AoC Toolbox | If Quality Is What You Want, Focus on Quantity (Episode 683)

Instead of thinking about quality as this sacred value to be revered by ignoring quantity, we need to embrace quantity as an essential path to quality. Here’s why.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Sometimes less really isn’t more.
  • What James Joyce and Miles Davis can teach us about quantity vs. quality.
  • Why producing more is more important than just striving for perfection.
  • How quantity acts as the road to quality.
  • How being prolific with our work liberates us.
  • And so much more…

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So there’s this story about James Joyce that I can’t get out of my head.

One day, in the middle of working on Ulysses — that’s the book that basically rewrote the laws of fiction and is still probably the most impressive novel written to date — anyway, he’s in the middle of writing Ulysses when he and a friend decide to catch up.

Joyce says, “I’ve been working hard on Ulysses all friggin’ day.” (Okay, he probably didn’t say ‘friggin,’ but I would have.)

And his friend goes, “Oh, that must mean you’ve written a lot already.”

And Joyce says something like, “Nah, I’ve only written two sentences.”

His friend looks at him, probably thinks he’s kidding, but Joyce ain’t smiling.

So he says, “Oh, so you’re just, like, looking for the perfect words,” right?

And Joyce goes, “No. I have the words already. What I’m seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.”

And this type of witty, presumably fictional little vignette reminded me of this cliche bit of advice that’s been around for a while now.

The Cult of Quality

Okay, so we’ve all heard that quality matters more than quantity. All right, fine. This is a mantra most of us are raised with from the time we’re kids.

A handful of deep friendships is more fulfilling than a sprawling network of contacts. Got it.

Focusing on one or two projects will produce better results than spreading ourselves across dozens of them. Of course.

Investing in a handful of partners will bring more happiness than dating indiscriminately. (If you’re in your thirties, you know what I’m saying. If you’re in your twenties, you’re probably going hard putting this one to the test. Good for you.)

So yes, all this is generally true.

And this is true because quality really does matter.

Quality will always matter, and quality is what we’re all striving for — in our careers, in our relationships, in our art, in our health, in every area of our lives.

But the idea that we should be focused on quality over quantity — as if these are two values that are incompatible somehow — that’s a simplistic and IMHO outdated idea.

Because the latest research, along with our everyday experience and our deepest intuition, tells us that quality and quantity are intricately linked.

Quantity is the road to quality.

We can’t have quality without quantity.

Believing otherwise is what I call the cult of quality, and I think we need to revisit this idea if we’re actually going to achieve any level of mastery.

Which brings us back to Mr. Joyce.

Stories like the one I just told you make sense when you think about how powerful Joyce’s writing is. It’s hard to imagine a killer book like that coming together without Joyce obsessing insanely over how good it could potentially be.

But it’s also the kind of story that contributes to the myth of the crazy brilliant artist hunched over his work, worrying about every tiny detail, compelled by quality and suspicious of quantity.

What people forget is that Ulysses is also 700 pages long! And that he wrote Dubliners, a short story collection, along with another novel before Ulysses, and left his most experimental novel unfinished when he died, to say nothing of all the writing he must have scrapped along the way.

Whatever myth we have about Joyce, that guy wrote a ton of stuff.

And it was his prolific quantity, in addition to his obsessive quality, that made him so successful. Without one, he wouldn’t have the other.

It was only because he wrote so much, and so often, that he was able to selectively go deep on questions of extreme quality, like spending an entire day on the order of words in a sentence.

That’s the kind of mastery that’s possible only when you produce a huge amount of work. And that’s why I want to talk about…

The Power of Volume

In a few weeks, The Art of Charm Podcast will hit its 1,000th (!) episode.

Over 11 years, the show has grown from an informal psychology conversation into a leading self-help, success, and social dynamics podcast.

I’m insanely proud of what the team here has built with this show. It’s literally the most fun, exciting, meaningful project I’ve ever developed.

But here’s the crazy thing. It was only a few years ago — when we had produced about 300 episodes or so — that I finally began to hit my stride as an interviewer.

I had mostly gotten over the early hiccups of hosting, we had ironed out all of the technical challenges of production, and I had zeroed in on the questions and themes and guests that make this job so damn exciting.

After 300 freakin episodes.

Now, as we near this new milestone, I feel that we’re really coming into our own. The caliber of our guests, the quality of our show, the volume of our output — we’re now creating a consistently strong product with an incredible community of listeners all around the world, and I feel deeply connected to this work.

After one. Thousand. Episodes.

