Just Get Started (Quantity Leads to Quality)
The Constant Battle Against Perfectionism
I just finished watching an inspiring video about the opportunity that awaits those who just get started. It’s the third reminder I’ve come across in the past week. It seems like a sign, and it ignites this desire within me to write a piece about it. Just getting started. Before I can even get my footing, my arch-enemy, perfectionism steps on the field.
He brings the usual artillery — those all-consuming feelings of inadequacy and shame. Will this next idea die an early death like so many that have come before it? Will it be yet another casualty, another tombstone in my graveyard of abandoned ideas?
Next, I start playing out what it would look like if I even get around to publishing the piece — and I can’t decide what’s worse: the deafening silence of nobody noticing or caring, or the humiliating yell from the rafters of the comment section, exclaiming “Lame!” or “You suck!”
This fear paralyzes me. I start questioning whether it’s worth it to even try.
Perfectionism to me is telling myself that I care so deeply about the quality of my work. But the reality behind it is, I’m just terrified of other people’s judgment.
I think to myself, I need to find a way through this. So, I decided it was time to take a field trip. Time to get inspired. Maybe that will free me from this rut.
A Trip to the Barnes
The Barnes Foundation, Exterior
Next time you’re in Philadelphia, there is a museum that I recommend visiting, called The Barnes Foundation. It’s a striking collection of over 900 artworks from notable late 19th, early 20th century artists like Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and van Gogh.
The Barnes arranges its collection in “ensembles,” highlighting the visual relationships between the pieces. It invites the observer to explore connections between the pieces such as a color, line, and space, rather than focusing on the specific artists or their respective historical period. It really is unlike any traditional museum you’ll have been to before.
Taking the advice I’d given to countless other people, I decided to visit The Barnes during my extended layover in Philadelphia. So I made the trek from Old City to the stark building housing quaint art from a bygone era.
As I walked through the different rooms, taking in the litany of pastels coming from the copious collections of Impressionist-era art, there was one room in particular that I was struck by. But it wasn’t for the reason you might expect.
In the room, there was a wall full of rudimentary sketches, still lifes, and portraits. I remember thinking to myself, “maybe I’m missing something, but what are pieces like this doing in such a renowned museum like this?”
Confused but intrigued, I approached the wall. I started seeing plaques with the same names over and over again. Picasso. Matisse. This art didn’t seem to match the artistic styles or the caliber of what I knew these artists to be able to create.
Then came the revelation. These distinguished artists didn’t become who they are through one defining work. And not all of their work was groundbreaking, or even necessarily impressive in terms of technical execution. What they did was get started, keep going, and keep refining their craft. And through these efforts they figured out their unique style.
Initially they might have done seemingly more basic work, or they might have imitated their peers and precursors. But they didn’t stop. They kept making art. They kept building upon their learnings. And they ended up creating massive bodies of work, and countless masterpieces.
The Taste Gap
This difference between what I saw at the Barnes and what I knew these artists had the potential to be able to create, it reminded me of how Ira Glass famously articulated this journey of exploration, experimentation, and iteration in what has been termed “the taste gap”:
All of us who do creative work...we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap…for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.
It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.
We shouldn’t wait until we’ve reached a certain level and then take action. Instead, we reach that certain level by taking action.
Tim Urban has written more than ninety blog posts over ten years, leading to having his own TED talk, interviewing Elon Musk, and self-publishing a book. David Foster Wallace wrote thirty-plus short stories and essays alongside his epic tome, Infinite Jest.
The taste gap serves as a constant reminder to me that these writers — who have fundamentally changed how I perceive the world — had to start somewhere. That I need to start somewhere. That mastery of any domain is a direct result of focused repetition.
Quantity Leads to Quality
There was another well-known parable, “art by the pound,” from the book Art & Fear, that further illustrates the payoff of taking initiative and being consistent:
[A] 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 pound 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, grading time came, 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.
There is no better example illustrating this process of progression through iteration than that of Picasso’s series of lithographs called, The Bull.
He starts with a typical quick sketch of a bull, that then transforms into a more exaggerated almost mythical-looking beast. But half-way through the series, we begin to see him pare it down into abstract and stylized form. The final lithograph is a simple line drawing that simultaneously captures the essence of the bull and expresses Picasso’s unique artistic style.
Take Imperfect Action
You can keep waiting for opportunities. Keep waiting for the perfect time to get started. Or you can create your own opportunity. You can commit to sitting down and writing for 5 minutes. And day-by-day, continue to build on this.
You can accept that you will be afraid, you may get stuck, others may judge you, and that what you make (at least initially) might not be as good as you’d like it to be.
“There is knowledge within you that is precious and valuable, and that people need. They need it. It would change their lives. it would change the course of their career. It would change their relationships. It would change their health. If they only knew what you knew.” - Tiago Forte
But you can also see the upside. That putting yourself out there, taking that imperfect action, building connections beyond what you create, inspiring others in ways that you never could have expected.
After all, this essay started out as a spark of inspiration in my head. Through persistence and iterance, I’ve breathed life into it, fanned the flame. And now you’re reading it. And we’ve formed a connection that we didn’t have before.