The Paradox of Excellence
Quality or quantity?
Quality over quantity. Or is it?
A timeless debate. An evergreen doubt in our forest of ruminations. The pesky question that plagues anyone who creates, whether it be art or otherwise.
As it relates to artistic endeavors, it seems like the common wisdom is quality over quantity. Though Van Gogh painted over 2,000 pieces of art in his life, he’s remembered for the golden and azure swirls in Starry Night. True quality renders works eternal. This is how artists create their legacy— making something with the emotional resonance to reverberate across generations, to induce emotion with the subtlest of references—To be or not to be.
And for writers who find themselves in the era of writing as a commodity, but still yearn for their words to withstand the sands of time, the power of consistent publishing seems to be diminishing. If art is expression, and you want to reach your maximum expression, the rewards of publishing week after week, year after year, have diluted in the deluge of all that is written by man and/or machine.
Writerreflected on this dilemma a few months ago. He reached the conclusion that each piece he’s spent significantly more time on than average has led to more subscriptions, though he spent more time on it because of the intrinsic benefit to him (clearer thinking) over the external benefit (subscriptions). In his words:
I also don’t think that optimizing for growth is a healthy way to write; a better metric for me is how much my thinking improves. But I find it interesting that the advice I got to write faster (which is not good for thinking) also leads to less growth. I’ll analyze the numbers in more detail in a little bit, but the general picture is this: if I spend twice as long working on a piece, it does on average four times better. (If I include outliers, the ambitious pieces do eight times better than the normal pieces.)
This side of the dilemma can be summarized as: Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. That is, writing slow to optimize for quality, will result in consistent quality work that will lead to achieving your true vision as an artist.
Where this common wisdom becomes a trap is when an artist becomes so maniacally obsessed with quality, that they will forego the benefits creating consistently.
This is the Paradox of Excellence—quality is achieved through quantity. Quantity is a condition for quality, not its opposite. Your best work stands on the shoulders of “ok” work. It is only through producing 80% “ok” stuff that you get the 20% that is the crème de la crème.
And quantity is not necessarily about creating and sharing any work. I’m not advocating for you to intentionally make shitty work and release it into the world just to run up your creative tally. All work requires intention and earnest effort.
But here’s what happens when the focus on quality is singular, especially as a new writer: You will yearn to write the best thing about the most important thing you care about. The “best” becomes sky high stakes that you are supposed to somehow pole vault over, and once you realize how daunting the task is, you become paralyzed and up not creating anything.
Furthermore, the less work you’ve made that you can analyze and iterate upon, the less likely you’ll be able to improve to make anything with the quality you desire. You won’t have the lessons of failures prior to guide your success.
I know this because I’ve been this person. I’ve let my perfectionist tendencies and the stakes of writing “the best” silence my heart and put my brain in a strait jacket. I aimed for quality without fully understanding the value of consistently making something and consistently sharing it. The process of creating a lot helps you negotiate your own stakes, so that they don’t leave you frozen.
Sharing your work often is also exposure therapy. It is the best antidote to the inner critic that argues your work is not interesting, that no one cares, and that if your art sees the light of day, then with most certainty, someone halfway across the world will have no choice but to gouge their eyes out and it will be squarely on you.
It is only when you’ve built the emotional resilience to share your work, fall in love with the creative process, and learn to surrender to the creative forces that surround us, that you can shift your focus to quality. When you become creative instead of doing creative things.
Creativity is something you are, not only something you do. It’s a way of moving through the world, every minute, every day. -Rick Rubin
If you are new to any journey of creative expression, please take pithy statements from gurus with a grain of salt. Those who say “don’t put out mediocre ideas into the world,” put a bunch of mediocre ideas into the world when they were starting out. They didn’t give up. They refined their craft, and are now renowned for their great ideas. Their recency bias blinds them from the dues they’ve paid.
If creative expression is now part of your conviction—a way to live, then yes, aim for greatness. Not for the accolades, but to honor yourself. The pursuit of excellence is an act of self-love.
A reason why we overindex on quality instead of quantity is the fear of failure. We believe excellence is achieved through perfection and success. I’d like to leave you with a passage from a Paris Review interview with American writer, Irwin Shaw:
An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts upon himself. If he doesn’t have the faith in himself, the energy, the ambition, to shake it off or absorb it and plow ahead, he’ll wind up a one-book man or a two-book man, and hitting the bottle instead of the typewriter. Failure is more consistent—for everybody—than success. It’s like living in a rainy belt—there are some sunny days, but most of the time it’s wet outside and you’d better carry your umbrella. Anyway, failure is apt to produce self-pity, and it’s been my experience that self-pity can be very productive.
The main thing I want you to ask yourself is: “Am I holding back from making anything in the pursuit of excellence?” If the answer is “no,” then the question becomes “How can I reach for my maximum creative expression, no matter the obstacles that get in the way?”
Either way, it’s your path to follow.
Writing Experiment Week 4
It’s been really encouraging to hear your feedback on this writing experiment over the last few weeks!
If you’ve been following along the past few weeks you may be wondering, what’s next? Here are some ideas:
-Send your story to a loved one. Tell them “here, I made this, and I would like to share it with you.” You are not looking for a critical review or to have lavish praise heaped upon you. It’s a gift.
-Publish it! Why not share it in social media (if you are active there). What’s the worst that can happen? You work gets a 2 second glance before someone moves on? Oh well. But maybe, just maybe, someone will read, smile, and feel just a bit more connected with you.
-Put it away. This is an experiment and the success criteria was making something, going through the process of creation. You don’t owe anyone your stories, though you’d be surprised how many people are eager to hear them.
Now imagine you do this every month this year. By January 2025, you will have 12 personal stories that show all your dimensions, particular moments in your life that stood out enough to be memorized in writing. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s really cool.
I hope this experiment has encouraged you to write more stories.
I’ve also been doing this challenge alongside you and will be sharing my story next week. Stay tuned!
Finally, I want to share a couple of stories that were inspired by this challenge from two phenomenal humans,and
Photo of the Week
Winter is ski season and I think I’m finally ready to graduate from the comfort of the green bunny hills to the speedways of blue runs. Here is a photo I captured from last week’s adventure.
Before you go…
I’d like to thank,, , , and for their help with this piece this week.
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