That’s how long it took for us to get to this point, even though we aimed to put out a high-quality podcast from the beginning. The full potential of the show didn’t emerge for literally hundreds of episodes. That’s hundreds of hours of audio, plus hundreds more in prep, post-production, promotion, marketing, learning, and discussion.

It’s like Miles Davis once said: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

Because true mastery, as we know, takes years — usually decades — to achieve.

Even the most talented, naturally gifted people have to put in a huge amount of time to become incredible.

And that principle applies to all people, in all fields, in all cultures, at every single point in history. There’s just no way around it.

In their book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell a really interesting story about a ceramics class.

On the first day, the teacher announced that students would be divided into two groups.

Half the class was told that they’d be graded on quantity. On the last day of class, the teacher said he’d come with some scales and weigh all of the ceramic pots the students had made. 50 pounds of pottery would get an A, 40 pounds of pottery would get a B, 30 pounds would get a C. You get the idea.

The other half of the class was told they’d be graded on quality alone. All they had to do was bring one, beautiful, perfectly designed pot to their final class. That one pot would determine their final grade.

At grading time, the teacher discovered something interesting.

The best and most beautiful pots were all produced by the group graded for quantity.

The worst and least creative pots all hailed from the group graded for quality.

As the authors explain in the book, “While the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the ‘quality’ group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

So what does this mean for us?

It means that to make amazing things, you have to make a lot of amazing things (and probably start by making lots of not-so-amazing things as well).

Quantity and quality.

Quality because of quantity.

The Unexpected Benefits of Quantity

I could tell you dozens more stories about the power of quantity, but I think by now you probably get the point.

But how exactly does quantity lead to quality?

After all, you could just produce a lot more crappy work, and never get better, right?

And volume alone doesn’t lead to quality. It’s the interplay of volume and talent that produces results, right?

All true.

But quantity also delivers some really important benefits that are distinct from just getting better. In a way, it produces results that support quality, and make quality more attainable, and more meaningful, in the long term.

Starting with the fact that…

Quantity reinforces completion.

One of the hardest things we all struggle with is finishing what we start.

We all know how easy it is to bail on the goals we set, and how difficult it is to see them through, especially when things get hard. I’d say the vast majority of us — including me — struggle with this particular problem.

One answer is upping the quantity of what we produce.

When you decide to create more work — more articles, more relationships, more paintings, more free throws, whatever it is — when you commit to that quantity, you automatically create commitments to get it done. If there’s a deadline or time frame, even better: You know what you have to finish.

Committing to volume means committing to completion.

And the psychological benefits of completion are huge.

For one thing, studies show that the closer we get to finishing a task, the more we believe it’s worth completing, even if there are compelling reasons to bail.

As we complete those tasks, our brains get a satisfying hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that serves as a precursor to epinephrine, which gives us that pleasurable “high” associated with getting stuff done.

That high in turn makes subsequent tasks much more doable, creating a ripple effect of productivity across our lives.

But here’s the really cool part: dopamine isn’t just useful for short-term productivity bursts.

It’s also been linked to the formation of lifelong habits — from consistency to resilience — which is why dopamine is often referred to as the “reward molecule.”

So there’s real magic — rooted in our biochemistry — in completing what we set out to do.

And the way to harness that magic is by committing to completing it, simply by increasing the volume of our work.

But there’s another reason to pursue quantity, and that’s the idea that…

Quantity forges connection.

There are certain lessons about our work that only a huge amount of volume can teach.

The most obvious benefit to putting in time and effort is getting better at the principles, methods, and craft of our work. The more effort we put in, the more skill we get out. This is the most obvious connection between quantity and quality.

But we develop something even more powerful when we increase the volume of our work.

For example, finding out if you really love the work you’re trying to pursue — that’s something you can only really know by spending a huge amount of time with it.

And learning what it’s like to really devote your life to that work — how it feels, what the lifestyle is like, how it shapes your relationships and moods and worldview — you can only really learn that by doing something for a long time.

In the early days of the podcast, I would imagine what it would be like to host a huge podcast or radio program.

But only by actually building it over years did I realize that I loved the process enough to work through all of the painstaking challenges of creating a great show.

That relationship with your work only truly develops with quantity. It takes years and thousands of hours to really fall in love with what you do, and to fully appreciate all of the possibilities and challenges and idiosyncrasies of your craft. There’s no shortcut for that kind of connection. You can’t hack it or buy it or inherit it.

You can only build it, slowly and deliberately, with lots and lots of work — which is another reason that quantity is so essential.

