We’ve all done it. We look at the field goal kicker, the bass guitarist, the abstract painting. We think: I could do that. But it stops there. Unless you’re Dan McLaughlin. At 30, he quit his job with dreams of becoming a pro golfer. Did we mention he’d never played before? Now he’s more than halfway through his 10,000-hour quest. Can he do it?
On the first hole of Portland’s Heron Lakes Golf Club, Dan McLaughlin, wearing faded white FootJoy golf shoes, leans over and jams a tee into the hard, cold ground. “Little frozen,” he says.
Wind lashes the flags outside the pro shop. Skins of ice cover creeks and ponds. A flock of honking, flapping Canadian geese flies overhead, black Vs in blue Oregon skies, heading south, seeking warmth.
“I like these winter rounds,” Dan says to his three playing partners, but also to himself. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
A lefty, he grips his driver, reaches back with the face of the club torqued up, and then whips it around, sending the ball off the tee, low and to the left and—where? “That’s not so good,” he mutters.
A couple hundred yards down the fairway, over in the rough, he looks for his ball, and looks, and looks.
“Find it?” one of his partners asks.
“Not yet,” he says.
On this frigid November morning, Dan McLaughlin, 35 years old, is 5,700 hours into a 10,000-hour experiment that’s equal parts audacious and inspiring. On June 27, 2009, his 30th birthday, he’d made the decision to quit his job, a steady nine-to-five position as a commercial photographer, to try to become a professional golfer. He had almost no experience in the sport. It wasn’t that he wanted desperately to play on the PGA Tour. What he wanted was to test the so-called 10,000-hour theory—posited by academics and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the best seller Outliers—the idea that 10,000 hours is the amount of time it takes to become an expert, truly an expert, at anything. Could Dan start at zero and become one of the very best golfers in the world just by really, really trying? If he could do that, he thought, anybody could do anything. Anybody could be anything.
He officially started in April 2010, wearing blue jeans and a yellow rubber raincoat while attempting 1-foot putts with a two-buck putter.
He would practice diligently. He would keep records. He would chronicle his progress on a blog. He would live, frugally, on roughly $100,000 in savings. And at six hours a day, six days a week, it would take six years.
He called it The Dan Plan.
Experts called it fascinating. K. Anders Ericsson, the architect of the 10,000-hour theory, likened Dan to an explorer setting off to a new world, no telling what he might discover.
“Find it?” Dan’s partner asks again.
“Not yet,” he answers. He keeps searching.
I first met dan on a sunny day in February 2011, at a coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Florida. “From today,” he told me, “it’ll probably take five years. Mentally, I’m setting aside a six-year block.”
I asked him what success would look like, short of overcoming astronomical odds and becoming one of the best couple hundred golfers alive. And failure—what would that look like?
“I don’t think it can be a failure,” Dan said, “because it’s not really about me or what ultimately happens with me. It’s about blazing a new path and trying to change the way people see life’s possibilities.”
It struck me at the time that Dan was trying to prove something first and foremost to himself. His father and his brother are actuaries, smart and accomplished. His sister is a dermatologist who regularly runs marathons.
Dan? He was a talented tennis player as a boy—but quit. He ran a year of cross-country in high school and was good at that too—but quit. He went to Boston University, like his brother, and majored in physics and math, for which he had a knack—but quit. After transferring to the University of Georgia and graduating with a degree in photojournalism, he worked for a newspaper in Chattanooga, Tennessee,
Within his family, Dan said, “I’m definitely the one with the most ‘wander’ in my heart.” He’s traveled to Fiji, Thailand, Cambodia, and Australia, where he waited tables to pay for his travels. His family figured his latest idea, The Dan Plan, would be like almost everything else he did. They didn’t think it would last.
But more than 1,000 hours in, his family was impressed. “He’s very driven,” his mother told me.
“More confident and focused,” his father said.
His siblings were surprised to feel a smidge envious, his brother reflecting on the standard course his own life had taken: “I got out of high school, went to college, went to grad school, got a job…”
While Dan was in Florida, I watched him play on a course in a small beachfront town called Treasure Island. It was strange. He had only three clubs in his bag: a putter, a chipper, and a wedge. His coach at the time, a Nike-affiliated club pro and instructor, had put Dan on a regimen that barred him from putting from 3 feet until he was proficient from 1 foot, banned him from putting from 5 feet until he was proficient from 3 feet, and so on. Dan was working, systematically, away from the hole.
How good was he at Treasure Island? It was hard to tell. He was never more than 50 yards from a hole. He wasn’t really playing; he was practicing. Which was the point, but he was practicing a rudimentary short game, the close-in pieces of a legendarily challenging sport. His chips that day landed in seashells and crabgrass. His putts rolled too short or too long, but occasionally, here and there, just right and into a hole. “Everybody hits bad shots,” he said. “It’s how you recover from those bad shots that matters.”
