Why Creatives Should Focus On Quantity Over Quality

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The only way to learn how to make a moving film or write a page-turning story is to make crap and learn from our mistakes.

Todays article explains why focusing on quantity is a more effective way to produce awesome work, than merely focusing on quality.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book Art & Fear: Observations on The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, draw attention to an experiment done by a ceramics teacher.

It rang true for me. It went like this:

The ceramics teacher divided the class into two groups, A and B. Group A was assigned to focus on making as many pots as they possibly could—they would be graded on quantity. If they made 50 pounds of pots they would receive an A grade, if they made 40 pounds worth they would receive a B, and so on.

Group B was assigned to spend all of their energy making only one pot—they would be graded purely on quality. If the pot was perfect, they would receive an A, if it could be slightly improved, they would receive a B, etc.

When Groups A and B brought their pots to class, something interesting was found. Group A, the group that focused on quantity, not only produced a high number of pots, they also made higher quality pots than group B, the group the focused on quality.

Group A developed the right work habits—they tried different approaches, screwed things up, went back to the drawing board and improved on the next. Group B developed the wrong work habits—they spent too much time dreaming up approaches and techniques and not enough time applying them, and discarding what doesn’t work and keeping what does.

The authors rationalize this discovery:

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The Lesson

We shouldn’t expect our work to be perfect. Good work doesn’t have to be perfect. Art will always be flawed because humans are flawed creatures. If Steven Spielberg, for example, waited on the perfect story, the perfect cast, and the perfect shots, he probably never would have directed anything.

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, wrote something beautiful about the dangers of perfectionism:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

The more we dwell on what would make our work “perfect”, the less of a chance we have of actually getting anything done. This idle mindset can kill a career. A director will be driven to madness if she expects her film to be as perfect as the one she envisions in her head.

“Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.”

—David Bayles and Ted Orland

The only way to learn how to make a moving film or write a page-turning story is to make crap and learn from our mistakes. The key word here is “learn from our mistakes”. It’s pointless to churn out a slew of bad work if we don’t analyze what makes each piece not work. Focusing on quantity over quality is helpful only if we’re open to the lessons we can learn from each experience. Each botched film we direct or lifeless story we write teaches us how to improve upon the next piece.

Of course, sometimes it’s better to focus on the quality of your work. For example: if you’re a writer, it’s now easier than ever to publish your creative stories through a service like Lulu and instantly share it with the world. But that doesn’t mean you should churn out a slew of crappy books—you want to make sure the work is done right.

With that said, we should always be concerned with the quality of our work. That goes without saying. But it’s important to remember that quality often comes through relentless, consistent output—not through obsessing over one piece of work.

“Focus on quantity over quality.”

Best,
Aaron.

Image by  Angela Anderson-Cobb

I’d love to hear your feedback, please leave a comment! 

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5 comments on “Why Creatives Should Focus On Quantity Over Quality

  1. This is a great lesson to everyone who’s struggling with perfectionism, like me.. You posts are very helpful and inspiring, Aaron, thank you!

  2. Aaron Pederson says:

    Thanks for this! I’m glad I can help.

    If there are any particular areas of the creative process you’re struggling with feel free to ask. I’ll do my best to answer it here or in a post.

  3. talhawasti says:

    That’s actually very interesting. I think a lot of people go for perfection in the first attempt. I would have never thought of it that way. It’s an opener for me. You hear all the time that practice makes perfect but never like this. It’s quite a different take on the idea.

    • Talha, it’s really made a difference in my work habits. Sometimes we forget that the essence of practice is to make a ton of mistakes and learn why we made them and how to correct them.

      • KayriaT says:

        Exactly! Practice makes perfect. To produce quality we need to start with producing a lot of quantity first. (btw was referred to this blog by Prof. Rahul Sethi from PWC :))

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