I’ve come across some version of this anecdote from the book Art and Fear too many times to count.
The ceramics teacher announced he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right graded solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 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, come 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.
It seems there’s no substitute for making mistakes and then learning from them. I want to share three anecdotes and what I’ve taken from them:
When passing out handbills on the main plaza in college, I attempted to go for percentages instead of absolute numbers. I’d handbill to people who were already making eye contact, who weren’t wearing headphones, who were already carrying other flyers. I had a great hit rate – over 80%, and my ego was nicely cushioned by a low rejection rate, but I didn’t get any better at hand billing.
I sat around and theorized about perfection, then I made the ceramics equivalent of a found object. I definitely didn’t get better at cold approaches, or talking to unreceptive people, or at handling rejection. Only practicing on something easy means you don’t get better.
In the following summer’s unpaid internship, I cold-called potential multi-family residential real estate clients in Walnut Creek. This largely meant suggesting to senior citizens that they look into selling their homes while they 1) wondered how the hell I got their number, 2) who the hell I was, and 3) why the hell I thought they’d want to sell their homes. This was a rather traumatic experience for a shy 18-year-old. I didn’t improve much from this experience either.
I was trying to wingsuit without the skill to indoor skydive. This was the opposite of my previous experience; practicing something too difficult is both discouraging and unproductive.
Bro-ot force learning
This story is from a banker who decided to wax lyrical during an interview. He had a fraternity brother, a legacy admit, who wouldn’t have gotten in through the regular process. He wasn’t particularly handsome or charming, and struggled both to connect with his brothers and with courting women. However, he realized his weakness and set out with a goal: to learn three things about ten people at every party. Freshman year, he showed a marked improvement. Sophomore year, his social skills were on par with his brothers. Senior year, he was president of the fraternity and one of the most popular guys on campus.
I don’t know whether this story is true, but I swear I didn’t make it up for the sake of narrative cohesion. The guy recognized a shortcoming, set a specific, quantifiable goal, and practiced every week in the relatively safe environment of his frat parties.
This blog is my pottery studio, my indoor skydiving, my fraternity, so that I can practice, practice, practice. Let me know how I’m doing, bro.