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10,000 hours to expert

A KC knitter and a Portland golfer commit to the ‘Outliers’ theory of know-how

Artist Laura Isaac hangs a description next to her fine art knitted piece as she prepares for PLUG Project's Critique Night in Kansas City, Missouri, July 11, 2013.

Artist Laura Isaac is dedicating 10,000 hours of her life to knitting.

“I was looking for a new way to explore human potential …my own potential, and just see what was possible in life.” Dan McLaughlin

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Three years ago, on a Friday in early February, Laura Isaac sat down to knit for eight hours. She carried two needles, prepared her tools, and found a comfortable spot in her home studio in Kansas City. A few feet away, she set up a camera to beam this little experiment to world.

Isaac had never knitted before in her life, and she’d had only a few minutes of basic training. And at this moment, as the camera clicked on and the journey began, she focused on the first strategy: Casting on the initial set of loops on the needle.

She practiced for eight hours, settling into a monotonous, metronomic rhythm. Knit-knit. Purl-purl. Knit-knit. Purl-purl. It was long and uncomfortable, and by the end, when her brain seemed severed from her hands, her fingers began to hurt. Cramps.

This was the first day, the first of thousands. If everything broke right, and the plan came together, seamlessly, she would dedicate the next nine years of her life to knitting. Isaac would be the latest real-life test case in a question that has vexed scientists and researchers: Can practice and determination be more important than innate talent on the way to being a master?

A few years earlier, when Isaac, a Prairie Village native, had been a student in the University of Missouri-Kansas City art school, she had read “Outliers,” a book by Malcolm Gladwell that explored the story of success. Isaac was especially intrigued by the 10,000-hour rule, the idea that one needed approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in a certain field.

“I wanted to know what it would feel like to go through that kind of process,” Isaac says.

As the plan came together, Isaac thought about the day a professor had asked her class to come up with a one-sentence artist statement, a thesis that would guide their prospective careers.

“I’m an artist to work through the questions I have,” Isaac wrote.

It seemed about right, she thought. But then life kept moving. She was working a 40-hour-a-week corporate job, and her second boy had been born. She was cranky and busy and stretched to her limits. So she added a second line:

“I’m an artist to make myself uncomfortable.”

On the first day, Feb. 4, 2011, she shakily completed her first stitches. And to the outside world, the plan might have sounded insane. Who knits for 10,000 hours? Who documents their journey, using social media and writing to share her experience? Who would have the audacity, the stamina, the time?

To Isaac, this was performance art, an opportunity to explore the journey from beginning to master. Knitting, she would explain, was simply a convenient means to an end.

Back in her home studio, Isaac’s hands ached and her mind wandered, and a video live stream projected her vulnerability to the world. As the clock ticked, she kept track of her hours. One, then two, then four, then eight.

She had 9,992 hours to go.

Here’s a question to consider: Have you ever done anything for 10,000 hours? Have you ever dedicated yourself to a skill, or a sport, or a saxophone? Have you?

In the early days of her project, Laura Isaac would come across some skeptical stranger. Why was she knitting for 10,000 hours? Isaac would take a breath and explain herself the best she could. And as she laid out her mission, she would often see the person descend into a moment of deep thought.

Wait — have I ever done anything for 10,000 hours?

Isaac wasn’t always like this. She had grown up in Prairie Village and attended a private high school. She had moved on to KU, staying for a while, then realizing she was ready for something different.

“I left and started my own life,” she says.

She met James, a musician. They started a family. They had a son. They began that life, Isaac says. A few years later she returned to school. This time she enrolled in art school at UMKC. First an undergrad degree. Then a master’s. She focused on printmaking, mostly. But she also explored.

One specific idea from“Outliers” caught her imagination. Gladwell cited the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who had studied expertise and success for years. Ericsson found patterns in musicians, patterns that suggested that there was a certain threshold — a certain amount of practice — that held the key to true expertise.

