Dan Luu, (Luu n.d.)


Achieving 95th percentile (95-ile) in a skill, among those who participate, isn’t as hard as it seems because most participants don’t practice or try to improve (Get good) in a purposeful and effective way.

There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit at lower percentiles (e.g. for Overwatch: wait for your team before running into a fight, know your abilities and those of your team and opponents, etc).



Reaching 95%-ile isn’t very impressive because it’s not that hard to do. I think this is one of my most ridiculable ideas. It doesn’t help that, when stated nakedly, that sounds elitist. But I think it’s just the opposite: most people can become (relatively) good at most things.

Note that when I say 95%-ile, I mean 95%-ile among people who participate, not all people (for many activities, just doing it at all makes you 99%-ile or above across all people). I’m also not referring to 95%-ile among people who practice regularly. The “one weird trick (a)” is that, for a lot of activities, being something like 10%-ile among people who practice can make you something like 90%-ile or 99%-ile among people who participate.


One complication is that real life activities tend not to have a single, one-dimensional, objective to optimize for. Another is that what makes someone good at a real life activity tends to be poorly understood (by comparison to games and sports) even in relation to a specific, well defined, goal.


In real life, if you want to be (for example) “a good speaker”, that might mean that you want to give informative talks that help people learn or that you want to give entertaining talks that people enjoy or that you want to give keynotes at prestigious conferences or that you want to be asked to give talks for $50k an appearance. Those are all different objectives, with different strategies for achieving them and for some particular mistake (e.g., spending 8 minutes on introducing yourself during a 20 minute talk), it’s unclear what that means with respect to your goal.

Another thing that makes games, at least mainstream ones, easy to optimize for is that they tend to have a lot of aficionados who have obsessively tried to figure out what’s effective. This means that if you want to improve, unless you’re trying to be among the top in the world, you can simply figure out what resources have worked for other people, pick one up, read/watch it, and then practice

If you want to become a good speaker and you have a specific definition of “a good speaker” in mind, there still isn’t an obvious path forward. Great speakers will give directly contradictory advice (e.g., avoid focusing on presentation skills vs. practice presentation skills). Relatively few people obsessively try to improve and figure out what works, which results in a lack of rigorous curricula for improving. However, this also means that it’s easy to improve in percentile terms since relatively few people are trying to improve at all (a).

Despite all of the caveats above, my belief is that it’s easier to become relatively good at real life activities relative to games or sports because there’s so little delibrate practice put into most real life activities. […] In most real life activities, there’s almost no one who puts in a level of delibrate practice equivalent to someone who goes down to their local table tennis club and practices two hours a week, let alone someone like a top pro, who might seriously train for four hours a day.


Most people consider doing 30 practice runs for a talk to be absurd, a totally obsessive amount of practice, but I think Gary Bernhardt has it right when he says that, if you’re giving a 30-minute talk to a 300 person audience, that’s 150 person-hours watching your talk, so it’s not obviously unreasonable to spend 15 hours practicing (and 30 practice runs will probably be less than 15 hours since you can cut a number of the runs short and/or repeatedly practice problem sections). One thing to note that this level of practice, considered obessive when giving a talk, still pales in comparison to the amount of time a middling table tennis club player will spend practicing.


One thing to note here is that it’s important to actually track what you’re doing and not just guess at what you’re doing. […]

Anyway, this is sort of an odd post for me to write since I think that culturally, we care a bit too much about productivity in the U.S., especially in places I’ve lived recently (NYC & SF). But at a personal level, higher productivity doing work or chores doesn’t have to be converted into more work or chores, it can also be converted into more vacation time or more time doing whatever you value.


Kevin Burke has noted that when he coaches youth basketball, some children don’t want to do drills that they think make them look foolish (e.g., avoiding learning to dribble with their off hand even during drills where everyone is dribbling poorly because they’re using their off hand). When I spent a lot of time in a climbing gym with a world class coach who would regularly send a bunch of kids to nationals and some to worlds, I’d observe the same thing in his classes – kids, even ones who are nationally or internationally competitive, would sometimes avoid doing things because they were afraid it would make them look foolish to their peers. The coach’s solution in those cases was to deliberately make the kid look extremely foolish and tell them that it’s better to look stupid now than at nationals.


Luu, Dan. n.d. “95\%-Ile Isn’t That Good.” Accessed October 27, 2023. https://danluu.com/p95-skill/.