The 10,000-Hour Theory: Does Practice Make Perfect?

Dan McLaughlin set out to test the theory and become a pro golfer—and he learned a lot more than how to drive and putt.
October 4, 2015

As Dan McLaughlin approached 30, he felt unfulfilled. That’s not uncommon. Many people have strange feelings as they move from 29 to 30, or 39 to 40, and on and on.

But few do something as bold as McLaughlin.

His devotion to reshaping his life has been nothing short of remarkable, a once-in-a-lifetime shot. On his 30th birthday, June 27, 2009, McLaughlin joined his brother to play golf. He had set foot on a course only a few times. But soon after, he decided to quit his job as a photographer and pivot in an improbable direction.

Suddenly, despite having almost no background in the game, he decided he wanted to play well enough to join the PGA Tour. Why the change? It wasn’t that McLaughlin disliked his old life but rather that he wanted something more rewarding. He wanted the time and effort he expended daily to be put to use toward a greater goal. Pushing himself became his purpose. “Photography was fun,” McLaughlin says now, “but it was basically shooting a photo and sending it to a client. Golf is more of a personal journey. Everything I get out of it is from what I’ve put in on my own personal time.

“The No. 1 question I get asked is, ‘Why golf?’ But it wasn’t about golf. What I wanted to see was how far you could go if you could dedicate yourself to something completely. It was about fulfilling potential.”

Reinventing

To start as a complete beginner and become a pro, McLaughlin knew he would have to put in a lot of time. Golf is terribly difficult, and insane amounts of deliberate practice would be required. To be precise, the number McLaughlin has shot for from the beginning is 10,000 hours.

This magic number of hours in deliberate practice toward reaching expertise is based on the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and discussed at length in the books Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell explained, for example, how the Beatles played more than 1,200 shows from 1960 to 1964. Their constant practice made them experts in the rock ’n’ roll craft. Instead of practicing guitar riffs, McLaughlin is putting and chipping, but the idea of deliberate practice should work just the same, he reasons.

In the months after his first round, McLaughlin began to chart his course. He had been building up a fund for graduate school to get his MBA. As he continued to ruminate on the idea of total dedication to golf, he realized that he could use his savings to fund this adventure. Finally, in April 2010, McLaughlin went for it. Practicing more than 30 hours a week, he set out to reach the 10,000-hour mark in six years. He dubbed his mission The Dan Plan and launched a blog to document his ups and downs and offer fans the chance to donate to his cause.

Plenty of people pick up golf in adulthood, but rarely does anyone pick it up with the intention of becoming a professional. Because of his unique goals, McLaughlin and his earliest coaches decided to try a unique approach. “It was about being diligent and working away from the hole,” McLaughlin says. He started with mastering 1-foot putts, a simple but vital (and sometimes terrifying) aspect of any round. For the first five months of his mission, he used only a putter. He played no full rounds of golf and didn’t swing a driver or a long iron, the distance clubs. Almost a year and a half passed before he played an entire round with a full bag.

McLaughlin has worked with a number of different coaches as he improves in skill level. His quest has taken him far from his Portland, Ore., home—he spent a month taking lessons in Palm Springs, Calif., and played rounds in Australia and Switzerland. He’s had incredible highs, including a few rounds under par, and incredible lows, like slow-mending injuries that have forced him to withdraw from tournaments and set back his progress, causing slumps and delays in his 10,000-hour schedule. Whereas he once thought he could reach the target in six years, it now may take eight.

“Purposeful Practice”

“Going from a beginner to breaking 80 is quite an accomplishment,” says Bruce Furman, the Palm Springs coach who worked on McLaughlin’s swing. “But going from breaking 80 to tour level is way harder. “

Furman acknowledges that McLaughlin has a long way to go but thinks he has the right work ethic to reach his goal. “You don’t need elite talent,” Furman says. “You need purposeful practice.” But it’s not as simple as working out the math needed to reach 10,000 hours, and hitting that mark doesn’t flip a magical switch.

