Sometimes stories take on a life of their own. Author Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, makes a point about the importance of repetition, the idea that practice makes perfect, which is something I agree with him about for the most part. He says if you practice something for 10,000 hours you will become really good at it.
Okay, I’m simplifying his argument a little. There are some natural limits. No matter how much I practice I am never going to be a National Hockey League star. Not only is my age against me, but I don’t have the physical skills necessary – and no amount of practice will ever bring me up to the necessary level. I might become a better skater, I might become an, acceptable recreational league player – but I will never become one of the elite. There are certain physical attributes necessary that I just don’t have, things that practice can’t compensate for.
Gladwell’s best known example of practice paying off involves The Beatles, who are arguably the greatest rock band of all time. He attributes a lot of their success to time spent in Hamburg, Germany, where they played nightly in bars that required them to be on stage for eight hours a night, which he says amounted to more than 10,000 hours.
I was a big Beatles fan in my youth, and I know they spent a lot of time in Hamburg, but there are aspects of that theory that I don’t accept. Did the Beatles really play 10,000 hours in Hamburg from 1960-62, and was all that time in stage the foundation of their success? Well, yes and no. It depends on who you think of as The Beatles. If you mean the group that would be dubbed The Fab Four (John, Paul, George and Ringo), then the answer is definitely no.
The Beatles started playing in Hamburg in August 1960 and performed there up to eight hours a night, as Gladwell asserts, until December 1962. When they started though, they were a five piece band: John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete. Bassist Stu Sutcliffe left the group in July 1961, at which point Paul McCartney switched from guitar to bass. So after a year in Hamburg the group had a personnel change. They wouldn’t have been starting from scratch, but I suspect it took McCartney some time to become comfortable as a bassist.
As they say in the television infomercials, wait, there’s more. Drummer Pete Best, who had joined the band at the outset of their Hamburg sojourn, was fired in August 1962, replaced by Ringo Starr. That would mean the Fab Four honed their skills in Hamburg not for two-and-a-half years but for five months, and most of those five months they were not playing in Hamburg.
Admittedly the Hamburg shows were long: eight hours a night onstage. In two-and-a-half years that’s about 7,500 hours by my calculations, if they never took a night off. Still, that’s only three quarters of the time Gladwell says is necessary to make it big. After Ringo took over the drumming duties they had five months, a maximum of about 1,240 hours on stage together before hitting the big time. That’s a long way from 10,000. Especially when you consider that they really didn’t play in Hamburg every night during 1960-62 – only about 300 shows in total.
My point is that numbers can be deceiving – talent plays a big part in things. I never did have the talent to be a professional hockey player, I knew that when I was young. So Malcolm Gladwell may be right – but his example of The Beatles doesn’t work for me. I have to wonder though, am I the only person who has done the math?