It was, in some ways, an obvious idea. How many children have begun piano lessons or joined a basketball team, and then heard those timeless words: “Practice makes perfect.” In other ways, though, Ericsson’s work was chipping away at the idea that people are born into greatness. How many times have we heard that LeBron James was born to be the best basketball player in the world, or that Beyonce is Beyonce because of her God-given abilities? The idea that greatness springs from some genetic lottery, or that people are born with some innate talent?

It’s just too simplistic.

“Instead,” Ericsson writes, “we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

Isaac dug into Ericsson’s original research. If the idea that people could be born with greatness was too simplistic, well, so was the idea that 10,000 hours of practice equals success. According to Ericsson, the 10,000 hours must be “deliberate practice” — a type of practice that requires expert instruction, constant feedback and continual progression.

The research, Isaac thought, gave credibility to those vague, hopeful words that kids have heard for generations: Maybe the right kind of practice does make perfect. And in other ways, the 10,000-hour rule provided hope.

As she finished her art school career in late 2010, she began to formulate an idea in her head. A project that would stretch her to the limit.

For an artist thinking about spending 10,000 hours on one skill, knitting provided a few tempting advantages. There was plenty of cheap, expert instruction available. It would be transportable. And most important, she would have a visual account of her progress.

“Laura tends to come up with good ideas,” James Isaac says. “So I was definitely intrigued by how it was all going to play out.”

But before she could come up with the specific details of her knitting project, a man in Portland, Ore., was coming up with his own 10,000-hours project.

He was a photojournalist, and he’d only played a few rounds of golf in his life. But he was dead set on becoming a professional golfer.

“It’s different for us all. Something inside drives the few to overachieve. Whether it’s an obsession driven by self-loathing or spiritual enlightenment … every generation has them, and in a way it’s what we call progress. At the end of the day I’m not sure if it’s what will save or destroy humanity, but it is what it is and there’s no stopping us at this point, so we have to hope that the direction we are heading is the right one.” — Dan McLaughlin, July 2013

The phone rings on a mid-July morning, and the voice on the other end begins to speak in slow, thoughtful bursts.

His name is Dan McLaughlin, and it’s been more than three years since he quit his job and began a journey of self-discovery — and golf.

He calls it the Dan Plan, and his stated goal since the beginning has been pretty simple: He would practice golf for 10,000 hours, and eventually play in a PGA Tour event.

“I was looking for a new way to explore human potential …my own potential,” McLaughlin says, “and just see what was possible in life.”

In his past life, McLaughlin had worked as a professional photographer, talented enough to make a comfortable living, but restless enough to wonder what else was out there. He thought about all the things people do when they hit a crossroads in life: Go back to school. Travel the world. Look for a new career.

But then came July 2009, and McLaughlin played a round of golf with his brother at a par-3 course in Nebraska. McLaughlin had barely played golf in his life. (He barely knew if he should play left-handed or right-handed.) But they began to talk. What if you dedicated yourself to the sport? How good could you be?

“What if you basically forced yourself to become obsessed with a new thing,” McLaughlin says. “Would you be able to get to the biggest stages?”

On April 5, 2010, the Dan Plan took off. He enlisted a coach. He consulted with others. He formed a staff. For close to five months, he worked on putting and nothing else. After that, he expanded. Golf felt like a puzzle, and in the first year he was flipping over all the pieces, preparing to put them together.

“It was just about the pursuit,” McLaughlin says.

More than three years later, the Dan Plan has been going for nearly 4,400 hours. McLaughlin will hit the halfway point in the next year, and the plan will take him through most of his 30s. For the last three years, he says, he’s lived off his life savings.

He owns one pair of pants, and lives a meager lifestyle. He is close to a 5.5 handicap, which means he shoots close to 5-over par on average. In golfing terms, he’s not even in the same stratosphere as the pros, who will shoot close to 10 strokes better, based on the handicap system. But of the 26 million golfers registered with the United States Golf Association, McLaughlin’s scores put him among the top 10 percent. And in this little way, he is already elite.

“My goal is still to play in the PGA Tour,” he says. “That’s always the ultimate, and it always will be. But the ideas of success and failure, I think that changes with time.”

