The Dan Plan

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

I’ve been discussing the notion of deliberate practice and expertise, but Dan McLaughlin has decided to personally test the notion that 10,000 hours of practice can turn you into a pro:

Could he, an average man, 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, become a pro golfer, just by trying? Dan’s not doing an experiment. He is the experiment.

The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now.

The rest of Dan’s high-achieving family has followed the normal road to success — college, grad school, respected profession — but Dan’s a bit unusual:

He went to Fiji with no guidebook during a military coup in which he saw men with machine guns at the airport and men with machetes outside. He biked through Thailand and Cambodia. He lived for five months in Australia, where he worked as a waiter because he arrived in the country with no money.

In Portland, throughout his late 20s, he took pictures of dental equipment, which let him buy his own home but also left him with a dissatisfied feeling. There had to be something more.

He started saving money for graduate school. He didn’t eat out or go to first-run movies and he rented out rooms in his house. He managed to save $100,000. When it came time to apply to grad school, though, that didn’t feel right, either.

He seems to be practicing deliberately:

He has three clubs in his bag, a putter, a chipper and a wedge. That’s it. That’s because of his coach.

Back when he first pitched his idea to Christopher Smith, a Nike-affiliated coach who has written a book about golf, Smith was not just uninterested. He was insulted. Golf is famously frustrating. Smith told Dan it was much harder than he thought. He told him to Google K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University, a psychology professor and a leading expert on expertise.

Dan Googled him. Then called him. Then read his scholarly work. Smith started to think Dan was more committed than he had originally thought. Perhaps Dan was an opportunity. How would he teach golf to a person who was relatively fit, clearly willing and totally untouched, with no bad habits to undo because there were no habits at all?

Dan persuaded Smith to coach him. He got Nike to give him some free shoes, clothes and clubs. He set up a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a blog at By now, on Dan’s loose team of interested consultants are Smith, Ericsson, a personal trainer in Portland and a professor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Here’s how they have Dan trying to learn golf: He couldn’t putt from 3 feet until he was good enough at putting from 1 foot. He couldn’t putt from 5 feet until he was good enough putting from 3 feet. He’s working away from the hole. He didn’t get off the green for five months. A putter was the only club in his bag.

Everybody asks him what he shoots for a round. He has no idea. His next drive will be his first.

In his month in Florida, he worked as far as 50 yards away from the hole. He might — might — have a full set of clubs a year from now.

Most golfers don’t go pro, of course:

There are more than 27 million people in this country who play golf. There are 125 permanent spots on the PGA Tour.

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