Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Paradox of Quality

I was talking to a colleague (and friend) today who would be retiring soon. I asked, "What plans do you have for your life post-retirement?" She replied, "There are so many things that I want to do... However, I haven't finalized what exactly I will do." The things that she listed were all, in one form or other, related to trying to make a meaningful difference to the world. My friend is already an accomplished academic, leader, sportsman, and contributor to the local community. So, I have no doubts that she will carry forward her excellence into whatever she takes up in her post-retirement life.

The conversation led me to reflect for some time today on how we all wish to make a difference in this world. This is a fundamental need that we all have. The nature and scope of the impact that we wish to make may vary from person to person. Some people may be highly ambitious while others may have modest goals, but the wish to make a difference in our unique way is pretty universal.

Now, how do you know that your work is making a significant difference? There are many ways to figure this out, but the most straightforward way is to evaluate the objective and subjective feedback that we receive for our work. Thus, a writer may wish that his book sells millions of copies (objective) and that his readers also rate his book highly (subjective). Similarly, a musician may wish that her music video gets millions of views and that her music is appreciated by the majority of the viewers (Because it is certainly possible to be a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons). The point is that irrespective of what we do, we all want to be successful on both objective and subjective terms. But then the big question is, "How can we make the kind of impact that we wish to make?"

Again, there can be many answers to that question. People follow different strategies based on what they believe. For example, some people may place heavy emphasis on producing high-quality output while others may focus more on marketing, and so on. Let me focus on quality in this post, because marketing (although important) will be mostly useless if the quality of output is shoddy. Thus, according to me, high-quality output matters much more than marketing, albeit quality doesn't automatically guarantee success. Stated otherwise, quality-output is a necessary if not sufficient condition for success. In simple words, if you can produce high-quality output, then it is more likely that your work will be valued by others. The obvious question then is, how to produce high-quality output?

The quality of our output is dependent on many factors. Certainly, our talent has a role to play. However, the world is filled with people who had talent but didn't amount to anything. That's because talent is just potential. Howsoever talented we may be, we will not produce high-quality work if we do not put the necessary effort to hone and sharpen our skills.

People who are committed to bettering their skills usually employ one of the two strategies: quality or quantity. By 'quality strategy', I mean that people tend to focus on creating high-quality output from the very beginning. They spend a lot of time in the preparation of activities so that the output that will produce will be of superior quality. For example, a writer may invest a tremendous amount of time researching his topic, edit his sentences thoroughly so that no mistakes are present. In the 'quantity strategy,' people are eager to produce instead of being preoccupied with the quality of output. Going back to the writer-example, a quantity-focused writer would just write a lot without worrying too much about the quality of what he writes.

So which strategy wins? Well, the answer is not straightforward. Both strategies surely have their merits, and one should not be pursued to the exclusion of the other. However, what needs to be remembered is that ultimately skills are perfected by doing, and not just by preparing. In other words, a quantity-focused approach may often be a wiser strategy than a quality-focused strategy. Let me explain what I'm saying through an example.

Jerry Uelsmann's Surreal Photography

Jerry Uelsmann is an award-winning photographer who graduated from my alma mater, Indiana University. He pioneered the art of creating surreal images in the darkroom, way before the advent of Adobe Photoshop. While teaching photography to his students at the University of Florida, he once conducted an experiment. He divided his class into two groups. One group (the Quality Group) was asked to submit their single best piece of work for their course grade. The second group (the Quantity Group) was asked to submit the maximum number of photographs they could for their grade. This group was told clearly that the quality of their photographs would not be evaluated. It didn't matter if their photographs were great, good, bad, or even horrible; they would be graded solely on the basis of the number of photographs they submitted.

Which group do you think created the high-quality output that is so essential to success? Professor Uelsmann was guessing it would be the Quality Group. On evaluating all the submitted photographs himself and also by independent raters, however, he concluded that the Quantity Group created the best images. There can be many explanations for the superior quality produced by the Quantity Group. Maybe they were less stressed about their output, or maybe this low stress allowed them to experiment more with their images, or maybe the quantity focus simply gave them more practice which ultimately enhanced their photography skill. Most probably, it was a combination of all these factors and more. Whatever the reasons,  it turns out that often the best path to achieve quality is through quantity. Let's call this the paradox of quality. This should be a lesson for all those perfectionists who get so hung up on creating their perfect product that they never create anything. Unfortunately, the world is full of such perfectionists. Even I am one of them.


  1. Yeh, nice post. I liked the post because of two reasons; (1) the reflection that made you to judge on quantity Vs quality (and the example used),(2) it made me to reflect on myself too quality or quantity... To an extent the post made me to agree that quantity wins over in many of qualitative productions especially for post retirement life.
    It's a really a good post��

    1. Hi Mousumi, happy to hear that you found some value in the article. Thank you for reading and your feedback!

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