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Quality vs. Quantity in the Creative Process

By Robert Fritz

In a now famous story, a pottery teacher divided his class into two groups.  He told one group that their grade would be determined by the quality of their work no matter how many pieces they made.  The second group would be measured not on the quality of their work, but on the quantity.  The more pieces, the higher the grade.

At the end of the semester the results were clear.  The group that had made the most pieces also had produced the highest quality work. Ironically, those students who were directly focused on quality were less able to produce quality.  How come?     

What is the relationship between quantity and quality?  Often, the more you produce, the more mastery you will have.  Creative mastery comes in many levels.  How you make critical decisions along with the ability to be decisive.  How your mind understands the creative process as well as a type of visceral understanding that develops over time and experience.  How free you are to make mistakes while increasing the sense of the right direction to take.

Learning allows you to move from one level of understanding and competence to a higher level.  Usually there are mistakes to make.  Usually the more demanding the learning, the more mistakes.

Quantity does not always lead to quality.  If there isnít a learning dimension, nothing will change, and quality might even decline.  But the most natural pattern when creating anything is a progression of mastery through a progression of learning.  How does learning take place?

We begin, as always, with structural tension, a clear vision of an end result and a clear view of the current reality in relationship to that result.  This is essential, because without structural tension you would be limited to a series of spontaneous improvisations.

Quantity without structural tension does not lead to comprehensive learning.  Without an end in mind you are left with a purely statistical approach: make a lot of things, hope that some of them work out.  When that is the case, each creative event is random.  Each event is an individual episode that does not connect with future creative events.  This is like a non-relational database in which the information is isolated and does not connect with other bits of information.  Therefore, there is no traction leading to momentum, no sense of development, no foundation upon which to build.  No organizing principle that enables learning to lead to mastery.

One thing that the pottery students had was enough of a vision of each piece so that they could establish structural tension.  They had their target.  The current reality was under their fingers and in their awareness.  This was true for both the quality AND quantity group.  So we can conclude that structural tension is simply a prerequisite.  Without it, it would be hard to throw a pot.  But if the vision were to produce the highest quality imaginable, the final result would miss the mark.  Higher levels of quality come from adequate experience over time.

When I was a high school kid, I studied with the Boston Symphony clarinetist Felix Viscuglia at the New England Conservatory of Music.  I would bring Phil a coffee (he insisted on everyone calling him Phil) to every weekly lesson, not unlike the proverbial apple to the teacher.  He always talked to me as if I were a colleague rather than a student, which was kind of nice for me.  He would say of the college students who studied with him, ďHow can they expect to play like me?  Iíve been playing over 25 years.Ē  I would nod as if I knew what he was talking about.  But I only realized what he meant after I had been playing for over 25 years.

There is a long-term view of the creative process, which includes experience over expanded periods of time and learning.  And there is the short-term view, which tries to rely on inspiration, impulse, and improvisation.  And while there is a place for short-term impulsive moments, you canít build and sustain real mastery from that alone.

So, make a lot of creations.  Make sure you have structural tension as the framework.  Donít get obsessed about how good any creation is, but do make a point of learning from each episode of the creative process.  Mastery will come over time, and you will find your ability to create what you want increases dramatically.

©2010 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10