Quantity Is the Way to Quality

Quantity and quality. Two opposite concepts, poles at the ends of a spectrum.

For most of my life, I worshipped quality. When starting a new project, I would swear never to give in to quantity. I would only work to the highest of standards. I would never put out anything sub-par. I would wait and polish my thing rather than publish it too early.

This attitude led to two main outcomes. First, I published next to nothing. Most of my side-projects consisted of little more than a blank page and an “idea.” And even when they did make it past the blank page stage, they often froze for long periods of time. By which most of my audience, me included, had already forgotten about the whole thing.

Second, what I created just wasn’t very good. Whenever I put something out it wasn’t because I finally thought it was perfect, but because I got too tired of tinkering with it. Since I was creating little, I had little experience creating. And this lack of experience led to sub-par work. Ironically, the exact thing I was trying to avoid. But I didn’t know that back then, and despite getting burned multiple times, I still stuck out for quality over quantity. Until the obvious was spelled out to me in a beautiful example in the book Art & Fear.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. 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.

But of course. They aren’t opposites. Quality follows quantity. To make good stuff, you first have to make a lot of stuff. If I wanted to get better at writing, or playing the banjo, or carving, I would have to create and repeat until my creations were good.

Why didn’t this epiphany come to me sooner? Partly because of quality worship. But mainly because of long term blindness. We are not very good at seeing past the immediate future. And for someone who makes a song a day, or a vase a day, the immediate future looks like just more terrible songs, or vases, every day. It’s hard to see a future in which you’ll be good at your craft. To go the way of quantity is to crawl a tortuous path, and that doesn’t come naturally.

Quantity has some properties that make it a great way to get to quality. First, quantity is clearly measurable. For people who struggle with motivation, that is key. “Write 1000 words a day” is a clear directive. Follow that recipe, and eventually you’ll get better. “Improve the quality of your writing” is a bit too vague, at least for me, and doesn’t quite have the same staying power.

Then, quantity benefits from compound effects. The quantity versus quality debate is similar in spirit to the discussion on daily habits. It’s a different riff on the same issue. In that article, I advocated for working on your habits regularly, no matter how little, rather than in big chunks spread apart. Turns out, it also works for your craft. By the end, you’ll have created more and better. And thanks to compounding, all you need is to get 1% better every day.

This is the crucial bit though: you have to make an effort to get better every time you perform your craft. While simply “showing up” every day might work when forming habits, honing a craft is different. Yes, it’s quantity, but with a purpose. In the ceramics class example, the quantity team was busy “learning from their mistakes.” That was the key to achieving quality. It is possible to create large quantities of work and still be terrible at it. Your practice of the craft needs to be deliberate, you need to purposefully try to create a better work every time.

It can be hard, when you are a beginner, to know exactly how you can get better. Detecting your own weak spots is challenging. You know that there are things you don’t know about your craft, but sadly, the majority of things, you still don’t even know you don’t know. They lie completely outside of your circle of competence. A good way to practice, then, is with the garage door up. Publish what you do, actively show it around, and people who know more than you will help.

Be prolific, deliberate, and open in your practice of the craft. Quality will come.

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” (Ira Glass, 2011)