If you want to improve your creativity, what is more likely to make you better in the long run:
Creating a large volume of average-quality work, or focusing on a single piece and working tirelessly to try and make it perfect?
A large number of creatives think that in order to make anything worthwhile, you need to strive for perfection. In that case, they work on a single piece for a long amount of time, constantly trying to improve it before they finally feel like it is “done”, and ready to be seen by the world.
Yet if you talk with any number of productive, professional creatives, you will often find how consistently just producing something, anything, is how you end up with a body of work full of high quality.
There is a famous story about students who learned this lesson the hard way, which I first saw on James Clear’s blog and originally an extract from the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by photographers David Bayles and Ted Orland. It tells the story of a class in photography run by world-reknowned photographer Jerry Uelsmann:
On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.
Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on.
Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.
At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.
Interestingly, the original story published in the book referred to a class in ceramics (not photography), where half of the students were graded on the total weight of the pottery they produced, and the other half on producing a single perfect piece of pottery. All of the best pieces at the end of the year also came from the quantity group, as they had spent time throughout the year trying things, and building up their skills and capabilities through repetition and deliberate practice, rather than hypothesising about the perfect result and doing little actual pottery. James Clear could not find any history for the ceramics story apart from being mentioned in the book Art & Fear, so he reached out to the author Ted Orland by email, who explained that they took a creative liberty to change the medium from photography to ceramics. Why? Because since both authors were also photographers, they were trying to get more stories from other different mediums of art into their book.
But ironically, the message and the story hold true for any medium of art, business, or anywhere else you can develop your skills over time. Practice does make perfect.
Not only that, research has shown that even the most creative people in the world are likely to produce low or average quality ideas, as well as a few truly great ideas. So the more often they produce, the more likely it is that one of the outputs will be truly exceptional.
Quantity breeds quality.
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