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quality and quantity

I repost a lot of material from kottke.org, as if Jason Kottke is some kind of personal (well, not really personal) internet filter.

In his December 2020 post The Credibility Is in the Details Kottke describes a seemingly apocryphal idea about artists making better work when they focus on quantity and not quality.

Here’s the version as quoted by Kottke from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

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.

Kottke describes how there is another version of the story — this time involving photography students — in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

It turns out the story in true, and that the photography version is what happened. For Kottke, the story is not as transposable as we might imagine:

The specific details lend credibility to the actual story and to the lesson we’re supposed to learn from it. There’s a meaningful difference in believability and authority between the two versions — one is a tale to shore up an argument but the other is an experiment, an actual thing that happened in the world with actual results. Even though I’ve known it in my bones for years because of my own work, I’m happy now to fully believe the connection between quantity and quality demonstrated in this story.

As a side note, I’ve talked about quantity in relation to ideas here and here.

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