Listen, do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?
Closer, let me whisper in your ear . . .
—“Do You Want to Know a Secret,” from Please Please Me, 1963
By the time the Beatles brought the “British Invasion” to America, in February 1964, and my family watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for seven years. By a fluke, in 1960, “when they were still just a struggling high school rock band,” notes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, “they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.”
What was special about Hamburg was the sheer amount of time the teenagers were forced to play in the city’s sleazy bars—as long as eight hours at a stretch—seven nights a week. Gladwell explains:
The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours 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 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 that 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.
They were getting better all the time. They covered every song and type of song and they improvised and they started writing their own material. They were still young men when, after ten years, they produced their greatest works, including “the white album,” Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road.
Gladwell’s relevant point from Outliers is that any mastery, regardless of talent, takes 10,000 hours of effort, or about ten years. Writers, artists, immerse! If you’re just starting your apprenticeship, you have ten years to learn to paint your masterpiece—as you make it. Sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-year-olds are doing it. I’m certain that it happens all the time.