Build as Much as You Can

Build as Much as You Can
March 23, 2017

A pottery teacher splits the two sections of her introductory class into a "quantity" group and "quality" group. Students in the "quantity" group are graded solely on the number of clay pots they produce, while students in the "quality" group, solely on the quality of the one pot they choose to have graded. When the time for grading comes around, a clear trend begins to emerge—not only have the students in the "quantity" group made more pots, but the pots they produced are of a higher quality than those of the "quality" group. "It's only natural." The teacher thinks to herself, "While the 'quality' section was busy thinking of all the different ways to make the perfect pot, the 'quantity' section was busy making pots. The 'quantity' section got to learn from their mistakes while the 'quality' section tried to avoid them. In pottery, as in all other disciplines, you have to get your hands dirty."

I first heard this parable from a friend about five years ago, and it has stuck with me. Afterward, he explained that it's not so much a condemnation of perfectionism as it is a rally to prolificity. The framing is crucial. "Don't be a perfectionist" is not as actionable as "Build as much as you can."

At 8th Light, it's not much of a stretch to say that "Build as much as you can" is the only directive we give our apprentices. It may not be in those exact words, but that sentiment is laced into every interaction. It has to be. The only way for an individual to progress through the apprenticeship or advance their level in any craft is to make more and more things. This fact is so intuitive and so simple that it might seem inane to mention it here. It's a mistake to think this way. "Build as much as you can" is no platitude. It's a skill.

There's a gap between thinking and doing. The gap grows through fears about building the wrong thing or not knowing how to start. It manifests through excessive research, questions to colleagues, and theories and predictions about how something should be built. All of this, to circumvent failure in its many forms. Shortening the gap means overcoming these fears by accepting that failure is unavoidable—something to harness rather than fear. When failure becomes information instead of catastrophe, it's a lot easier to take the risk of making something in your head real.

Failures become information when they are small and specific. If they're small, the fallout, which might normally overshadow any sort of relevant data, is reduced to insignificance. If they're specific, the quality of the data is better and can be used to derive meaningful insights. Work in small and specific chunks, and your failures will follow suit. I find time to be the most helpful limiting factor. If I only allow myself 30 minutes to work on something, it's much easier to get started than if the constraint doesn't exist. My results improve if I'm able to take time to specify exactly what I want to work on during that half hour. After the time has elapsed, I can quickly see if what I did matched up with what I wanted to do.

Ultimately, the gap between thinking and doing—the barrier to prolificity—is one of confidence. Atomizing your work and improving the type of feedback you get can only take you so far. Eventually, you have to "Get your hands dirty." So find a time (mine is 6:30 AM) and commit to sitting at your desk and building as much as you can for 30 minutes. Do it especially when it's hard; when you're sick, tired, or running late. That's when it counts the most. Some days, you'll have nothing to show for your discipline. Don't get discouraged. It's as much about the process as it is the result. If you honor the commitment long enough, your body of work will grow and force a shift in perception. With increasing conviction that strengthens the more you create, you'll begin to view yourself as someone who makes things. That alone will give you the confidence to make more.