Finally…

Quantity frees us.

James Joyce might not have totally agreed with what I’m about to say, but I’m convinced that being too precious about our work can be a major hindrance to getting better.

The less work we put out, the more pressure we put on that work to be successful.

The more pressure we put on that small volume of work to be successful, the more we get frustrated when it falls short of our expectations, and the more we punish ourselves for not living up to our standards.

But if we increase the amount of work we put out, then each individual piece of it matters less. That then frees us up to explore, try new options, make mistakes, and forgive ourselves when the work disappoints — which we all know it will at various points.

It seems counterintuitive, right?

By producing more work that has the potential to be bad, we actually increase the likelihood of producing better work that succeeds.

To return to this podcast one last time, I remember obsessing (to an unhealthy degree, honestly) over the quality of the first hundred episodes. Which makes sense. Our library was so small, those episodes basically represented everything we were capable of.

But as we kept recording, the size of our canvas multiplied, and the pressure we felt on each individual episode decreased. The podcast became even more liberating when we increased the number of episodes we put out each week.

I remember that feeling — like I had some room to breathe, to try new questions and techniques, to accept when an episode could have gone better, to think of each episode as an incremental opportunity to learn, rather than as an obligation to be perfect.

We increased our quantity, which took some pressure off of the quality, which freed us up to get better more often more quickly — which is exactly what allows us to cultivate the amazing quality we always wanted to achieve.

Committing to Quantity

So quality is still our endgame, for sure.

Excellence, mastery, success — that’s what we’re all here to achieve.

But instead of thinking about quality as this sacred value to be revered by ignoring quantity, we need to embrace quantity as an essential path to quality.

So how do we make that shift a reality in our lives?

Well, it’s actually very simple. Not always easy — but simple.

First, commit to measurably increasing your quantity.

This means writing down exactly what you want to complete, and putting a time frame on it. (I say writing because saying it, or thinking it, has a funny way of letting us off the hook. Trust me — committing it to paper [or iPhone or whiteboard or whatever surface you choose] will make this much more real.)

For example, you might decide to go from writing two to five blog posts a week, and commit to finishing those pieces by sending them to a close friend every Sunday night.

Or you might want to take your networking more seriously by making three introductions every week, which you schedule on your calendar.

Big or small, we need to formalize our commitment (by saying “I’m doing this now” and writing it down), quantify it (by saying I’m going to do X number of things”), and create a timeframe (by saying “I’m going to do it by this time or date, and that’s when I know it needs to be done”).

It’s logistical and boring, but it’s the essential first step to making our quantity real.

Second, enjoy the process of increasing volume.

As we’ve said, upping our volume instantly increases the size of our canvas. That frees us to learn, explore, play, and discover at a much faster rate, with much lower stakes. Enjoy that process — it’s one of the gifts of quantity.

That means checking in every now and again to remind yourself that getting better at your goal, job, or craft is the main point of this process.

It also means using your new volume to try out new ideas and approaches. We don’t need to do exactly the same thing we were doing at our old level of output. With more blog posts, we can tackle new subjects, voices, and tones. With more free throws, we can experiment with different stances, elbow placements, and visualizations. With more products, we can play with new features, solutions, and designs. That’s the gift of quantity.

Third, trust that your quantity is leading to quality.

When you increase your quantity, it’s normal to sometimes feel that you’ve moved away from actually getting better.

Ironically, the mind wants to tell us that focusing on quantity means we’re no longer concerned about quality, even though we’ve dramatically increased our chances of attaining that quality.

And in a certain way, the mind is right. When you put out more volume, you risk producing more mediocre work, or at least let go of an insane desire for perfection in smaller doses.

But in the bigger picture, prioritizing quantity is exactly what will lead to stronger skill, greater freedom, increased confidence, and more interesting ideas — all of which directly contribute to quality.

So even when it doesn’t feel like it, trust that putting out more work is moving you closer to greatness.

I can tell you from personal experience (and hundreds of interviews with successful people!) that you absolutely cannot go backward if you produce more work. In fact, you’re virtually guaranteed to get better the more you do something.

And that right there is the simple but profound magic of committing to quantity.

So before we wrap up here and send you off to dive back into your work, I want to share one more thing James Joyce said about his work.

“I am tomorrow … what I establish today,” he said. “I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”

What we “establish” — which comes down to our habits, our goals, and our commitments — really does determine the quality of who we become.

And who we become is a function of the quantity we produce as a means to the quality we’re all striving to achieve.

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 948 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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