Quantity, Quality, and Inactivity

The world bombards us with conflicting advice.

On the one hand, we’re told that quantity is the key factor in success.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule states that practice is the only path to mastery.  The Beatles played 10,000 hours of gigs in Germany before returning to England and stardom.

I’ve certainly leveraged the benefits of practice in my own life; while I earned a degree in Creative Writing from Stanford, the discipline of regular blogging has probably had more impact on my writing career.

On the other hand, we’re told that quality plays the same role.  Steve Jobs was famous for insisting that his products be “insanely great,” stating, “One home run is much better than two doubles.”

Each time I compare the experience of using an iPad to that of rival tablets, I’m reminded of the power of quality.  Apple’s devotion to quality has allowed it break open new markets and claim a disproportionate share of industry profits.

So who’s right?

The answer, however cliched, is both.

The Beatles are legendary because of the quality of their music, not just their prolific output.  For example, I’m fairly certain KISS has released more songs than the Beatles (no offense to the KISS Army!).

Steve Jobs maintained the quality of Apple’s products by conducting *daily* design reviews.  Each revolutionary product was the result of hundreds or even thousands of iterations.

The real choice is not quantity or quality; it’s activity or inactivity.  As Shonda Rhimes told Dartmouth grads at her 2014 commencement speech, “Be a do-er, not a dreamer.”

You can’t create quality without going through quantity.  The only question is whether you release the results of your practice sessions, or if you carefully curate your output to maximize quality.  Pixar has never released more than one movie in a given year.  On nearly every movie, Pixar has stopped production (at great expense) and delayed releases rather than compromise on quality (though that doesn’t explain Cars 2).

When deciding which approach to take, consider the following parameters:

1. What is the cost of iteration?

Movies are expensive.  New consumer products are expensive.  When iteration costs are high, polish your product to a fine sheen before making the investment in tooling and marketing.

In contrast, posting YouTube videos is cheap, and the market is always unpredictable.  When iteration costs are low, seek feedback directly from the market.

2. How crowded is your market?
The more crowded the market, the more important quality becomes as a differentiator.  In the United States, over 300,000 books are published every year.  It takes an incredible effort for a new book to break through.  That’s why my co-authors and I worked so hard on the quality of The Alliance (now available for pre-orders, wherever books are sold) .

In contrast, if the market is wide open with demand far exceeding supply, ship early and ship often!

3. How are reputations made?

In some fields, reputations are made based on a small number of major breakthroughs.  A hit movie can change an actor or director from an unknown to a major star (or a young actress from “Eric Roberts’ little sister” to “The highest-paid actress in the world”).

In other fields, reputations are accumulated over time.  J.D. Salinger might have won his fame by writing The Catcher in the Rye, but I can’t think of any bloggers who established themselves by writing a single, solitary post.

Figure out how reputations are made in your field, and prioritize accordingly.

Quantity and quality are both keys to success.  But in both cases, the first step is activity.  Be a do-er, not a dreamer.

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