There’s the oft-referenced story from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland, taken from the section on “Perfection”:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. 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.
I came across a similar story in Think Again by Adam Grant about an elementary school teacher:
For architecture and engineering lessons, Ron had his students create blueprints for a house. When he required them to do at least four different drafts, other teachers warned him that younger students would become discouraged. Ron disagreed—he had already tested the concept with kindergarteners and first graders in art. Rather than asking them to simply draw a house, he announced, “We’ll be doing four different versions of a drawing of a house.”
Some students didn’t stop there; many wound up deciding to do eight or ten drafts. The students had a support network of classmates cheering them on in their efforts. “Quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing,” Ron reflects. “They need to feel they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board. . . . They soon began complaining if I didn’t allow them to do more than one version.”
When you engage in the same activities repeatedly, you can generate quite a bit of data on your performance. You might have to be diligent about tracking the data, but if you know where to look and how to measure, you’ll be able to capture information that can be analyzed and used as feedback to keep on improving.
True Life Examples
Over the years, I’ve noticed that quantity, when properly appreciated, can deliver immense value and eventually lead to quality. What once felt high stakes and stressful can instead become just another data point to learn from and an opportunity to do better.
Below are instances where I’ve found value in quantity:
I don’t think anyone looks forward to having challenging conversations about sensitive topics with employees or clients. However, over a long period of time, being exposed to enough of these and paying attention to certain patterns and behaviors can lead to valuable insights that make such conversations more productive. I used to dread any conversation that might bring me face-to-face with a disgruntled or unhappy counter-party, but the years of having hundreds of these conversations have helped me to see such conversations as opportunities to clear the air, provide space for listening, and find alignment or win-win situations.
Not all difficult conversations work out to my satisfaction, but because I can see them as another data point to learn from, I don’t dwell on any single conversation for too long and instead, focus my attention on the next one where I can bring my learnings to bear.
I experienced this personally when I used to design websites and logos, and I see it now when I observe designers and how they work. Those who commit to generating larger quantities of concepts and ideas, however rough, tend to end up with more creative and interesting results than those who locked into one or two initial ideas and tinkered endlessly to make them “perfect” all while unable to discard the ideas when they hit a wall. Embracing a process to diligently make stuff, even if the initial work seems weak, almost always wins out and makes creativity a less unpredictable or elusive trait.
You can make the argument that investing is one place where being too active and generating large quantities of activity might not be the most prudent thing to do. What I am referring to here is the experience gained in taking part in a lot of deals and transactions. I remember how green I used to be about real estate, angel investing, and even just public market stock investing when I had very few reps under my belt. Now that I’ve done a decent number of transactions in each, I feel that I’ve learned something new with each experience. The most valuable insights are knowing what questions to ask and what key characteristics to look for. I’ve started to use some crude checklists and models to help me make decisions on these investments, and with more deals to come, I can only see myself recognizing certain patterns and developing more useful processes over time.
In 2020, I made more investments in a single year than I had my entire life. Most of these were in public equities. You can read about that experience here and the lessons I learned in the process.
I used to be the type of person who needed all the conditions to be perfect in order to get in a workout. This meant I needed to be on an empty stomach, dressed appropriately, have a 2-hour block of time, and all the necessary gym equipment around me. Such restrictions limited the number of exercises to once or twice a week. Once I became a parent, I knew it would be zero times a week unless I made adjustments.
I became more comfortable working out “guerrilla” style–doing reps of this or that whenever I had a moment–and this has meant more reps and more movement than I ever had before.
Here’s how it works on purely quantitative terms. In a typically “perfect workout” session, I might do a total of 10 to 12 exercises and around 30 to 45 reps each. Assuming 12 exercises at 30 reps, that’s 360 reps. If I do that twice a week, that’s 720 reps. With my “guerrilla” style workouts, which include doing dumbbell lifts or push-ups in-between watching my toddler play, I can squeeze in 200-300 reps. If I can do this at least five times per week, that’s already 1,000+ reps for the week. Over the course of a year, the differences can really add up.
From a quality standpoint, it’s true that I may not be doing intensely heavy barbell exercises that I could do at the gym or clustering my sets to get my heart rate up. Because it’s not a focused workout, I don’t get heated up as much and don’t work up as big of a sweat. However, in doing some kind of exercise almost daily, I’ve incorporated a wider range of movements and lifts into my repertoire and end up working more parts of my body. And in the aggregate, the quantity does end up winning out over time–I feel more in shape than when I used to rely on 1-2 perfect workouts per week.
Rather than debating with myself on whether or not a book is worth reading, I’ve developed a system where I’ll buy any and all books that are recommended by sources I respect, immediately downloading them onto my Kindle. At any given time, I may have 7-10 books started. Some I might finish pretty quickly, some may linger for months, and others I might never quite finish. What matters most is that I give myself the chance to be exposed to different types of books and also that I highlight and take notes, which become fuel for my writing.
Some of the best books I read were because I didn’t hesitate to buy them regardless of what reviews said or how unrelated the topic was to my core interests. There’s serendipity in such an approach, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a few thousand bucks a year.
Embracing Opportunities of Quantity
The quest to finding quality through quantity is a useful tool for developing new skills or accomplishing certain goals. I can see this approach being used to deliberately design situations where I can get incrementally better with lots of reps. In order to get the most value out of quantity, the key is to keep track, debrief or take notes on each rep, and actively seek feedback on ways to be better. It’s also worth structuring the amount of reps to really push for quantity beyond what might feel normal or comfortable–this intensity in volume is where patterns emerge and breakthroughs occur.
For me personally, I’ll be looking to continually challenge the value I get out of the activities mentioned above, especially in investing, reading, and exercise. I also want to pump up the volume in my writing, putting together drafts, editing, and publishing at exponentially greater volumes than I am used to. And there are a few areas at Barrel–namely in marketing and business strategy–where I hope to employ the “quality through quantity” approach in order to learn, get better, and see results in the long run. For now, the task is to figure out what the concrete activities these areas can map to and how I can derive value through numerous reps.