Maybe he’ll never be a pro. But maybe that was never the point. Life is about the pursuit, McLaughlin says, and if somebody else realized that while reading about him on a golf course, maybe his plan was a success.

“Everything really comes in ebbs and flows, in golf and in life,” he says. “With the project, in any given month, you can have a period of a few days of just kind of enlightenment, and then a period of just struggle, where nothing seems to make sense and nothing works.

“And through the project I’ve realized that in life, in general, you just really need to utilize the peaks, to utilize the productive times, and just kind of power through or allow the unproductive times to happen. Because it just comes in cycles.”

“The ultimate goal of 10,000 hours. … I can only imagine what that will look & feel like. Will I be knitting insanely complex and impressive objects? Will I be speed-knitting? Or will I just be a really competent knitter? I don’t know.” — Laura Isaac, June 11, 2011.

On a summer morning in early July, Laura Isaac sits inside a coffee shop in the Crossroads Arts District. She is two years and five months into her knitting project, and she’s trying to explain that, yes, she’ll be spending the next six years of her life on this project.

“I’m pretty funny commitmentwise,” she says, fiddling with a cup of a tea. “Even making my bed, if I stop and think, ‘Oh my god, I have to make this bed every single day of my life,’ I kind of freak out about it. But if I just settle in and don’t think about how many years I’m gonna make this bed, I’m OK.”

But maybe you need to hear another story. One month after she began the process, in March 2011, Isaac took her first crack at knitting with lace. She attempted to make a lace shawl, but something went amiss, and the end result ended up looking like a springy lace scarf.

She had done everything backward.

One year later, she attempted another lace shawl. This time, 1,000 hours of practice later, it came together beautifully. Soon after, Isaac compared the two photos from the lace projects.

“It pretty much summed up (the project),” she says.

In fewer than three years, Isaac has transformed from a novice to an “advanced intermediate.” The project has attracted an audience on Twitter and her website, lauraisaac.com. She has dabbled in the professional world, selling knitted objects in Hadley, the boutique on West 18th Street in Kansas City. And she was selected as one of nine accessories designers in the West 18th Street Fashion Show earlier this summer.

The project also caught the eye of Kianga Ellis, an art curator and collector in New York, who has featured Isaac’s work at three shows during the last three years.

“One of the things that drew me to Isaac was that I feel she’s driven by a genuine artistic impulse,” Ellis says, “and she’s not sitting around thinking about a clever idea that would impress people. She’s really responding to something deep within, which I think is sort of the location of some of the best art that we’ve seen over time.”

Later this year, Isaac will begin a Charlotte Street Studio residency, bringing her project to a wider audience. On some days, she says, she feels like a “skill-development crusader.”

“It takes practice, and it takes not being good at something, or making something ugly, or sounding bad, or being awkward and uncomfortable or really clumsy,” Isaac says. “You have to be OK with that.”

On some days, Isaac says, she tries to impart the same knowledge to her boys. Wesley is 10 and likes paper sculpting and origami. Max is 4 and just getting into ballet.

Maybe they’ll become experts someday. But that’s not really the point. The goal is to become a little bit better than you were yesterday. The goal is to take advantage of every day.

“So much of this project is about time,” Isaac says. “And knitting is inherently a measure of time. Stitch by stitch. Second by second.”

The possibilities continue. Only 7,325 hours to go.

To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/rustindodd.

Comments

  1. 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Thanks for an inspiring article…as one who is amazed that my friends and I (all over 50) are still wondering what we want to be when we grow up, these young pups are showing us how it’s done…by their dedication and commitment. Ms. Isaac has taken on a challenge I would be deathly afraid of, and has embraced the process. What a great role model for her young children! Please do a follow-up article next year.

  2. 11 months, 2 weeks ago

    This is fascinating. I’ve been knitting for since I was 10, but still probably haven’t made it to 10,000 hours. Maybe more like 7-8 thousand. It will probably take me another two years to get there. I wonder…will I be an expert then? Or can you really ever be an expert in a skill? Aren’t we always learning new tricks and techniques? Great article

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