There has always been a debate, especially among creatives as to which is better, quality or quantity. Oftentimes, I too, in my own creative journey, as a speaker and writer, have been torn between the two, “Do I concentrate all my efforts to churn out as much work as possible, or do I focus on that one masterpiece and give it my all?”
Before we jump into which is better, let’s first make an important distinction between the two (the dictionary version- that is). The main difference between quality and quantity is that quality refers to the features or characteristics of something, whereas quantity refers to its numerical value. It’s also important to note that whereas quality is subjective, quantity is not. Although there may be different industry standards, quality still depends on each individual’s opinion (as does beauty to each beholder).
Now that we are on the same page on how they distinctly differ, let’s continue together on this quest to understand where to channel our creative energy.
I recently read the book ‘Art & Fear’ by David Bayles and Ted Orland and in it there is an interesting story that curiously illustrates which of the two, quantity or quality is more significant, especially in pursuit of creative brilliance.
A quality vs quantity experiment.
The scene is set in a ceramics class. As the course begins on the first day, the ceramics teacher announces that he will be dividing the class into two groups and then starts calling out their names, one by one. As each name is called, the students walk to one side of the studio; either to the left or right of the teacher.
The group on the right is told they will be graded solely based on their quality of work. On the other hand, the group on the left will be graded based on the quantity of work they each produce.
“To determine your grade, the procedure is quite simple”, the teacher announces, “On the final day of this class, I will bring in my bathroom scale and weigh the work of the “quantity” group. Fifty pounds of pots in weight will be rated as an “A”, 40 pounds gets a “B” and so on.”
“However, for those that will be graded on your quality of work, you will only need to produce one pot- albeit a perfect one- so as to get an ”A”.
As the course drew to a close and grading time finally arrived, a surprising fact emerged: The works that had the highest quality, as determined by the experienced eye of the ceramics teacher, were all produced by the group being graded for quantity, not those in the “quality” group.
It seems that while those in the “quantity” group were busily producing as much work as possible, learning a lot from their mistakes and making improvements, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection. As it turned out in the end, they had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
The importance of quantity over quality.
Just as only a small amount of minerals is usually extracted from a mountain of ore, so too, is the process of achieving quality. You can occasionally land on a gem by some stroke of luck but by far the most reliable method of producing a meaningful and influential piece of work is by consistently putting out your work even when you are scared it might not be brilliant. Only by producing the first product, learning from what didn’t work and improving on our work, can one unearth the hidden gem.
Take, for example, Mozart, the prolific and influential classical composer. He was indeed a gifted composer but what many people do not know is that he produced over 600 pieces of music in his career. This leaves little wonder as to why there are many gems from his collection that have gone on to become world-renowned classics.
Albert Einstein, who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest physicists of all time published more than 300 scientific works in about 50 years. It took him at least 4 years before he had a major breakthrough in 1905 leading to his best year ever. That year, he revolutionized the Physics world with 5 of his publications among them the Special Theory of Relativity.
These may seem like achievements of days gone by but the same method is relevant even today. If you look around, to your favourite musicians, famous YouTubers, acclaimed artists and all the people you admire for the work they have done, and dig at their story, it will quickly emerge that the works that resonated with you most are only a few among a pile of many fruitless tries and mediocre pieces.
Out of all creative works, there are losers, winners and neutrals
Just as it is for the artists and creatives you admire, so too is it true for you. Every piece of work you put out to the world will be subjected to scrutiny.
There will always be losers, those that are not viewed as significant or that fail to connect with the intended audience. Don’t be alarmed if there are many, the odds have always had it so. The losers are quickly trashed by the consumers and maybe even forgotten.
Then there are ‘the neutrals’, the majority of most work, that float around in the world. A few will like them and share them with a friend but for the most part, they will only garner a few supporters.
Finally, a few rare pieces will make it as winners; those that will connect strongly with your audience and create raving fans. (Surprisingly too, the winners also attract the harshest of critics- so brace yourself).
This applies to all industries and content creators; vloggers, writers, artists, fashion designers, photographers among others. The more you produce, the higher your chances of finding a gem that the world will love and reward you handsomely for all your effort. It’s also this gem that will shine a spotlight on all your other works and soon enough, you might find even the neutrals and losers finding a home among these raving fans.
Now that you know this, does it make it easy?
I am still in the process of learning and accepting this too. Although I know that the more work I produce the more likely I am to come up with a masterpiece, I still often get stuck delaying, overthinking and waiting for inspiration when what I need to do is simply show up, do the work and keep showing up.
You too, owe it to yourself to try. You can even attempt mediocrity. Allow yourself to write, even if it’s just one really awful sentence. Allow yourself to take, edit and post, even if it isn’t the best photograph you think you could take. Allow yourself to sing, even when the voice breaks, even if it is just a few lines… It takes the pressure off.
Sooner than later, the mediocre might just lead to good, which every now and then might get you to awesome. But if you start by expecting to create a masterpiece the first time, you might just sit there instead, waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike.
Remember. Just do one more. Quantity. Quantity. Quantity. Continue chipping away at the thing you want to get really good at. The more you do, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll be.