* * *
McLaughlin had never aspired to be a pro golfer. Growing up in Georgia, opportunities to play abounded, but he found the game stuffy, rule-bound. Closing on 30, though, he felt like he’d skated over life’s surface. He’d switched colleges and jobs. He liked being a commercial photographer enough, but his ultimate sentiment was meh. He wanted to commit to something, anything.
The conversation that planted the seed for the Dan Plan took place in June 2009, as McLaughlin hacked around a golf course in Omaha, Nebraska, with his brother. “We [talked] about the idea of quitting everything to pursue something single-mindedly and whole-heartedly,” McLaughlin recounts. “Did you need talent or was it all about hard work?”
Such questions were in the air. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the book that popularized the idea that mastery in a given field takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, had just come out, as had Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, both of which emphasized the role of dedicated practice (and discounted natural-born talent) in excellence.
McLaughlin hadn’t read these tomes. But friends pressed them on him, and the Dan Plan took shape. It would test how far practice could take you; and, taking a cue from Outliers, its time horizon would be 10,000 hours of practice. Golf fit neatly with this empirical goal. There were no barriers to entry—top golfers come in all shapes and sizes, no genetic assists for certain body types. And McLaughlin was a novice in it, a standing start against which he could measure his progress. To document this, he began the blog through which he’d soon become an evangelist for the sovereignty of hard work. “The idea of talent is [like] living in a society of kings and princes,” he says. “If you don’t limit yourself by this idea ... it’s more like a democracy where anyone who’s willing to work [can] succeed.”
The blog also held his feet to the fire. “If you make [something] public, it’s harder to stop.”
* * *
Fishing for advice once the project was underway, McLaughlin emailed K. Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose study of violin and piano virtuosi Gladwell cited in Outliers. The two struck up a correspondence.
Ericsson was impressed. In particular, he was taken with McLaughlin’s commitment to systematic, “deliberate” practice—something he says Outliers glossed over by implying mastery is simply a matter of accumulating hours. “My feeling was, ‘wow, this is really exciting.’”
Enlisting a coach, McLaughlin collected data on his performance and sent it to Ericsson, who plotted his improvement. McLaughlin built his game from the hole out. For months, all he did was putt. Gradually, he moved farther from the flag, adding clubs. Eighteen months in, he played his first full round. At peak practice, he was putting in four hours on the practice green and driving range and playing 18 holes daily. He was stingy in tallying hours toward the 10,000 mark, only counting concentrated practice.