Most of us want to produce the best work possible. How do you pursue that goal? One approach is to aim for excellence. You study everything you can about your area, read obsessively about top performers, and anxiously practice your craft with an eye toward perfection.
This is one common-sense way to pursue excellence, but there's another option as well. You could just throw quality out the window and produce a lot of work without worrying if it's much good. Which path will get you closer to your personal best?
The parable of the pots (or photographs)
The famous parable of the pots from David Bayles and Ted Orland's book Art & Fear claims to answer that question with an anecdote about a ceramics class. The professor divides the class into two groups: One will be graded on quantity and the other on quality. The first group will have all their pots weighed and the heavier they are, the higher the grade. The second will be graded on the best pot they produce, no matter how much work they turn out overall.
"Grading time and a curious fact emerged: The works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity," the authors report. "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."
This might sound like hokey art school apocrypha, but it's actually based on the experiences of Jerry Uelsmann, a University of Florida professor, who in the real world teaches photography, not ceramics. But while the medium may be different, the takeaway of the tale isn't. The best way to come up with great work isn't to aim for great work, it's often just to aim for more work.
This approach works because it forces us to push aside perfectionism and act in the real world, and experience (failure included) is often the best teacher.
"Quantity breeds quality."
How do you put this principle to work in your own life? First, remember that the best way to get better at something isn't to worry and study, it's to do it, even if you completely suck at it at first. Another handy way to force yourself to embrace this truth is to tape the number 70-20-10 to your laptop screen (or above your pottery wheel).
As extremely prolific songwriter Jonathan Reed has explained on Medium, the truth is whatever you're trying to produce, 70 percent of your attempts will be mediocre, 20 percent will suck, and 10 percent will be amazing. These percentages hold steady no matter what level you're working at. Your "amazing" might not be to the same standard as a world-class performer, but even world-class performers only reach their own high bar 10 percent of the time.
"According to Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson went through 800 songs to get the nine that appeared on Thriller (that's almost certainly exaggerated, but the point is clear)," Reed notes. "The more songs you write, the more good songs you'll write."
So stick 70-20-10 above your workspace and remind yourself, as the parable of the pots shows and Reed concludes, "It's not 'quantity or quality.' It's: 'quantity breeds quality.'"