June 17

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The Truth about the Pots


Maybe you've heard this story before, about the pottery students -- it's a popular parable in the world of creativity and writing teaching.

I will quote the story in full, and then I'll explain where I think it misses the mark.

Is quantity really better than quality?


How do you balance quantity and quality in creative work? The pottery parable suggests that producing more leads to better results, but it also highlights the need for proper guidance.

"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 pound 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."

Now, this tale certainly has an element of 'parable' to it, and the writers of this version of the text applied what they call 'literary license' to the apparently true story behind it. So I wouldn't take it as fact or an eternal truth about art -- but I do think it is a very thought-provoking idea.

The power of habit

One thing this story suggests is that diligence and routine are important to artistic improvement. If your challenge is only to make as many pots as possible, then you will likely arrive at the studio early, check the machinery is working, make sure you have all the supplies for the day -- and stay long.

Whereas, if you are told to work for quality, it's much harder to plan out your day (and it's easier to give up when things aren't going well).

But isn't this terrible teaching??

That said, even though I love this story as a story, and I ALSO think it is a good lesson for one's own private work as a creative person (aka "just try to finish projects and get stuff out the door rather than stewing about minor details"), I do not love it as an account of a real lesson.

Indeed, I feel like the "quality" half of the class deserves a refund of their tuition fees.

Doesn't this cute parable show an abdication of responsibility by the teacher? There is a reason why the "quality" group suffered in this experiment: they had to come up with a plan of work on their own, and, lacking experience, they seemingly tried to make a perfect pot all month long. To go straight from zero to hero, in other words.

But it would have been easy for the teacher to have set them up with a curriculum and a process, telling them to work on glazes this lesson, and handles the next. Then the students could have furiously worked on the necessary skills in a step by step process.

"Today your grade is all about the height of your pots -- tomorrow we will work on symmetry."

In other words, there is a way to optimise BOTH for quality and quantity, but that would be require a diligent teacher to inspire the class and to guide them through a learning process. It is for the teacher, not the student, to know why the "clay handling" morning needs to come before the "designing cool spouts" afternoon.


Quality AND Quantity

This is why, in my own lessons and events, I try to combine these two competing ideals.

My classes aim to help you with "quality," with breaking down complex and potentially demoralising challenges into achievable steps. And they also aim to help you with "quantity," to prompt you to try out things, to find community, and just get deeper into the life of making art.

If you would like a sense of how those classes work, join my free course below.

Yours,

Daniel

PS Do you agree with me? What do you think about the parable of the pots?

Join my free course, The Character-First Story. 12 lessons sent straight to your inbox.


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