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The 85% Rule for Optimal Learning
Flow and the perfect level of challenge for learning.
Hello everyone! This week I came across a fascinating study that confirms and quantifies a path to optimal learning that empirical evidence and my personal experience (and, I imagine, many of yours as well) have long known. It comes from AI research of all places. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“Lessons come hard only if you’re deaf to them. Don’t be.”
— Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way
We learn from failure. But, it turns out, there is an optimal way to receive its lessons. Researchers have quantified the rate of success and failure that leads to the deepest learning.
When we attempt goals that are too far out of reach, we get frustrated or never fully engage with the task. Why pour your heart into something that seems impossible at the outset? We also check out with easy goals. They bore us. Why waste your energy and attention on something so easy?
It can be helpful to occasionally pursue oversized and undersized goals to both push us far outside our comfort zones and for the opportunity to groove in quality practice. But research into mental performance and flow states has long shown that we learn best from goals in the "goldilocks zone" right at the limits of our abilities. We thrive with goals that stretch our skillset and demand focus but that are close enough that we are pulled by their motivational gravity.
Until this week, I've always thought of this principle in subjective terms—I'll know it by feel. For myself, I'll learn the optimal balance based on my levels of motivation and fun. When I teach others, I'll tune my lessons based on my student's body language and engagement. In both cases, fun is the best metric to show that I've found the right balance. But I've just learned that researchers have actually quantified this balance in the 85% Rule:
We learn best when succeeding 85% of the time and failing the other 15%.
Only failing 15% of the time might seem very infrequent to anyone who takes a more stern view of education. But the 85% Rule supports the findings of development psychologist Peter Gray, who advises that "learning occurs best in a playful state of mind, and anxiety inhibits playfulness." Succeeding 85% of the time means rehearsing the skills that you’ve already mastered much more often than striving for new ones.
This jives with a well-documented phenomenon in strength training called "greasing the groove." The best way to progress your strength is to devote most sessions to perfecting your form with submaximal loads and only occasionally pushing to failure or attempting new personal records. The more we have grooved in the right patterns, the more able we are to stick to them when the work gets tough.
But playfulness and repetition do not mean comfort and ease. The absence of challenge is boring. Research shows that a failed attempt triggers a response in the amygdala and other parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for focus and coordination. In other words, failure physiologically primes us for rapid learning and coordinated movement to increase our chances of success on the next attempt.
Failure is also fun, especially with the right mental framing. Optimizing for fun often means adding stakes like risk, danger, and the possibility of embarrassment.
The 85% Rule gives us quantitative guidance for our own learning and advises those of us who teach, parent, and coach others. But we don’t need to record our progress or fulfill the exact ratio to apply this rule to our lives. The key takeaway is that we are best served by a lighthearted and playful approach to learning. Exploration, repetition, and fun are the best ways to learn.
Marika and I just watched Return to Space, the new Netflix documentary about Elon Musk and Space X. I highly recommend it. It has also left me fascinated by the history of the US space program. I also want to share a collection of concepts for an American space colony. In 1975, NASA commissioned artists to submit renderings of how the first space colony might look. The submissions are fascinating and very nostalgic.
Thank you for reading this week and remember, life is too short to be normal!