May 04

The “Dan Plan”

I mentioned the Dan Plan awhile ago as a fascinating real-world self experiment on the acquisition of expertise.  Dan, the eponyous experimenter and experimentee, quit his job to try to spend 10,000 hours playing golf to see if he could meet a standard of ‘internationally competitive’ defined by winning a PGA tour card — starting from no prior golf experience at all.

I remembered the project awhile back and peeked in on it and it seemed to be going slowly.  Then I ran across this write-up in the Atlantic summarizing the project and basically writing it off as a failure.  I disagree!


Data collection in the real-world is really hard and it seems remarkably unfair to Dan to say he “failed” when even this single data point is so interesting.  As a TL;DR, he logged around 6000 hours of practice but then got sidetracked by injuries, bogged down by other constraints in life (e.g, making a living) and kind of petered out.  To think about what we learned from his experience, let’s review the expertise model implied here.

The idea is that the level of expertise is a function of two components: talent and training (good old nature/nurture) and what we don’t know is the relative impact of each.  The real hypothesis being tested is that maybe ‘talent’ isn’t so important, it’s just getting the right kind of training, i.e., “deliberate” training and as a note Ericsson is both cited in the Atlantic article and was consulting actively with Dan through his training (Bob Bjork is also interviewed, although the relationship of his research is more tenuous that suggested, although the article does not properly appreciate how good a golfer he is reputed to be).

The real challenges here are on embedded in understanding the details of both of these constructs.  For training, I doubt we really know what the optimal ‘deliberate practice’ is for a skill like golf.  Suppose if Dan wasn’t getting the right kind of coaching, or even harder, the right kind of coaching for him (suppose there are different optimal training programs that depend on innate qualities — that makes a right mess out of the simple nature/nurture frame).  One of the reason we do lab studies with highly simplified tasks is to make the content issue more tractable and even then, this can be hard.

And the end of the Dan plan due to chronic injury points out an important part of the ‘talent’ question for skills that require a physical performance.  Talent/genetic factors can show up as peripheral on central (as in nervous system).  For athletes, it is clear that peripheral differences are really important — size, weight, peculiarities of muscle/ligament structure — these all matter.  Nobody doubts that there are intrinsic, inherited, genetic aspects in those that can be influenced by exercise/diet but with significant limits.  Tendency towards injury is a related and somewhat subtle aspect of this that might act as a big genetic-based factor in who achieves the highest level of performance in physical skills.

Their existence of peripheral differences does not actually tell us much about the relative importance of central, brain-based, individual differences in skill learning, which are closer to questions we try to examine in the lab.  It could be the case that there are some people who learn more from each practice repetition and as a result, achieve expertise more quickly (fwiw, we are failing to find this, although we are looking for it).  But if any novice can get to high-level expertise in 10,000 hours, then maybe that is not as big a factor.

In my estimation, Dan got pretty far in his 6k hours.  And even if he wasn’t able to fully test the core hypothesis due to injuries, it’d be great if this inspired some other work along this line.  Maybe somebody would invest a few million in grant dollars into recruiting a bunch more people like Dan to spend ~5 years full-time commitment to various cognitive or physical skills, see what the learning curves are like, and get some more data on the relative importance of talent and time in expertise.

Leave a Reply