On the Mark

Ten Thousand Hours


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The New year always brings fresh start in a twisted logic kind of way (as if January 1 is different than December31). We see the New Year as a collective “re-set” button, where all those bad habits and lack of

ambition can be shedded and our shiny new behaviour can be adopted, because, you know, this year is

going to be different. No, really, it is. (Work with me here.) I used to be a scratch golfer—20 pounds and three kids ago. So I had the thought at the beginning of this year that perhaps it is time to return my golf

game to its glory days. But then I did some thinking—rational, logical thinking. What will it take for me to get there? The answer, frankly, wasn’t very appealing, primarily because I’m not yet prepared to begin ignoring

my family. In a recent PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines (California) Phil Mickelson had 72 yards to the par five 18th hole in the final round. Bubba Watson was in the lead and had just gone two up, and Mickelson needed to hole out from the fairway to tie and force a playoff. Mickelson and “Bones,” his caddie, walked the full 72 yards to determine that exact yardage. Then he did what I’ve never seen before: Mickelson had his caddie tend the flagstick from 72 yards out

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. Mickelson didn’t hole out his wedge shot, but he came awful close (three feet). We learned later why he had the flagstick tended. “I hit the pin about ten times with a wedge throughout the year and it usually does not help me,” said Mickelson. “It usually ricochets all over…

(so) I wanted to give it two chances to go in: I’m trying to fly it in, and then if it doesn’t fly in, it’s going to skip and I wanted to try to bring it back in…” Why did he think he had a chance to make it? He says, “When I practice, I do a towel drill where I try to fly my irons a specific yardage (where he lays towels), and I hit 1,500 balls a month to those specific yardages and have for the last seven years. So, when I get a wedge shot like No. 18 that’s 72 yards and my towel drill number is 75, I only have to alter it three yards to get it to fly to my number… I can usually fly it within a yard 95 percent of the time” (from PGATour.com). What do we get from this? He has hit 1500 balls a month to a specific yardage, every month, for the last seven years. It takes about 12.5 hours to hit 1500 balls. And that’s just his wedge practice. Now, we may be tempted to attribute Mickelson’s success to his innate talent, but the guy works very hard.

This raises the question: What does it take to be great? Geoffrey Colvin writes, “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness” (www.money.cnn.com). So what do the few do differently to become great? In his immensely popular book ‘Outliers,’ Malcolm Gladwell shows how those at the top of their field—those like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Tiger Woods— must put in at least 10,000 hours of ‘practice’ to get to the top. That is 250 40-hour work weeks of practice, or five years straight. Others say there is a ten year rule—ten straight years of dedicated practice, and that’s a minimum, not an average. Tiger Woods had dedicated 15 years of his life to golf before he won his first U.S. Amateur title at age 18.

But is practice all that matters? Innate talent certainly plays a part, but it’s a small part. The general population has an average IQ of 100 (by definition) and yet some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s. So we can find the answer to the question how do we become great? In two words, hard work. But if that’s all it takes—everyone has 24 hour s in a day—why aren’t more people great at what they do?

One reason why more people are wildly successful is that we don’t generally believe that hard work alone will make us successful. Instead, we are in a never-ending search to determine our unique giftedness, which we expect to be an easy path to success. Or we’re looking for that one breakthrough tip or opportunity that will propel us to the top. But the secret is, there isn’t one. The US inventor Thomas Edison, who perfected the light bulb, registered more than 1000 patents, but he could have given you, by experience, thousands of ways not to make a light bulb.

As I look back on my golf game, I realize that in my early days I put in about 5,000 hours over four years—25 hours a week—to become a scratch golfer. I had the time and I put in the hard work. But I never took it to the next level because I chose not to neglect other priorities in my life in order to do it. Our New Year’s resolutions to take our golf game—or anything else—to the next level are a great ambition. The difference will be simply putting our priorities in order, and then putting our head down, and getting to work. So you’ll have to excuse me, I need to go hit some balls.

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