The Mystery Of The Pots

There's a famous business-book parable about "quantity leading to quality": in a ceramics class, one group of students get told they'll be graded on how good their very best pot is, and another group are told they'll be graded simply on how many pots they made, without even checking their quality.

At the end of the experiment, of course, the "quantity" group had made much better pots – because they'd been working and practicing every day, so we're told – while the "quality" group didn't even make one good pot, because their perfectionism had stopped them getting their hands dirty and learning as they went.

This little story gets trotted out often to support the idea that if you're trying to do good creative work you should focus on Making A Lot, without worrying much about the quality of your work, rather than being perfectionist.

I thought about this parable when taking my first ceramics class. Essentially, what I realized is that ceramics has a strange and important property: making a piece has several stages; you get far more practice at stage 1 than stage 2 than stage 3; and its very easy to take something that was "perfect" at one stage and accidentally destroy it in the next.

I found myself thinking that:

1) if I were a ceramics teacher, instead of starting the students from zero each time, I would give students part-finished pots at various stages to work on, so they could get experience of stages 2 and 3 before trying to take a pot from zero to finished

2) the parable of the pots could just be a consequence of the specific weird traits of ceramics: the students who focused on quality just didn't get enough reps in at stage 2 or 3 to be able to bring their pots to the finish line, but this doesn't make it a generally applicable lesson for all creative endeavors.

I still believe that: reality has a surprising amount of detail, and vague high-level advice for all creative endeavors doesn't really make sense. (I think many people are too perfectionist about many different creative projects, and really would benefit from thinking "done is better than perfect"! I just think a lot of that depends on the details).

Anyway. This story has a twist: when I came to write this blogpost I finally went looking for the original ceramics story, and stumbled on this piece by Austin Kleon, who found James Clear's retelling of the parable using the example of a photography class instead of a ceramics one. Why on earth would Clear shift the setting of the story "from something like pottery, which is more concrete, to photography, which is more abstract?," wondered Kleon.

It turns out, Clear had emailed the original writer of the ceramics parable to check if it was true (which, as far as I can tell, puts Clear automatically in the top 10% of business authors in terms of fact-checking), and as a result heard back that the ceramics parable was true "allowing for some literary license in the retelling," because the original source was actually a photography teacher. The parable-writer had replaced photography with ceramics because they already had too many photography examples in their text. They wrote:

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).

Obviously I disagree! I think it matters a lot which art form was evoked. But perhaps I'm wrong; after all, my objection arose because I thought the result might be special to the properties of ceramics, and it turns out the story wasn't really about ceramics at all.

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