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Does practice make perfect? The evidence suggests it might

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At the age of 30, I quit my day job as a photographer to test the 10,000 Hour Rule – Dr K. Anders Ericsson’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an over-achiever in any specific field. 

With almost no experience at all, I decided I’d try to become a professional golfer.  

The idea first arose on a road trip with my brother in Nebraska. We played a par 3 course and I was terrible – I’d never played before. We were standing around talking about talent versus hard work and we decided there’s no way to know what would be possible unless you totally dedicated yourself to something. 

It took nine months of thinking and a huge dip into my savings, but I decided to test out the theory. 

Golf seemed like the perfect vehicle for the test. It was a mix of physical and mental. It was objective and easy to track one’s progress as there is a world-wide handicapping system already established.   

I spoke with Dr Ericsson a handful of times in the beginning to figure out how to go about the daily routine. Originally, I figured I could practise for 10 hours a day, six days a week and get to the 10,000 hour mark in about 3.5 years, but after speaking with Ericsson about concentration levels and learning absorption, it was evident that this was going to be a much longer project.  


A typical day, then, would be between four and six hours of time literally standing over a ball engaged in practice along with a handful of extra curricular activities such as working out, watching film, reading about swing theory, meditation, etc. The days would be long, yet the hours counted towards the 10,000 would be few as only the time spent literally working with the ball would count.

I started in earnest on a cold-as-hell April day in Portland, Oregon. I wore jeans, running shoes and a bright yellow hooded rain jacket – it was clear I was a total novice. When I discussed my plan at the pro shop there were a few laughs and some jokes tossed around. 

I got to work putting from one foot away from the hole, for four hours. The plan was pretty simple: I would start from one foot away from the hole and stay there until I reached a specific proficiency, then move out to three feet and do the same, then five, 10, 20, 40 and so on until I had reached a PGA Tour average from all of those distances. 

I thought it would take a month or so to go through all of the putting distances, but it ended up being harder than I had imagined. After solely putting the ball for over four months, I finally made some progress and could move on to chipping, and so on.  

By February 2011 I was starting to “play” some golf from about 30 metres off the putting green and the goal was to make everything in three strokes. I worked at it daily and continued the push away from the hole.  

I added clubs slowly through the year and at the end 2011 I finally got a full set. I’ve since fallen for the sport completely and it has basically consumed my life. If I’m not on the course, I’m thinking about the last round I had or whatever I need to work on.

It’s been four years since I started testing the 10,00 Hour Theory and I’m now approaching the 5100 hour mark. Doing the maths, I’ve got four more years until I’ve completed the full 10,000 hours and have reached my ultimate goal of competing in a PGA tournament.

I believe the theory is working – right now my handicap is 3.3, putting me in the top 4.5 per cent of the 26 million golfers in the US. 

The word "talent" gets thrown around too much. There are certain genetic predispositions that make specific endeavours more viable for certain people. Those born with 90 per cent fast-twitch muscles may have an easier ability to get to a certain level in running, for example, but that’s not the same as "talent". People think it’s a magical thing that makes someone good at something right off the bat. There has to be a hard work component to success. 

What makes someone "talented" is a single-mindedness to push through the lows and to allow themselves to change and grow. Hard work is being able to change and get better at what you’re passionate about, which is why I’m in this for the long haul. In four years' time, I don’t think there’ll be a difference between me and a pro golfer. 

Dan McLaughlin is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight on SBS ONE at 8.30pm, which asks whether people are born with talent, or if there is untapped potential in all of us.