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kottke.org posts about Atomic Habits

The Credibility Is in the Details

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2020

The book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland contains a passage about whether artists should focus of quantity or quality in their work.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

It’s a great anecdote but with the absence of specific details (like the teacher’s name), it’s always struck me as apocryphal — a parable of unknown origin used to illustrate a counterpoint to conventional wisdom. Austin Kleon recently noticed another version of this story, featuring photographer Jerry Uelsmann, from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It starts:

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.

Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group.

Then it continues exactly as the ceramics story goes. Turns out, Orland says that he and Bayles changed the photography story into one about ceramics for their book, per Clear’s footnote:

“Yes, the ‘ceramics story’ in ‘Art & Fear’ is indeed true, allowing for some literary license in the retelling. Its real-world origin was as a gambit employed by photographer Jerry Uelsmann to motivate his Beginning Photography students at the University of Florida. As retold in ‘Art & Fear’ it faithfully captures the scene as Jerry told it to me — except I replaced photography with ceramics as the medium being explored. Admittedly, it would’ve been easier to retain photography as the art medium being discussed, but David Bayles (co-author) & I are both photographers ourselves, and at the time we were consciously trying to broaden the range of media being referenced in the text. The intriguing thing to me is that it hardly matters what art form was invoked — the moral of the story appears to hold equally true straight across the whole art spectrum (and even outside the arts, for that matter).”

Same anecdote, same takeaway, just different details right? I’m not so sure. The specific details lend credibility to the actual story and to the lesson we’re supposed to learn from it. There’s a meaningful difference in believability and authority between the two versions — one is a tale to shore up an argument but the other is an experiment, an actual thing that happened in the world with actual results. Even though I’ve known it in my bones for years because of my own work, I’m happy now to fully believe the connection between quantity and quality demonstrated in this story.

Update: Tangentially related from Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth in Havard Business Review: Don’t Let a Good Story Sell You on a Bad Idea. (thx, rob)