In November of 2008, Malcolm Gladwell released a book that accomplished something very few books ever do – it changed our vocabulary. In his book, Outliers, he described success in ways that most had never thought about before. Gladwell brought the idea of 10,000 hours being the threshold for expertise.
In principle, Gladwell claimed that it took around 10,000 hours to master a skill. The Beatles mastered their art by performing in small dive bars in the U.K. night after night after night, eventually getting to 10,000 hours. Tiger Woods reached his 10,000-hour mark sometime before he got to Stanford.
The most interesting thing about this concept, though, is what people have done with it since Gladwell made the concept mainstream. Dan McLaughlin was a commercial photographer who quit his day job to pursue a quest of 10,000 hours of to see if someone who’d never played a full 18-holes of golf could reach the PGA Tour.
McLaughlin tracked everything with daily blog posts, sometimes only a sentence or two. It started in April of 2010 with a simple first post:
“Day one: April 5, 2010. Went out and putted for two hours. Don’t have the ‘real’ clubs yet, but it still counts as a start! So, down to 9,998 hours.”
At the beginning of his journey there was some media buzz to see what would happen or if he was serious, and within a year or so people began to realize he was. The question soon changed from, “Is he going to stick it out?” to “Can he make it on tour?”
By the end of 2012, McLaughlin lowered his handicap to 5.9, a number less than 6 percent of golfers will ever see. In a blog posted December 31, 2012, he said:
“Great day to end the year. Found my mojo after a few day slump and played pretty well despite absolutely frozen greens that played like hardpan. Didn’t score super well, but found my drive and iron shots once again. It snowed for a lot of the day. 6,310 remain. Random Stat: Shot an 80 at Heron Lakes and about 5-over for 9 at CECC.”
After only 3,690 hours, a man who’d never played a full round of golf before 2010 shot 80 in the snow. How long is 3,690 hours? In normal metrics, it’s 92 full work weeks.
In a post on April 20, 2014, McLaughlin describes breaking a barrier that only approximately 1 percent of golfers will ever break.
“April 20: Easter Sunday, hid some eggs and did an Easter egg hunt in the morning and then made it for a round at 1 p.m. at Heron Lakes. I didn’t warm up and just went for it and played what started as a pretty decent round then got better as the day went along. I managed to get in a decent position with my tee shots then either hit greens or be close to them and scrambled well. All in all shot the best round to date and was very happy about it. 4,968 remain. Random Stat: shot a 70 to finally break par!”
Just over half-way through the 10,000-hour journey, he’d broken par, but he was also four years into this journey and still had over 4,900 hours left.
The Beginning of the End
So, where is McLaughlin now? In another post from his blog on April 13, 2015, we can see the beginning of the end:
“April 13: I kind of hurt my back a little yesterday somehow, but had my Monday league play so after working in the yard through the morning (lightly) I went to Broadmoor and played a 9-hole match. It was absolutely pouring out and not much fun in the conditions, honestly. 4,013 remain. Random Stat: lost 2 down.”
Right there. “I kind of hurt my back a little yesterday somehow.” The rest of the post ignores the back issue, and he only mentions it again on April 15th, when he opens his post with, “The back is still a little weird, and I’m in the middle of moving still so had limited practice time today.” It’s unclear what happened to his back, but he goes into a little more detail on the Golf.com podcast from November 6, 2015.
If you listen to this episode, you’ll find that McLaughlin appreciated his break from the journey. It was “sort of a nice break,” he said.
In one of McLaughlin’s last posts he wrote:
“April 25-26: Played in the two-man two-day best ball tourney at Rose City with a friend. I thought the back would be better, but it took everything I had to try and hit a tee shot, and anything longer than a 7-iron from the fairway was instant pain…Need to see a professional tomorrow. 3,997 remain. Random Stat: I’ve never felt pinches like this.”
McLaughlin was stymied at just over 6,000 hours in five years. His initial goal was to complete the 10,000 hours by 2016, but he had higher expectations as well.
From the podcast interview:
“I thought maybe I’d get to scratch in about a year or something, so potentially I’m a little behind where I was hoping to be, but you know, you are where you are, and I have 4,000 hours left.”
I spoke with McLaughlin on the phone the other day and asked him what he learned from the journey.
“Golf changed who I am in a lot of ways, he said. “There is a direct correlation between how much time you put in and the results you see in your golf game. But it’s not just the hours; you have to have focused hours. You have to work on something specific with a goal each time you show up. The same is true in business or any other venture.”