The weather in Portland is unseasonably cold when I arrive to check up on his progress. Dan scoops me up from my hotel in his pickup truck, a black 2000 Toyota Tacoma with more than 136,000 miles on the odometer and a spreading crack in the windshield. The ride is uneven. Approaches to red lights and stop signs are jerky. “Sorry,” he says. “My brakes are shot.”
It would cost more than $900 to get them fixed. “Things just keep coming up,” he says. “There’s only so long you can neglect things.”
He had originally saved enough to devote four years, no problem, to the project. But it wasn’t until April 2014, exactly four years in, that he finally crossed the 5,000-hour mark. Only halfway. “Eight years,” Dan says, contemplating the new timetable, “is a long time.”
It’s getting harder to keep doing this. At the outset, his chances of making it as a pro seemed to be the most daunting challenge, but just seeing the Plan through has become its own test.
We warm up inside a coffee shop in Portland’s artsy Pearl District, and he tells me he eventually wants to write a book about his experience, about what he’s learned, regardless of the result. “You spend eight years on something, and you write a book,” he says. “Is that success?”
Good question. “I would say yes,” he continues. “But in the eyes of society—is it?”
He leaves the question hanging there.
Back in the truck the next morning, we stop at his house, the one he owns but doesn’t live in. He rents a place on the other side of town and leases out his own—an arrangement that keeps his housing costs at basically zero. As a landlord, though, he’s responsible for fixes of all kinds. He’ll have to repair the gutters and the roof soon, which will run him about $1,000 and $12,000 respectively. Today there’s something wrong with a toilet. The plumber tells him it isn’t going to be a big deal. Still, it’s going to cost something.
Dan has done well with his savings and had some good fortune in the stock market. He spends minimally on food, clothes, and entertainment. He has convinced Nike and Titleist to donate clubs. He almost never purchases golf balls, instead collecting them in the woods and the rough on the courses he plays. He lives on less than $20,000 a year. Still, one of his goals from the get-go was to attract a title sponsor of the project, and that hasn’t happened. Funds have become more of a concern.
After leaving his house we head to Riverside Golf and Country Club, where he pays over $500 for a monthly membership. For two years he played for free at Columbia Edgewater Country Club because people there were intrigued by his quest. But they declined to renew his membership when it ran out. “You do what you can with what you’ve got,” he says, pulling his truck into the parking lot at Riverside. “I usually stop here and hit a couple balls and get a free coffee.”
He gathers his clubs—a full set now—and walks to the driving range. The temperature is barely higher than 40 degrees. The only one on the course, he does some trunk twists. “You get old, you get stiff,” he says.
He uses a wedge to hit Day-Glo balls toward a distant bank of pines, first just little half-swings to warm up and stretch out before shifting to harder, fuller swings. He takes off his blue Gore-Tex jacket and keeps going, pausing only to text potential playing partners about tee times for the next morning. Tomorrow is supposed to be blustery and even colder.
Later, over lunch at a cheap Thai place, he reveals that he recently broke up with his girlfriend—the third since beginning the Plan. This last relationship was the first that ended specifically because of the project, because he wasn’t a more traditional partner, someone who reported to a job every day and split the financial burdens at home. She has two children, which means she can’t pursue something similar to what Dan is doing. Before he started the Plan, when it was still just an idea, plenty of people told him there was no way he could have entertained such a notion if he had children. With a family, the thinking went, there was less opportunity for this sort of … what’s the word? Indulgence? At one point, his latest girlfriend told him that reading his blog sometimes upset her. You can’t just be whatever you want to be. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. It doesn’t work that way.
He had envisioned the Plan as inspiring. Is it still? If Dan is an explorer, what has he found? Dan tells me about his family, about how his brother and sister each got married and divorced and are raising kids. Many of his friends have gone through similar things. “I think a lot changes from 30 to 35,” he says. “You start thinking more about the future.”
Floating between us is an uncomfortable question. I struggle to find the right words because the prospect is unsettling, but I wonder: In Dan’s effort to explore life’s possibilities, to in fact demonstrate them—in this effort that’s so earnest and open-hearted, an effort he has stuck with for 5,700 hours and counting—has he reached a point where he’s limiting his own possibilities?
And further, is it possible that the mess of modern life—its daily chaos, those stretches where you feel like you’re just performing some sort of desperate triage, where you can’t focus only on this one thing because you have to focus on this other thing, where progress feels anything but clean and single-minded—is actually the fuel rather than the inhibitor of excellence?
“Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes in cycles,” Dan says in a start to an answer. “I’ve learned to be patient in the down times and appreciate the good times.”