McLaughlin knows the importance of not focusing on the big picture every day. He breaks everything down into smaller, more attainable goals. “I have daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals,” McLaughlin says. “It helps me to not get ahead of myself. I see what I need to do that day or that month.”

That concentration on immediate concerns came from McLaughlin’s “goal guru,” Stuart Hamilton, a Scotsman in Alexandria, Va., who heard about McLaughlin’s mission and knew his experience in project management for the business world could be helpful. Emailing McLaughlin to offer his advice, Hamilton explained that although the novice golfer knew where he wanted to go, he needed a more precise route.

Hamilton stresses the importance of writing down goals and telling others about those goals to hold yourself accountable. Sometimes the most difficult part is pushing through the drudgery on the way to achieving what you set out to do. “It’s like going to the gym,” Hamilton says. “When you walk through the doors, it’s like your workout is almost over. Just getting yourself to the gym and through the doors is half the battle.”

McLaughlin’s blog keeps him accountable to everyone who follows his journey. But the public arena also makes his failures glaringly obvious.

Fits and Starts

“Everything’s fine as long as you’re meeting your goals, but the tough bit is when you’re not,” Hamilton says. “And around the 4,000-hour mark, Dan started to not meet his goals.” McLaughlin’s handicap has progressed quickly at times, only to give way to a bout of slicing off the tee, a major swing malfunction. He clawed his way toward the scratch level again, but a back injury forced him to forgo full rounds for two months.

“Progress isn’t a linear curve,” McLaughlin says. “There have been a lot of times when I felt like something wasn’t working and I stuck with it and stuck with it and hit a breakthrough and reached a new level.”

It frustrates Hamilton when McLaughlin doesn’t simply stick with the plan and instead searches for (and experiments with) new, more advanced ways of improving instead of the old-fashioned, tried-and-true method of hitting thousands upon thousands of balls. “When you’re ever in any doubt about what it takes to succeed, then you need to look around at other people who have already achieved what you are trying to achieve and just copy them,” Hamilton says. The two no longer work together, but Hamilton is still pulling for his former mentee.

McLaughlin is in the middle of his journey, with a little more than 3,000 hours to go on the 10K countdown. He still enjoys the climb. There is real doubt that he will ever make it to the PGA Tour, but that’s almost beside the point.

For McLaughlin, this exercise was always about changing his trajectory in life. Up to the point he quit photography, he’d been the guy who, in his words, “bounced around a bit,” giving up when things didn’t go well and never sticking to one path for long. In part, McLaughlin wanted to see whether he had the patience and willpower to commit to something and see where it took him.

A New Man

Furman cites a cliché that success in golf is 90 percent mental. That will serve McLaughlin well if he makes the tour.

“No matter how bad the round is, I have this thought of, When are we playing tomorrow?” McLaughlin says. “Everybody goes through highs and lows, but there has never really been a time where I’ve thought about quitting.” In addition to the newfound commitment, McLaughlin is a very different person from the man who started The Dan Plan. His entire life has changed to revolve around golf. It has been a total rebirth.

“A lot of my friends now are people I met through golf,” McLaughlin says. “It’s more than just a sport for me—it’s re-creating my entire life.” Part of the change, he says, has been a new awareness and appreciation for each day, his experiences and his surroundings. He knows to savor how far he has come and the beauty of the places where he gets to spend his time.

McLaughlin grew up just 3 miles from the famed Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, one of the most beautiful courses in the country. But as a non-golfer, he had never even heard of it. “I didn’t even know there was a golf course there,” says McLaughlin, who admits to feeling a sense of catharsis from playing the great course near his home—emblematic of the possibilities so near to us if we know to look for them. “It’s a very special place. Everything is perfect.”

And with every ball he hits off a frozen Portland driving range, McLaughlin can conjure a memory of the feeling he had on the fairways of Peachtree. To think, he might never have even known of the place.

We all have two choices: We can make a living or we can design a life. Learn 4 tips for setting powerful goals so you can do the latter.  

 

This article appears in the November 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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