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Reconciling Quantity and Quality

Achraf Ait Sidi Hammou

I’m sure you’ve heard about the pottery parable but just in case you haven’t here’s the TLDR:

A pottery teacher splits his class into two groups. One is assigned with the task of creating a pot every day. The other has to work only on a single — albeit perfect — pot. On the final class, the works of highest quality all came from the “quantity” group.

Another similar funny experiment is the marshmallow test. If you put MBAs, engineers, researchers or any other white collar worker in a room with the task of building the highest tower made of sticks and marshmallows, and kids in another room, guess what? Kids always win!

Why? Because “smart adults” spend 90% of their 30 minutes coming up with strategies and plans. They try to give everybody a role and brainstorm complex structure on paper. But once they actually try it, everything falls apart.

Meanwhile, kids just try a bunch of things immediately, and by the end of the clock, they come up with a pretty decent structure albeit messy.

The moral of these two stories is that we should let go of control and planning everything. The only way to get better at our craft is to practice over and over as quickly as possible.

I’m uneasy with this though. This works great when we’re talking about fundamental skills such as writing, designing or programming.

But what about more complex endeavour such as building businesses, doing research or writing books?

I’m trying something to reconcile both the quantity required to get great with the quality necessary with these more complex tasks: iteration.

Indeed, the only way to reach perfection is to first build something that sucks and then iterating to get something good, then great.

Each iteration can be considered as a rep. Quantity is not constrained to doing something entirely new from scratch. It’s about showing up every day and doing the work.

I want to write long form essays. I’m going to publish a new edit every single day until I get something great.

I want to build an amazing startup. I’m going to push code, write memos and talk to users every single day.

I want to do research. I’m going to read papers, write code and experiment every single day.