When I first met Dan in 2011, most people were skeptical about his experiment, but they were also intrigued. They were rooting for him. By escaping the sea of sameness, he is doing something most of us have fantasized about at some point in our lives. But I wonder if people might see things differently now. Part of me wants to say, Good run, Dan. Interesting idea, but it’s time to get a job. But isn’t playing it safe even worse?
“There’s no way I’m just going to quit this,” he says. “What’s the point of doing something 57 percent of the way? It doesn’t do anything for anybody. All it would prove is that another person couldn’t follow through on what they said they were going to do.”
He never does find that ball. So he drops a new ball, and he keeps going.
Over the course of a Saturday and Sunday, I watch him play two rounds of golf. He cards an 84 and an 83—not great but still impressive in raw, difficult weather, conditions for what he calls “stunt golf.”
He whacks some shots off tree trunks. He shanks a wedge, sending a screamer about a foot off the ground that narrowly misses the head of a goose. He also unleashes straight, forceful drives, lofts soft, accurate chips, and taps relaxed, assertive putts—all in frigid, windblown conditions, where swings of his clubs leave icy divots in the turf.
On one hole he birdies a par 4 by ably rolling a putt that slows, curves to the left, slows some more, and then drops into the hole. On another he recovers from an errant tee shot to make a 20-foot putt for par. He raises his arms and beams. “Dan, nice roll,” says one of his partners.
On his bad days, Dan shoots in the mid-80s; on his better days, the mid-70s. He’s even shot a few under-par rounds. Not long ago he made four birdies and an eagle on a front nine. At one point, he got down to a 2.7 handicap. It inched back up to a 3. Then 5. He’s back down to a 3.5. He’s played in some local tournaments, although not as many as he would like, because it costs money to enter. The results have been so-so. Playing with pressure is a whole different kind of playing.
Something he’s learned is this: The more he’s improved, the harder it’s gotten to get better. Going from bad to good is way easier than going from good to great. And going from great to world-class? That’s rare territory. The line is thin, but the gap is wide.
“Diminishing returns is the rule, basically,” says David Epstein, the best-selling author of The Sports Gene. “You start to bump up against your potential.”
And research published last year in Psychological Science suggests there’s nothing magical about 10,000 hours. Practice is undeniably important, but it’s just one variable in a complicated equation, an equation that’s not uniform, an equation that’s different for everybody. Genes matter. Natural aptitude matters. Starting at an early age matters.
But for Dan, 10,000 hours was never a hard-and-fast benchmark, “just the general amount of time it takes if you have all these other pieces of the puzzle put together.”
“It makes it clear how difficult it is, setting aside all these other things—relationships, financial issues, all sorts of issues—and focusing on just one thing,” says K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher who likened Dan to an explorer
And yet, considering that five years ago Dan didn’t golf, it’s kind of remarkable how good he is. Dan’s a good golfer. He’s a really good golfer. Is that enough? Is the Plan working?
The thing is, Epstein points out, even if he does make the PGA Tour after 10,000 hours, it only proves that he did what he did. It won’t be proof, in any scientific sense, that anybody else could do the same thing. “It’s a case study,” he says. “He’s a case study.”
Still, Epstein argues, The Dan Plan is working in other ways. “I believe most people underestimate how good they can get with a mild amount of focus and training, and I do think he’s kind of a good symbol of that fact. He wanted to change his life, and he did it.”
A couple days after leaving Portland, I get a text from Dan. “Shot a 74 today on frozen greens,” it reads, “and the total for fixing my brakes came in at $350 instead of $940. Guess some days are better than others.”
On his blog, in what sounds like a pep talk to himself, he reflects on his progress during November: “Life comes at us every day and there are always things to consider and to account for.”
“Always moving forward,” he writes in December.
He spent Christmas at his parents’ house in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and carved out time to play golf every day. But he also went fishing. He and his dad talked about football and basketball.
Back when he passed the 1,000-hour mark, Dan’s mother had told me she was surprised he’d made it that far. She’s still surprised. “He was this flighty kid,” she says over the phone. “I never expected this.”
“He hasn’t quit,” his father says. “He’s still working at it.”
They hope he meets the right woman. They hope he gives them more grandchildren. But they remain supportive of their third child and his ongoing project. “If you’re going to climb the highest mountain,” his father says, “you have to give up certain things.”
“He’s happy,” his mother explains, “and you want your children to be happy.”
I call Dan one last time. I want to know if he’s ever reached the point of reconsidering, if he fears that the project is limiting his own opportunities. “Anything you do limits other things you could potentially do,” he says. “As long as you’re doing what you want to do and you’re happy and healthy, you’re on the right path.”
Still wandering. Still searching. Still exploring life’s possibilities.
That’s the right path?
No hesitation. “Yeah.”
Originally published April 2015
Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer at Politico.
Photography by Nicolle Clemetson