Creative work, in any domain, are pieces that stand out based on parameters laid down by the field in question. When it comes to creative endeavours, most people believe we need to focus on the quality of the painting, writing, musical score, scientific premise or mathematical model. Likewise, if you are a teacher who wants to inspire students to produce original works that make a mark, shouldn’t you ask your students to centre their energies on producing pieces of stellar quality? If we want to nurture creativity, shouldn’t we emphasise quality over quantity?
An informal experiment, cited by James Clear in Atomic Habits , casts doubt on this premise. Professor Jerry Uelsmann divided students in his film photography class at the University of Florida into two groups. Those on the left side of the room were in the “quantity” group, while pupils on the right fell into the “quality” group. He then told the first group that their final grade would depend exclusively on the amount of work they submitted. Those who gave in 100 photos would garner an A, while 90 plus photos would fetch a B and so on. For the quality group, their grade would reflect the merit of their work. Students would have to submit only one photograph that was as close to ‘perfect’ as possible.
When all the work was submitted, Professor Uelsmann found that all the outstanding pieces were from students in the quantity group. Apparently, the act of taking myriads of photos enhanced students’ photographic skills. On the other hand, students, who had to focus on quality, contemplated on what an outstanding piece of work entails. However, armchair reflection alone did not help them produce masterpieces.
This experiment illustrates several important principles regarding creativity. First, creative acts require us to manipulate material directly. You need to get your hands dirty. Merely thinking about or watching others is not sufficient to produce noteworthy compositions. We need to engage in acts of doing, whether it is analysing, experimenting, composing or problem-solving. Second, we should expend our efforts on actually producing pieces of work without necessarily obsessing over perfection. If we set unattainable standards for ourselves, then we are unlikely to produce anything. Of course, this does not suggest that we don’t pay heed to quality. Instead, we should focus on learning and making continuous improvements with subsequent pieces.
Quantity and quality aren’t diametrically opposed but rather complement each other. The more you create, the more creative you are likely to grow provided you reflect on each piece or stage of work to see how it may be honed. Soliciting and incorporating feedback from experts in the field may also be helpful. In fact, it might be worthwhile asking others for their assessments at various stages of your work. But know that mistakes are an endemic part of the creative process. As author and comic strip creator, Scott Adams, attests, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. arunasankara @gmail.com