At his playing peak, McLaughlin got his handicap down to a 2.6 index, which is fantastic golf by almost anyone’s standards. He first reached this peak in June of 2014, only four years after he’d begun. When I asked him what he thought about his game when he was at the peak handicap of his journey, he said, “I don’t think I reached my peak. When I hurt my back, I was playing well, but I was hitting the driver really bad. I never felt like I was able to put it all together. Other parts of my game that were good were sort of keeping me together.”
In June of 2014, McLaughlin had put in 5,145 hours of practice. He didn’t make it to the tour, but his journey shows that dedicated practice can get golfers closer to where they want to go.
There’s much to be learned from McLaughlin’s experience, and not just in a golf sense. It’s long been known within the self-development space that people enjoy life more when they have a personal quest. For some people that means running a marathon, 10 marathons or 50 marathons in all 50 states. For others, it’s about building a start-up and taking it to an IPO, bench pressing 300 pounds or winning their club championship.
McLaughlin never really set the goal of becoming a PGA Tour player, but he did want to see if the 10,000-hour rule could hold true. Could someone with no experience in a sport or another other venture put in the 10,000 of deliberate work and achieve what most would consider mastery status? But more so, he wanted something almost transcendental.
“When I started this journey, I wanted to inspire people to be the best person they could be,” McLaughlin said. “It was a journey about human potential, about my own potential.”
As we spoke on the phone, he told me that as the attention grew for his plan — which it did fairly quickly — he started to lose sight of his goal of inspiring people. It started to become more about the golf and shooting the score. He’d lost sight of his quest.
The interviewer on the Golf.com podcast asked McLaughlin if he had any regrets (at the time of the interview, he had been on a layoff for his back for over six months).
Interviewer: “There are no regrets, right? I mean, you’re happy you undertook this task?”
“I mean, it’s just, in so many ways it’s been transformative. It’s taught me a lot about life; it’s opened a lot of doors, you know I’ve met a lot of people through this journey. I’ve learned a ton, I think and all in all, it’s made me a better person.”
The golf didn’t teach him a lot of about life. It wasn’t the result of the shots or the result of the putts he hit; it was the quest. It was the day-in, day-out pursuit of something that helped him gain perspective and discipline, two things people can take with them the rest of their lives.
Behind all great achievements is a human on a quest. It’s why the greatest stories from our childhood have a character fighting their way through some sort of turmoil. It’s why, when people feel they have no purpose, they start reaching for something to give them purpose. Dan McLaughlin set out to prove or disprove a theory, but what he ended up doing is finding himself in the process.
Unfortunately, the last public update we have on his journey from his website is the last post from May 2, 2015:
“Just a bad week. Saw Chiropractor Seth and he said I was all twisted up in the hips and lower back and needed a couple of adjustments. First one was on Monday, followed by an easy Tuesday and then again in his office Wednesday. Late Wednesday night I came down with norovirus, which knocked me out completely for Thursday and Friday, so I scheduled the third adjustment with him this coming Monday. The back feels better, it’s just the lower right side now which is the final adjustment coming Monday. It’s been a long time off and not for a good reason, which is kind of a bummer, but better to get healthy than to risk deeper injury. After Monday I should be able to at least go out and chip and putt on Tuesday, I hope.”
That was over 18 months ago. When I spoke to McLaughlin on the phone, he was upbeat. He told me his new girlfriend had come across some media coverage of his journey (he met his girlfriend well after the back injury sidelined him) and he sat down and went through it all again and explained it to her.
“She told me she noticed a theme as we went through the old press stuff together, the theme was that it was about inspiring people,” he said. “I can definitely point to a time in my journey when I lost sight of that. But as I sit here today, I feel as though I achieved something worthwhile.”
The data on McLaughlin’s site shows that as well, but that’s what journeys are, right? They are a string of failures mixed with a few wins sprinkled in to keep us going, and if we stick it out long enough, we’ll find something important.
Unfortunately, McLaughlin may never make it to 10,000 hours.
“I went through months of physical therapy and I couldn’t even putt for six months because it hurt so bad,” he said. “I’ve just recently, in the last couple of months been able to play somewhat pain-free. I have started this new venture, and we’re having a lot of fun. I have tried to write the final post on the site so many times, but I can never seem to close it out. I would like to think that down the road when I’ve got the capital to fully commit again; I can make golf a full-time focus and maybe make a run for the senior tour. Who knows?”
Even if McLaughlin never logs another blog post, it’s safe to say that he inspired me as a writer. I hope that if you’d never heard of his story until now that you look him up, read his blog and watch the press videos. His journey may inspire you to pick up something new or to rededicate to something of old.
McLaughlin learned a lot about being a better person and what it means to pursue something with everything you’ve got. And that’s a skill that may only require 6,003 hours to master, and it may take him further than golf ever would have. We’ll have to wait and see.