Prolific, not Perfect

Kitten of boy's shoulders

This was inspired by a great blog by Benjamin Hardy. One of his points in this article is that it is better to be prolific than perfect. I believe this translates directly to my journey as an artist. Perfection is a dangerous and elusive goal. Being prolific and creating a lot of work leads to better craft and many more new ideas.

Benjamin illustrates the point about being prolific with this story taken from a book  Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

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 pounds 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.

I have seen so many times in my life that the demand for perfection leads to paralysis. If you take the perfection requirement seriously it creates such a high bar that it is impossible to meet the goal. Instead you delay, study the problem, try to think of new or “creative” alternatives. But mostly you avoid doing anything, because you know you cannot create perfection.

On the other hand, when faced with a difficult goal or a creative block, just getting busy and doing things will usually lead to progress. Planning is good, but in art and creativity working seems to clear out roadblocks faster. Many psychologists and business leaders have established that a bias to action is a predictor of success. Action brings confidence. Action gets us in motion and builds momentum. To follow the story above, doing and learning, trying and rejecting and keeping going will lead to much better work than sitting waiting to figure out how to do the one great and perfect thing.

One word the story authors used that jumps out at me is theorizing. This is a great trap. Art is ultimately a very practical and pragmatic discipline. It is about making things. We have to make a lot of things to figure out how to make the things that please us. Theorizing about how great something ultimately could be actually inhibits us from doing the work. The fear of not living up to the theoretical perfection makes us not try.

So cast off the inhibitions. Just do it. Make things. If you’re stuck, make something, even if just to throw it away. The process of making something gives us momentum and stimulates our creative spirit. Good writers have a habit of this. They write a certain number of words a day, even if they know it is not great. Doing it exercises the writing “muscles” and lets ideas flow. Visual artists should do the same thing. Work every day, whether or not you feel like it. Work when you are uninspired. Let your creativity flow through your work and lead you to new ideas. Being prolific really is the way to create better work.