Putting Practice to the Test

I’m sure most of us have heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ and I’m sure most people agree.  The more you do things, the more second-nature they become.  I remember watching something about the US Marine drill team (I assume the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon) and they talked about ‘muscle memory’ achieved by constant practice.  Of course, the muscles have nothing to do with it, what they’re doing is making the movement subconscious, in the same way you don’t think about walking.

So I was intrigued by a theory, put forward by Dr K Anders Ericsson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that the key to becoming world class at something is practicing for 10,000 hours.  No natural talent, no innate ability, just lots of practice.  It seems counter to how we believe great achievers reached their heights, but it also means that anyone, in theory, could do the same.  It’s one of those things that is hard to prove.

So when I saw Jason Kottke commenting on the fact that someone is trying it out, I had to know more.  It turns out a former photographer, by the name of Dan McLaughlin, has decided to try and become a golfer of sufficient calibre to get on the US PGA Tour (there’s a nice article on it here).

Dan’s plan, in short, is to practice six hours a day, six days a week for six years to get to the magic 10,000 hours.  So far he’s over a year in, with 8,559 hours to go (you can check his progress, see photos and videos and read more on The Dan Plan site).  He’s enlisted the help of a golf instructor, a strength trainer and a nutritionist to help him along the way.

It’s probably worth making it clear that Dan didn’t play golf, at all, before he started this quest, so it’s not like he had a head start.  It’s also worth pointing out that he’s picked a sport, which is useful for measuring goals (he can win or place in tournaments against other players), but it also (arguably) requires less creativity (than if he’d wanted to be, say, a poet) and as golf is a fairly relaxed sport, he won’t have to worry as much about the physical aspect (Dan’s 32 this year, if he wanted to be footballer he’s already past his prime, nevermind several years from now, likewise a sprinter, some sports need youth).

Now obviously this doesn’t work with everything.  You could train from birth but if you haven’t got the physical attributes you aren’t going to beat Usain Bolt (not that he doesn’t need to train, but he apparently has a unique combination of stride length and leg speed that make him fast).  Still, it will be interesting to see how it turns out, to see just how far practice (and drive) will get you and whether that elusive thing referred to as ‘talent’ has any bearing.

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