85 Percent

As a child, teenager, and student, I used to play a lot of football (or soccer, for my American friends). I only played in a club for about two years and had to quit the team because of an injured knee, but I always loved playing with my friends during my leisure time. Spending a whole afternoon running up and down a badly mowed pitch was pure bliss. So many bad plays, so many bad passes, so many untrained bodies. But also so much passion, energy, and dedication. And the joy when one play or goal suddenly turned out to be a work of art. When a brilliant pass was played. When I tried a bicycle kick and somehow volleyed the ball into the net. (Yes, this really did happen at times. And it also hurt almost every time, especially as I got older and started to miss the ball more often…)

I played for that joy. For those moments of intuitive flow. But there is also one thing I learned from playing football: If you want something too hard, it won’t happen. On some days, I would walk over to the pitch full of energy and ready to play a good match. Scoring some goals, doing many precise and some surprising passes, and helping the team win with a great performance. I really wanted it! But on those days, it often just didn’t work, somehow. As much as I tried, many passes were just a bit off. Instead of going in, the ball hit the post – or (almost) the sky. Putting in more effort only resulted in more frustration.

Something was missing on those days: relaxation. If you want to be at your best, going for 100 percent often won’t help. You need the right level of relaxation and ease to avoid frustration and early fatigue. You need the right level of relaxation to keep a clear mind and have focus and confidence and to leave room for intuition. In a recent interview, Hugh Jackman talked about the 85 percent rule: The rule says that sprinters and other athletes perform best when they are at 85 percent of their maximum performance capacity. At 100 percent, your muscles might be over-stressed too fast and the risk of injury grows exponentially. But more importantly, at full speed, “technique and form go out the window”. So by scaling back a bit, you can actually be faster and maintain your speed longer.

I experience the same in other areas of life and work. When there is a tight deadline, for example, you will achieve the most not by stressing out, pushing harder, and running at full speed but by actually going at a fast but steady rate that keeps you in a position where you are still able to focus and make conscious decisions. 85 percent is still really fast. But it is not so fast that you’ll be unable to see the forest for the trees.


This is the 30th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.


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