Fifty Pounds of Clay

I’ve just started reading The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast  by Josh Kaufman to gain more insight on how effective skill acquisition happens.  Kaufman begins the book with a list of ten principles for rapid skill acquisition, the 10th of which he illustrates with an excerpt of Art & Fear by David Bales and Ted Orland:

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 side 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” groups: fifty pounds 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, come grading time 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.

Kaufman’s conclusion is that, “Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolutely quality.  The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”

It’s a familiar pattern in human-centered design – rapid prototyping to get your hands dirty and learn by doing.  It’s how the strongest marshmallow towers are built.  Yet it’s easy to separate that approach from how we imagine our own goals of becoming better  at ________ (building Excel models; finding answers by ourselves online; becoming better public speakers; learning to fundraise).

Indeed my mental model of how to learn and practice started way at the other end: having played classical piano seriously for two decades, I had spent literally thousands of hours focused on the last 20% or 10% or even 3% of getting a piece “perfect.”   So it has felt completely counterintuitive for me to think that “just starting” is an effective strategy for anything but the most rudimentary of tasks.  And yet, through a deliberate process of unlearning, accelerated by plenty of healthy kicks in the pants from mentors, I’ve tried this other way, and over time I’ve started to rewire myself towards a different mindset: that I can learn new skills, and that the approach to take centers around starting first, being willing to feel like a fool at the outset, and sticking with things long enough to get out of that first, terrible phase.

(My first day on a snowboard, 13 years ago, I must have hit my head HARD against the mountain at least fifty times.  I was very close to walking away.  It’s only because I’d been warned that the first day is painful, and that the second day isn’t, that I stuck with it).

Imagine, then, that your job when imagining something you’d like to learn involves just two steps (not 10, not yet):

  1. Breaking that skill into its smallest component parts
  2. Practicing just one of those skills relentlessly

For example maybe the component parts of fundraising are: getting the first meeting, finding new funding prospects, holding engaging meetings, storytelling, listening, , learning to build from one meeting to the next, comfortably asking for money…. (there are more).

If you were to decide today that you’re a terrible fundraiser (by the way, you’re not) BUT you wanted to become a good fundraiser a year from now, data from the ceramics class would teach us that spending as much time as possible practicing just one those eight component parts (and I’m sure there are more of them and each could be narrower) for two weeks would get you much further along than spending two or three or four weeks reading books on prospecting and getting the first meeting.   This is why, for example, deciding to get rejected 100 times works – it is concentrated effort on a specific task, one that unavoidably gets our auto-correct mechanism to kick in an teach ourselves better ways to do things.

We know all of this in principle, but it’s a lot easier to say “fail fast” than it is to actually jump in first.  I find that imagining a giant heap with 50 pounds of finished pottery, some of it beautiful, helps me get out of neutral.

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11 Responses to Fifty Pounds of Clay

  1. What a brilliant anecdote. We empower poetry as a digital opportunity and all you say rings true. Writing more becomes writing better.

  2. Great encouragement to intentionally experiment with vision, chunking and action to go after the unprecedented. Once again, nice piece Sasha. Thanks for all you do.

  3. Pingback: Quantity vs Quality « FundraiserBeth

  4. Priya says:

    Sasha – love this, and have shared this with my team of fundraisers. They are all pretty good overall, and each excels at different aspects of their fundraising job than others. The challenge for me as a manager is how to keep them consistently motivated and challenged in the “same” job, especially in the absence of traditional perks like promotions and pay raises which are currently limited where I work, and also to empower them to try to get better at an aspect of their work that they are already aware that they are not great at…

  5. Pingback: Artists Should Opt For Quantity Over Quality... | CURAT.IO

  6. As a potter this is true the more you throw the better you get. You learn to focus on the moment, the task at hand, to concentrate in the present. Great analogy.

  7. Pingback: Anatomy of a thank you note | Sasha Dichter's Blog

  8. Great piece Sasha, hoping to incorporate this type of thinking into our curriculum here at Amal Academy.

    (For other helpful ideas, would you recommend that we read the entire Kaufman book?)

  9. Pingback: Why Quantity Should be Your Priority | SoshiTech

  10. Pingback: For Fundraisers, Why Quantity Is Sometimes Better Than Quality | #fundchat

  11. Pingback: Perfecting Documenting | Creating space for calm

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