Once upon a time there was a strong and valiant knight that was riding out through the land east of the king’s borders. On a distant hilltop he saw a stone tower nearly thirty feet tall. Curious, he rode on to base of the tower, eager to get a closer look. When he arrived, out of a small window near the top of the tower leaned the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen—a princess. Her hair shone like spun copper in the sunshine and her beautiful smile was dazzling. And, as the story goes on to show, she was very, very smart.
She waved her fine lace handkerchief at him and said, “Brave knight, I have been trapped in this stone tower for nearly a year by a wicked old witch. I have survived only by the kindness of the birds and squirrels that bring me nuts, berries and water. If you can free me from this tower, I will be eternally in your debt!”
“But how can I reach you at such a great height?” asked the knight.
“Use the Ladder of Diminishing Returns,” came the answer. So the knight, looking around, found a strange ladder on the ground near the tower. He leaned it up against the tower and noticed that the rungs of the ladder were spaced in a very peculiar fashion. Near the bottom they were spaced about a foot apart—very similar to most ladders. But near the top—as the ladder went past the princess’ window—the rungs were closer together: first nine inches apart, then six, then three, then one, and finally there was only a half-inch gap between the rungs as it passed the window.
“What a very odd ladder,” murmured the knight.
“Oh,” said the princess, “you are just seeing the diminishing returns. You see, the ladder has to be tall enough to let you climb up to a little below my window. From that point you can pull yourself in or me out and rescue me. But if you continue to climb, the rungs are so close together that you don’t get any real benefit in rescuing me and you might get your foot caught—you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.”
“Ah, I get it” said the knight. “If I don’t climb up enough, I fail to rescue you and lose my reputation as a great knight, but if I climb too far, there’s no real benefit and it could even get worse.”
“That’s right” cried the princess. Wow, you are really, really smart too, and I want to marry you. But first, can you get on with rescuing me from this stone tower? I could really go for a big ole’ burger and fries after all those nuts and berries.”
And that is the (nearly) true story of how the knight and princess met and why you should put in just the right amount of effort into the tasks that you are about.