Why quantity beats (and creates) quality
If you asked me anytime in the past few years about whether I thought quantity or quality was more important, I would have said hands down, quality. With the internet making it easier than ever for more people to create and share their work, there’s a lot more low-quality work around, and we’re all struggling to find the diamonds in the rough.
Unfortunately, thinking that quantity and quality are mutually exclusive and that low-quality work is something we should never create isn’t as healthy an attitude as I’d thought. It turns out that quantity has a real purpose for those of us creating new work. Whether we’re writing software at work, building side projects, or even writing a blog, quantity is just as important as quality.
The reason is that we can’t create high-quality work without doing a bunch of junk first.
Think back to the first program you ever wrote, or the first software project you ever launched to the world. It probably wasn’t very impressive, right? Of course it wasn’t! Because none of us can start with amazing work. Even a genius has to spend time making bad (or at least average) work in order to improve.
So I’ve been thinking about quantity vs. quality all wrong. It’s not a competition at all. Rather, the truth is that quantity begets quality.
Though as creative people, we tend to have trouble with this. As writer Shawn Blanc says, we get caught up thinking about the amazing idea we have in our heads, and insisting that what we create matches that idea. But it often doesn’t work that way, and if you insist on perfecting your projects until they match the dream you had when you started out, you’ll never ship anything.
Today, the goal isn’t perfection. It’s far more simple: The goal is to show up and do the best work that I can. — Shawn Blanc
We might dream about creating a masterpiece, but Blanc notes that quality doesn’t come from sitting around dreaming, or thinking up amazing ideas. “Quality must be pursued,” he says, and if you quit (or give in to spending all your time dreaming) while you still suck, you’ll never break through to the point where you do create high-quality work.
As writer and entrepreneur Joe Bunting points out, we often think having great ideas is the key to success. Bunting had a friend who had “a lot of ideas for good books,” but wasn’t writing every day. When the friend asked Bunting how to be a writer, his answer was very simple — write more.
Good ideas are not enough, says Bunting. You have to put in the time while you’re doing crappy work if you ever want to do great work.
Today, don’t try to be perfect. Just try to write something better than what you wrote yesterday. — Joe Bunting
If there was ever something that encouraged me to pursue quantity as a means to quality, it’s the fact that many of the best performers we know have done exactly this. In Talent is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin says that most of the world’s top performers are generally ordinary people just like us. The only difference is they practice more, and they practice more intentionally. Spending more time on what they suck at has made these people the top performers in the world.
Another great story about the effects of the quantity mindset is in the book Art and Fear. The story concerns a ceramics teacher, who split their class in two groups. One group was graded on the pure quantity of work they produced, simply by weighing each of their pots when the class was over. 50 pounds of pots would earn the student an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on.
The other half of the class was scored on quality. They were only tasked with making a single pot, but it had to be perfect for them to earn an A.
When the teacher scored all the pottery, guess which group produced the best pots? The group that made more.
The more pots they created, the more mistakes they made, and the more they learned. By the end of the class, they were creating high-quality pots, due to all the quantity they’d churned out and learned from.
Famed public radio producer and host of This American Life, Ira Glass, says we all have a period early in our careers when our taste outgrows our abilities. We start to realize what’s high-quality and what’s not, and being able to distinguish between the two makes us realize how far away we are from creating high-quality work.
The only way to get through that period, says Glass, is to make a lot of work.
It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap, and the work that you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. — Ira Glass
So how do you put that into practice?
It’s all very easy to say you have to make a lot of work before your work will improve, but how do you do that, practically? Here are a few suggestions you can apply to your work to ensure you’re pushing yourself toward the quantity you need to achieve quality.
Make a schedule
Jeff Atwood, founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse, says it’s important to stick to a schedule to ensure you’re creating new work regularly.
… pick a schedule you can live with, and stick to it. Until you do that, none of the other advice I could give you will matter.
The trick, says Atwood, is to commit to doing your work regularly, and to have a desire for improving your work. Do those two things, he says, and “you will eventually be successful.”
You might not know the name Karen Cheng, but you’ve probably seen this video:
Cheng knew she wasn’t a great dancer, but she wanted to improve. Her approach was pretty much what Atwood suggests: she picked a schedule (every day) and committed to improving her skills. But the twist is that Cheng stuck to her schedule for a year. It was a time-based challenge, rather than an infinite plan for improvement.
For learning a brand new skill, a time-based challenge can make the constant effort more achievable, as it’s uncomfortable to go through a period of quantity before you hit quality. And when you start out with a new skill, your quality is extremely low, for obvious reasons. In fact, Cheng says it was so uncomfortable to watch back early clips of herself that she deleted many of the videos she made at the start of her year-long project.
But having a challenge gave her an end-point to look forward to, and having a schedule meant she continued improving constantly.
Another example is Jennifer Dewalt’s challenge to learn to build websites. Dewalt set out to build 180 websites in 180 days. Dewalt was starting out as a total beginner in programming, coming from a background in fine art. She knew the best way to improve quickly was to churn out a huge quantity of work, so she saved up until she could quit her job and spend six months full-time on her 180 websites project.
I didn’t have a plan at first, but I knew that if I was going to succeed at learning to code, I would need to crank out as much code as possible. — Jennifer Dewalt
Like the quantity group in the ceramics class, Dewalt worked through so many small, self-contained projects that she made plenty of mistakes and learned enough to increase the quality of her work by the end of the challenge.
I chose to make a website every day because it meant that I would have to finish something every day and start again the next day. Finishing something every day would make me feel like I was winning, and having a deadline meant that I couldn’t get hung up on the little things. It didn’t matter if I understood everything that was going on, just as long as I shipped.
Stick it out
More than anything, the idea that quantity begets quality means we have to be willing to put in time and effort before seeing results. As Jeff Atwood says, the fact that success takes time weeds out the people who are too impatient to get there.
If you can stick it out longer than anyone else, you’re already at an advantage. Keep producing new work, build up that quota of quantity, and don’t give up while you still suck — that’s a recipe for (eventual) success.