Do You Achieve Perfection Through Quality or Quantity?

Quality or Quantity: How do you achieve perfection?

I am a closet perfectionist.

I can (and have) spent hours futzing over details of something that’s past good enough, tweaking details that really don’t affect the final result. Other times, I’m paralyzed from even starting. I know what I want the final product to look like, but I don’t know where to start. (On a side note, one of the best cures for this “blank page syndrome” is starting from a template or writing an outline table of contents.)

Then I stumbled across two separate blog posts from a few years ago that both mentioned the same clay pot story, and I was intrigued.

Quality or Quantity: How do you achieve perfection?

What Do Clay Pots Have to Do With Performance?

The story circulating around is based out of the book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, published in 1993. The text (page 29) has no citation so it may or may not be true. It still provides enough food for thought, even if it’s fiction, that it’s worthy of repeating:

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.

While I truly doubt that every “quality” student only had grandiose theories and dead clay or that every “quantity” student received an “A”, other collective experiences tend to support the moral of this story.

In Defense of Quantity: Making Mistakes and Showing Up

Fail often, fail fast, fail forward. What is this preoccupation we have with failure? Maybe it’s because the word “fail” has become such a meme over time.

The point isn’t about celebrating mistakes or failures, it’s about giving ourselves the chance to enter sandbox mode, a learning environment, a practice room, or whatever metaphor speaks to you. It’s the reason why we try code out on Test or Development servers before moving into production. Why musicians rehearse before they go onstage. Why athletes practice before the game. You get the picture.

Test in Production
I don’t always test my code, but when I do, I do it in Production

Maybe the reason there are so many metaphors is because it’s universal, and it’s actually quite hard to do. Case in point: this blog post.

In theory, I know I need to write at least a blog post a week. Guess how long I’ve spent writing this post? Almost two weeks. Why? Because the kitchen counter is messy. Or any number of other mundane tasks that need doing. I’ll just get back to writing this blog post later….

It’s all good in theory to know that every artist feels that art is never finished, only abandoned (a quote commonly credited to Leonardo da Vinci). And I know in theory that I’m a harsher critic than any of my friends or colleagues. That doesn’t help as I’m typing out sentences, editing, and re-editing, and re-editing. I don’t want to hit publish because it’s not perfect. I don’t have a nice Pinterest-worthy image yet. My point for this post is still hazy. I can’t get the pictures to display correctly. The layout is off. I don’t know how this post will bring anyone specific value, or be inspirational.

So instead I have to focus on the fact that I’m showing up today. And commit to showing up tomorrow. And the day after that.

Even when it doesn’t seem like I’m making any progress.

In Defense of Quality: What Would Yoda Do?

“Do or do not. There is no try.” What the heck does that mean? What’s the difference between trying and doing? In the scene, Luke says something to the effect of, “Alright, I’ll give it a try.” But trying is not the same as doing. There’s not the same level of commitment or confidence. Trying implies a lack of full commitment to the task, a half-hearted effort. It also implies that failure is already anticipated.

Practice and repetition form habits. If perfection is the goal, it is even more harmful to practice bad habits than to not practice at all. Garbage in results in garbage out.

Let’s say I was in the “make lots of pots” group of the story. Somehow I doubt that throwing down a chunk of clay and punching it a few times in the center to make a hole would get me any closer to having a beautiful pot.  I’d need to put forth a minimal effort of putting it on a wheel, or maybe trying a cube-shaped pot with square sides. My piano teacher always told me to practice like I was performing. An article I recently read on public speaking echoed another post on interviewing that recommended practicing a speech or interview with the same clothes, accessories, etc. that was going to be used during the actual event.

Finding the Balance

Mistakes aren’t always easily analyzed in the moment. They have to age a bit, and then be revisited with fresh viewpoint. I have to give myself permission to try out new thoughts and approaches, and not worry if I’m using too much passive voice or mixing first person with second person or third person.

Growth mindset is a perfect example of quantity over quality. The idea is that it doesn’t matter how I compare to anyone else; there will always be people better than me and worse than me. The point is am I improving? Unless competition defines my livelihood, such as the Olympics, the most important thing is if I’m improving. Even slow improvement is acceptable.

I need to practice frequently, committing fully to the effort (doing not trying). If it doesn’t work out, analyze what went wrong and do it again. Rinse and repeat until I am successful.

Recently, I’ve been working on being more efficient with my time, recognizing what’s good enough, and learning to let go of the rest. Don’t overthink it. Don’t overdo it. And don’t overwhelm myself by it. It’s difficult, but I’m making progress.

Who knows, maybe in a few years I can pull this post out of the archives and refresh it. Or not, and that’s okay too.

Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR) Summary

Two groups of people made pots. The ones who made many pots (supposedly) got a better grade than the people who focused on making one perfect pot.

I need to get over myself already and publish good enough. It’s more important to write regularly (with a basic threshold of acceptable work), than to treat each post like some kind of magnum opus.