Quantity Leads to Quality

It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade-off between quality and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.

Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Courtesy of Flickr/Gwenn Seemel

In his TED Talk, professor and bestselling author Adam Grant notes that the most highly regarded classical composers also produced the greatest volume of compositions (with the exception of Wagner).

The most prolific artists don’t wait around for their muse to deliver a fully formed masterpiece. They develop a practice of creating every day—even if the results are mediocre or worse. A steady output of work greatly increases the chances of creating a masterpiece.

Brahms once remarked that the mark of an artist is how much he throws away. Nature, the great creator, is always throwing things away. A frog lays several million eggs at a sitting. Only a few dozen of these become tadpoles, and only a few of those become frogs. We can let imagination and practice be as profligate as nature.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

Kim Liao’s article, “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year”, tells a story of how this this practice played out in a ceramics class:

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

A few of my friends are documenting the discipline of creating and sharing art daily:

Neil Welch – saxophonist, daily solo saxophone improvisation
Brad Hawkins – composer and cellist, daily songwriting challenge
Peter Kenagy – trumpeter and professor at Berklee, #whatifiwroteatuneeverydayinonesitting? (note Pete’s stellar penmanship)

What an inspiring practice! Imagine writing a short piece of music every day. Even if you were only proud of one piece a month, you’d have more than an album’s worth of great material every year. I’m inspired to start a similar practice, who’s with me?

– ST

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