at Giants Stadium is “1,000 percent committed” to ending bad fan behavior.

Occasionally only one million percent will do. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said before the 2004 presidential race, “If we’re not confident a million percent we got it right we’re not going to go on the air” declaring a candidate the winner of a contest. In 2006 Peterborough chairman Barry Fry, noting that his soccer club was giving its manager “150% commitment,” said, “whatever he wants I’ll back him one million percent.” Five months later, a new chairman ousted the manager.

Further reading: It’s become cliché to note that giving 110% has become a sports cliché. That oft-cited commitment level has inspired at least two columns noting inflation in percentage of effort, as well as a sports blog cheekily entitled One hundred and ten percent. I wrote in 2005 about another instance of rhetorical numbers abuse: the obesity of that metaphorical gorilla in the room.