Entrepreneurs are some of the best lifelong learners in the world-;you constantly must adapt to the market, and natural curiosity doesn’t shut down just because you’ve got one successful venture under your belt. But if you’ve ever been in class with Straight A Minnie or Jack and felt an evil twinge of jealousy and insecure panic, relax. Science says you might be doing even more awesome if you screw up around 15 percent of your material.

So why is 15 percent so magical?

As Cody Kommers details in Scientific American, the figure comes from the “85 Percent Rule for Optimal Learning” derived from a team of researchers from the University of California. Led by cognitive scientist Robert Wilson, the team used experiments in machine learning to demonstrate that 15 percent is the optimal rate for training a broad class of deep learning algorithms. Learning goes fastest when the error rate is right around this number. Other learning research on people is right in line with Wilson’s assertion.

The basic idea behind a practical application of the findings is that, if you’re getting A’s in everything, the work you’re doing probably isn’t challenging you enough. If you really want to be incredible, you should shirk the desire for that kind of socially lauded trophy and go for something that puts you a little out of your comfort zone. And by contrast, if you’re barely squeaking by and your room is littered with big fat Ds (or worse) no matter what instructor or method you try for the subject, it doesn’t mean you’ll never understand, but you probably should cut yourself a break and work on some material that’s down a level first.

The research also can help you as a leader in areas like employee training. If most of your trainees are getting around 15 percent wrong, then you can feel pretty confident that your in-house or outside training program is at just the right level-;tough, but not crazy tough.

Culturally, it’s not unusual for groups of people-;Americans in particular-;to cling to the idea that perfection and intellect go hand in hand. We want the A and the 100 percent, and as competition gets more fierce, we’ve gotten in the habit of warning ourselves and each other that a B just won’t cut it. But the truth is, the B student is probably a terrific learner, and it’s the ability to learn, the drive to do it, that most employers prize. Not only that, but you can’t exactly always stamp a grade on it all (soft skills, I’m looking at you). Let go a little and, perhaps ironically, push yourself for the B instead. In the end, it’s likely going to serve you tons better.

Published on: Jan 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.