Success

The Dan Plan: Testing the 10,000 Hour Rule

It’s never too late to start?

There’s a guy in Portland OR who is running a life experiment which definitely bears watching. Dan McLaughlin was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, to test the 10,000 hour rule. In case you’re new to this, the 10,000 hour rule comes from a finding by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that mastery in any skill—music, chess, golf, etc—requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is not what most of us think of—it’s about pushing your limits, finding out what you need to improve, healing working on it, analyzing results, making adjustments, and then working at it again and again until you get it right. Then you start over with something else to improve.

Dan decided to drop everything he was  doing and try to see if he could become a successful professional golfer, despite the fact that he had never played a full round of golf in his life. He quit his job and dedicated himself to learning how to play golf. He hired a professional coach who has Dan performing deliberate practice exercises such as becoming proficient at 3 ft. putts, then longer putts, then chips, and so on, long before actually going out on the links to play a round.

It’s boring and it’s tough, but Dan has been at it for a year and a half now and plans to reach the milestone by October of 2016. You can read this article or visit Dan’s site to get more detail if you’re interested, but I’d like to explore why this experiment is so important. There’s Dan’s reason, which is very compelling, plus two other reasons that I believe are also important.

Dan’s reason is that he wants to demonstrate that anyone can accomplish something meaningful in life no matter when they start. He began his quest at age 30, beyond the age at which many people have already set their course in life.  With every year we age, we close off options, drop aspirations and cross off goals, because we know we are” too old.” If he succeeds, his message will fire a cannonball against the walls in our minds that shut off avenues of effort. We’re living longer, and it’s important that our attitudes toward aging keep up with actuarial reality. (On a related note, there is research that shows that we get more competitive as we get older, up to about age 50.) That’s enough reason to pull for his success.

McLaughlin’s experiment is also important because it is testing one of the logical weaknesses of the 10,000 hour rule. Ericsson and other researchers have demonstrated convincingly that genius level performance requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but they have not proven that talent does not matter. Who’s to say that those they studied did not already have some inherent genius or natural talent in their chosen fields, which all those hours brought out?

To my knowledge, researchers have not studied individuals who put in the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice but did not reach mastery. It’s hard to blame them for that, because those individuals don’t make history, so it’s hard to identify subjects to study. Yet, it’s still a logical flaw in the argument. They have only shown that 10,000 hours are necessary, but not that they are sufficient. I think we can reasonably assume that Dan was not born with a natural talent for golf, so success in his quest would be a powerful clue. With a sample size of 1, it won’t prove anything, but it will be an important clue.

Finally, and most importantly to me, I hope Dan succeeds because of what it says about the power of hard work and perseverance. Although there is publicity about the importance of the 10,000 hour rule, thanks largely to Gladwell, the idea has not yet penetrated popular consciousness. Dan seems to have a natural talent for publicity, and has managed to enlist Nike on his team, so if he starts getting any traction, he has the chance to become a media sensation, and a powerful role model not only to youth but to adults as well. Many people look up to athletes, but we think only kids have a realistic chance of aspiring to be like them. I firmly believe it’s never too late to begin and to persevere, and I hope Dan can be a role model for that belief.

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