Quantity over quality
On being prolific
The adage, “put quality over quantity”, is one of those things that sounds logical and true. When you hear it, you just nod your head and move on. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to create one masterpiece as opposed to a thousand mediocre things?
Unfortunately, life rarely works this way.
Consider the career of Nolan Ryan, widely celebrated as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game of baseball. A towering, intimidating Texan, Ryan’s 5,714 career strikeouts are the most in the history of Major League Baseball. No one else is even close—Randy Johnson sits in a distant second place, with 839 fewer strikeouts.
Of course, Ryan also holds the ignominious record for giving up the most walks ever. Again, it’s not close. His 2,795 walks dwarf the 1,833 of Steve Carlton, who sits in second place.
Ryan won 324 games, good enough for 14th all time. He also lost 292, third most in the history of the sport.
Then there’s Stephen King. The Shining and The Stand are classics that continue to influence the world of literature and pop culture, but King has also written plenty of books that were panned by critics. That’s bound to happen when you publish 65 novels, 5 nonfiction books, and more than 200 short stories.
Or how about Dolly Parton? Her level of production is astonishing, having written more than 3,000 songs and released 51 solo studio albums over a career spanning more than six decades. But this means that for every Jolene or 9 to 5, there are a hundred songs you’ve never even heard of.
Parton’s success, like that of Ryan’s and King’s, is not just measured in the quality of their best work, but also in the incredible quantity of their creative output. These people aren’t just talented, they’re prolific.
To be known as prolific is to be known for producing in large quantities or with great frequency—a seemingly endearing epithet. And yet, there's a paradox whereby “prolific” come across like a backhanded compliment, an insinuation that volume comes with a dilution in quality.
Even King himself once acknowledged this in an opinion piece for the New York Times:
There are many unspoken postulates in literary criticism, one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be . . . Mostly, it seems to be true.
All due respect to Stephen King (and admittedly he was probably being somewhat facetious), but I don’t think this is true at all. Mastery doesn't seem to come from avoiding mistakes, but rather, learning from them.
In their book, Art and Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland share the case study of the "Ceramics Class Experiment". In their account, an art instructor divided his students into two distinct groups. One group was tasked with producing a high quantity of pots, regardless of quality. The other group was tasked with creating the perfect pot.
The group that produced the most pots, despite their focus on quantity, not only made more pots but better pots. They had the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, iterate on their designs, and refine their craftsmanship.
Aphorisms like “quality over quantity” lead us astray because they sound so convincing. We misinterpret them as hard facts and use them as a crutch. But if you wait for genius to strike, you’ll often end up producing nothing at all.
Quantity isn’t the enemy of quality—it’s an enabler of quality.