#241: On Quantity

My letter a couple weeks ago about falling in love with the library again got me thinking about the story, perhaps apocryphal, of the ceramics teacher who split his class in two and graded one half on quality, the other on quantity:

[O]n the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 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”.

You can guess how it goes. The “quality” students try so hard to make the one perfect pot that they spend too much time theorizing and not enough time practicing. Meanwhile the “quantity” students, who actually put in the reps end up, a side effect, producing better pottery.

We tend to turn quality into a social metric. We bake outside judgment into it, and with that judgment, the fear of being judged. The ceramics parable diverts you toward the metric of quantity, which is free (mostly) of that same outside opinion. The scale doesn’t care how good you are, it just tells you the weight. We swap imagined voices with cold mathematics, so as to place ourselves at the quiet center of creation – the source of true quality.

An overlooked aspect of the parable, though, is the importance of having a specific project, projection – a mark you’re aiming for. It’s more encouraging to learn a language when your goal is to translate a specific poem. It’s more encouraging to learn arduino when you’re trying to build a specific automated pet feeder. The outcomes are visible and so is the progress; you can see how far you are from when the scale goes ding.

Sometimes these projects also benefit from a time element – from another metric to further quiet the voices of judgment. The ceramics teacher gave the “quantity” students a weight goal but also a time goal: first day of class to last day of class. NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write a novel in a single month. I wondered, this week, what might come out if I tried to draft four novels in a single year. How I might see writing differently afterwards. How I might write differently.

Coming back to libraries, here’s author, poet, filmmaker, Vi Khi Nao, on her goal to read (and review!) 300 books in a single year:

Six months into it I read only like forty books or something like that. I was like, no one can do that. No one can read three hundred books. This is insane, I don’t know whose idea was this … [then] I went to the library, I borrowed like fifty books. I said, you know, if you read fifty books by the end of the year, at least you have ninety  –  almost one third. It’s not that bad.
The problem with checking out fifty books in one sitting is I was also scared about having to renew them  –  going back to the library with them, carrying them … it’s heavy books, you know? Fifty books is heavy. And so I’m like, I don’t want to carry all those books back and then having to renew them and only read two books. So I sit myself down and I’m like, you need to read all of this in one week. And I did it! I think I read like an obscene amount of books, to the point where I didn’t have to renew those books. And it got me back onto … one third of the way in midsummer was not bad. It’s doable. And when I got that bingeing out of my system, reading two books a day wasn’t so bad.