Quality vs Quantity: The Eternal Conundrum of Creation
Hey Michael, I really liked a lot of what you shared here. I’ve definitely seen that focusing on quality can be incredibly powerful. One of Medium’s superstars, Benjamin Hardy appeared to make an investment in quality and it paid off extremely well.
The first time I remember discovering Benjamin was here on Medium in 2017 when I encountered the highest-quality listicle post I had ever seen. I ended up doing what you said often happens: I went to his profile and read everything else he had posted, all of which was exceptional quality.
So I completely resonate with rising above mediocrity and standing out.
But I’m not quite sure I’m completely convinced on your full argument. It’s not that I’m adamantly against it, it’s that I’m a content creator who is starting to build momentum and am finding myself caught in a difficult tension.
Practice in Public
One of Benjamin Hardy’s more memorable quotes for me is:
“Quantity is the most likely path to quality”
It’s a fun spin on “practice makes perfect” that dodges an unhealthy preoccupation on perception and delightfully flips the well-known “quality over quantity” mantra.
I heard a great story once. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s an effective parable nonetheless:
On the first day of a new semester a ceramics professor divided his class in half. One side of the room would be graded on quantity. To get an A they needed to complete a certain number of pots. The other side would be graded on quality. They only needed to make one pot to get an A, but it had to be flawless. The curious result was at the end of the semester all the best pots came from the quantity group. The quality cohort, paralyzed by the burden of perfection, were slow to get started. They hesitated to make any move that might end up being in the wrong direction. The quantity group got straight to work and made some truly awful pots, but learned from their mistakes, refined their craft, and kept getting better every time.
One of the reasons this story resonates with me is because it represents my own experience in art classes. I took things slow and steady, priding myself at not making the foolish mistakes of those who jumped into a new assignment head first.
Every semester the smile would be wiped off my face as the person who has struggled through multiple mediocre attempts ended up with a final result that was better than mine.
Practicing in public does expose some of your mistakes and flaws, but it can help get the ball rolling, which is the hardest part.
Now, I think what you shared actually escapes the “quantity/quality” dichotomy of the Hardy quote and ceramics parable to a certain extent.
The key point there is that people were stuck by their fear of perfection. Since you helpfully define the habits that go into quality (spending 50 hours on a piece, editing and re-editing multiple times, having someone create illustrations, etc.)
Still, I wonder if there is a way to get ahead without consciously putting quality first.
Effort vs. Success on Medium
I’m just a guy with less than a thousand followers on Medium trying to establish myself, build a following, and start making real money from my writing.
In this stage, I’m still trying to figure things out. I’m trying lots of stuff and seeing what works.
Here are my current stats, along with three noteworthy posts for this discussion:
Two of the posts listed above are my most successful posts ever by views, reads, and fans. The other was moderately successful.
The great irony here is that the moderately successful one is the one that I spent hours upon hours on. I outlined it ahead of time. I revised it multiple times and in different ways (red lining a printed copy, putting it through the Hemingway Editor, etc.). It has references to published research and quality books.
For the two ultra successful posts I just woke up, wrote the post, and published before breakfast.
For the post Have you Ever Actually Mastered the Basics of Making Money? I had just been made editor of a publication called Money Brain by a friend that I made on Medium, Gonzalo Ziadi. I wanted to have something to publish there, so I took a concept from my book on personal finance and made a post out of it.
Now, someone might say that I must have put the effort into quality when writing the book, but I wrote it in less than 30 days.
I actually released it on the same day that I released the post that I spent the most time on: 5 Ways Your Technology Is Destroying You (and What to Do About It).
The post that’s going to soon be my most successful post of all time is The Most Productive Thing You Can Do With 10 Free Minutes Alone, which is responsible for the spike in traffic you see here:
This one came from a very unlikely source: Quora.
One day on Quora, I came across the question “besides exercise and reading, what productive thing can I do with 10 free minutes alone?” I wrote an answer that probably took less than 15 minutes and had an inkling to turn it into a Medium post.
One day, I woke up, wrote a slightly lengthier version of my Quora answer, and posted it. I didn’t even take time to come up with a creative headline, I just adapted it from the original question.
My top two stories here on Medium are responsible for an enormous amount of my followers and revenue, and I just woke up, posted something, and went on with my day.
Now, that said, my 5 Ways Your Technology Is Destroying You (and What to Do About It) post did have other benefits that arose from its quality: for the first time ever I was invited to be guest on a podcast. Matt Hotze from the Helium podcast invited me on specifically to talk about the article.
But it’s still very interesting that I can just wake up, churn out some thoughts, and have it work out.
Here’s one theory as to why this is:
There are other ways to arrive at quality besides striving for quality, even aside from pouring time and money into it.
Here are three I’d like to suggest:
1️⃣ Quantity → Quality
This is the one we’ve already looked at. This does imply an investment of time, but the focus is on spending less time if possible.
You mention that it’s great to have a portfolio of quality work so that when someone looks at your back catalog, they like what they see. I think this is true, but it’s also important to remember that having a back catalog is better than having nothing.
If you spend a huge amount of time creating your first piece of content, there’s no other way for people to engage with you once they’ve consumed it.
It can take a looong time to build a back catalog if you take forever to release each new piece of content.
2️⃣ Your subconscious brain comes to the rescue
One thing that both of my top posts have in common is that they weren’t the first time I had tackled a topic.
I had read some about it, and then had time to think.
Then I wrote something about it and had more time to think.
Then I wrote the piece that became successful.
The thing is, when you find something interesting your subconscious brain will keep working on it even while you are focusing on other things.
Sometimes the key to take lots of breaks. This is a main point in the excellent book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.
3️⃣ The quality of your input determines the quality of your output
The most highlighted line from my The Most Productive Thing You Can Do With 10 Free Minutes Alone post is this one:
Writing requires input and output. You need to feed your mind and then use it to produce valuable thoughts. The higher quality your inputs, the higher quality your outputs.
In that statement I’m making the case for reading books. I love blog posts, but ultimately they aren’t a sufficient replacement for books.
Someone can easily spend years writing a book (and if you factor in the life experience they needed we can say decades) and you can read the average book in less than 10 hours.
The irony of this point of course, is that books are focusing on “quality” in the sense that you are talking about, so I guess somewhere, someone has to focus on quality.
I think for me my biggest competitive edge as I try to grow as a writer — my superpower — is that I read a lot.
I read 59 books last year and have read 52 so far this year.
I wonder if when your inputs are of sufficient quality, the quality of your work tends to take care of itself.
So I think there is value to focusing on quantity and speed if you do it right.
The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process.
Everything you share has the chance to resonate with someone who needs to hear it.
Of course, it may be the case that there’s a way to focus on both quality and quantity. The thought comes from Robin Sloan, but I also found this one in Kleon’s Show Your Work:
“Stock and flow” is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
Maybe the formula is to get on the radar by practicing in public with a steady stream of “flow.” As you begin gaining competence and start to refine your craft you find the need to create things that are more in-depth and durable, the “stock” work.
Those are the ones that you talk about in your post, the ones that have the potential to become blockbusters.
I’ll admit that my experience is limited and that I’m very much just a beginner who’s figuring all this out.
The odd paradox is that on some level I have no idea what I’m doing…and it’s working. I’m making progress.
That said, I still have a long way to go.
I don’t mean for this response to be an argument, but more of a conversation.
I’m wondering, Michael, what do you think of the notion of letting quality be something that ensues instead of something you pursue?
Do you think someone can start on the long tail and make their way up to the short head?
I’d love to hear your thoughts (as well as the thoughts of anyone else who was generous enough to read this far)