The Beatles and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule

Today is the birthday of Malcolm Gladwell. He is 51 today. I have been reading David and Goliath, but my favourite is Outliers because of the chapter headed The 10,000-Hour, which begins with the epigraph, “In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours.”

 That’s a quote from John Lennon, talking about the Beatles’ early days, performing at a Hamburg strip club called the Indra.


“We got better and got more confidence,” said Lennon. “We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.

 “In Liverpool, we’d only done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so really had to find a new way of playing.”

 Gladwell quotes Lennon to show how hard the Beatles worked to achieve what they did.

 He also quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin who wrote: “The emerging picture from studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything… In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up and again. ”

 But practice alone isn’t enough. It also takes talent and opportunity. One has to be at the right place at the right time. The Beatles wouldn’t have had so much practice playing had they not gone to Hamburg.

 Gladwell’s book, to quote the author, is “the story of how the outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage”.

 For example, he points out how pioneers of the personal computer like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Bill Joy were all born between 1953 and 1956. An older generation of computer scientists and engineers worked for IBM, building mainframes. They did not get into the new business of making personal computers and their software.

 Back to the Beatles. Remember Pete Best, their drummer who had to leave the band when they found Ringo? Best said about their Hamburg days: “We played seven nights a week.”

 Gladwell writes:

 The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five hours or more a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing, All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary this is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

 Yeah, yeah, yeah! as the Beatles used to sing in their early days.