The Great American Eclipse: A Review and a Lesson on Remarkability

Photo of the eclipse
This is a great photo by my friend Alan Neves, but it doesn’t come close to capturing what the eclipse actually looked like.

tl;dr — Two minutes and seventeen seconds of jaw-dropping beauty followed by a seven and a half hour traffic jam; totally worth it.

The eclipse glasses are in the trash with the empty Sunny-D bottles and Moon Pie wrappers. It got students out of class and workers out of work from coast to coast, but just four days later the Great American Eclipse is just the latest example of media hype without substance.

Except it wasn’t. There is a small group of people in America who can’t stop talking about the eclipse. 

When I first heard about the 2017 eclipse, I didn’t care. I’ve seen two partial eclipses and was even at the center of an annular eclipse. They were cool, but not really worth putting in a lot of effort over. And certainly not worth driving to Idaho for—the eclipse in Salt Lake City would be more than 90%; that’s pretty close to total, right?


The Three Eclipse Experiences

We need a new word. The phrases “partial eclipse” and “total eclipse” are misleading because they give the impression that this is an experience on a continuum. It makes it sound like an eclipse with 100% coverage is just a better version of an eclipse with 90% coverage, which is a better version of an eclipse with 60% coverage. The truth is that a total eclipse is not a better experience than a partial one—it is an entirely different experience.

Having witnessed an eclipse from start to totality I feel like I had three distinct experiences over the course of an hour:

  1. 0 to 93%: You could be outside and not even notice an eclipse happening if it weren’t for all the people with foil glasses or the trees casting odd crescent shadows on the ground.
  2. 93 to 99%: It gets noticeably dim. At around 97% you can see Jupiter and Venus and roosters start crowing. It gets colder, but a little sunlight goes a long way and you still can’t look at the sun. You start asking people around you why it isn’t dark.
  3. 100%: The light very suddenly disappears and it gets surprisingly cold. You pull off your eclipse glasses and look up to see a hole in the sky surrounded by ethereal sheets and rays heading out from the edges of the hole in every direction. It looks nothing like the pictures you’ve seen and as you involuntarily shout, “Wow!” you realize that everyone around you is also hollering in excitement. You look around notice that there is an unusual version of twilight happening along the horizon in every direction. Looking back to the sky you see the stars and realize that the whole scene looks like some amazing computer generated imagery, but that it is undeniably real. The sun begins to poke through a mountain valley on the moon as a brilliant point of light creating the “diamond ring” effect and then it is over. You put on your glasses but the experience is so lame in comparison to what you have just experienced that you don’t want to watch any more.

And then you get in a seven and a half hour traffic jam.

After the Eclipse Experience

Most of the people with whom I shared the Interstate 15 parking lot had Utah plates.

A huge traffic jam
At this point we had been parked for probably 20 minutes.

Utahns are fortunate to not be subject to some of the insane traffic jams people elsewhere endure. This is a very good thing because we are just terrible at them; we get angry, impatient, impetuous, and ill-mannered in traffic. But with the exception of that silly Fiat driver cruising down the shoulder, this crowd was easygoing and cheerful. Everyone I talked to afterward mentioned the extraordinary traffic jam, but nobody was bitter and everyone agreed it was worth it.

The phrase “life-changing” has come up a few times to describe the total eclipse experience. Time will tell if it actually was, but our responses to the traffic jam were a sure sign that something changed—at least for seven and a half hours.

A word that isn’t being used to describe the eclipse is “remarkable.” But it really was—those of us who participated in totality can’t shut up about it. And when we find someone else who witnessed it, we launch into a long comparison of notes.

For those who experienced 100%, the eclipse lived up to the hype. It changed us.

The 100% Experience

The Great American Eclipse seems like the perfect object lesson on just how much effort should go into anything we want to be remarkable or change people.

  • With the eclipse, coverage less than 90% wasn’t even noticeable to people who weren’t looking for it. The same is true for our projects—if we aren’t making them at least 90% of they could be, the noise of the world will bury them to all but the most observant, and even they won’t be changed.
  • Coverage of 91 to 99%—whether in an eclipse or a project—will be noticed and may even generate participation, but it won’t be life changing.
  • Making a project all it can be is rare, remarkable, and changes people.

Making an Experience 100%

If I’m going to spend my time on something, I want it to make a difference. I want people to talk about it, to be changed by it. I want it to be the best in the world—something worth sitting in traffic for. And being 100% may not be as intimidating as it sounds.

In his wonderful little book, The Dip, Seth Godin notes that the “best in the world” now means—

Best, as in: best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know. And in the world as in: their world, the world they have access to.

If you’re offering a dog walking service in Denver and want it to be the best in the world, you don’t have to make it better than a the best dog walking service in London. This does not mean that you can merely be the best dog walker in Denver, it means your dog walking service needs to be 100% of what Denver dog walking can be.

I want to put together a blockchain conference in Utah and I want it to be the best in the world. Will it be better than the annual Consensus conference in New York? No, but it will be 100% of what it can be for my Utah audience.

Because the difference between 99% and 100% is the difference between day and night.