Decide What Quality Means
To be a visionary, all you have to do is make decisions based off of your eyes, instead of your ears or your memory.Kanye West
In 2007, recording artist Kanye West started and ran his own blog called UniverseCity. West took his blog seriously, updating it several times a day in addition to working as a recording artist and an emerging fashion designer. The blog became well known as a source of inspiration, connecting the worlds of art and architecture with mainstream pop culture. The New York Times would call it “a masterpiece blog.”
West ran UniverseCity with the help of a small team, including graphic designer Joe Perez. Perez was responsible for supplying and researching the content, making ideas available to West to curate, comment on, and approve. Even though Perez had formally studied at the Art Center College of Design, he has likened research for the blog to returning to art school—and studying every major simultaneously. “You can say you do research every day, but when something forces you to look at thousands of images on a daily basis, the best of the best, it starts to definitely have an impact on you on a really basic level,” he says. This exposure to a vast quantity of images seems to have remained with West, who would report looking at 800 images a day several years after the blog ended.
Part of what Perez brought to the table was geographic; he had access to the Rhode Island School of Design library, where he discovered inspiration and references in books that weren’t as easily found on the internet. But looking at thousands of images wasn’t the only thing that refined Joe’s taste. There were also the thought process and dialogue that he and West developed in order to select and curate images for UniverseCity. Managing the blog required that both of them develop and refine opinions on the mountains of images that Perez selected.
There are many people who take a prolific approach to their work but make little progress beyond the level they started at. More often than not, the most significant thing about their work is the sheer volume of it and not necessarily its quality. Sometimes, by a stroke of good fortune, they may break through. But quantity, in this book, is always just a means to get to quality—through practice, spontaneity, and structured chaos.
Defining quality is important here. There’s a difference between what you think quality and progress mean and other people’s acceptance of your work.
In an ideal world, everybody wants to make something that other people admire and love. (And hopefully pay for.) For many of us, that’s inherent to the definition of quality. But as actor Ethan Hawke says, that definition of quality is the enemy. He says, “Because it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good. And if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.” In the previous chapter, we explored an example: Vincent van Gogh’s paintings already were of high quality, but the world didn’t recognize that until after he passed away, when his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did the hard work of communicating and promoting Van Gogh’s body of work.
This chapter sets out to support you to define quality beyond just something good and admirable to other people, and creating your own definition of it. “The definition of quality in the creator’s mind is the one that’s ever changing,” says Chris Kim. “Whatever quality means to you, that’s what ultimately defines who you are as a creative.”
Let’s consider Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who writes in Let My People Go Surfing, “Striving to make the best quality product is the reason we got into business in the first place.” Patagonia’s definition of quality involves invention, global design, ease of care and cleaning, added value, authenticity, beauty, and the core customer’s needs.
Similarly, Pixar’s former chief creative officer John Lasseter says, “Quality is the best business plan.” In his book Creativity Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull talks about the company’s definition of quality as one that heavily involves people—finding, developing, and supporting good people, who “in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.” This also means developing a culture that will enable everyone to communicate, regardless of management hierarchies and power.
You won’t do good work until you define what good means to you. This section takes a quantity-driven approach to research and understanding quality. It’s these attempts and documentation that will serve you amidst difficult times. Understanding quality is not difficult; it starts as you immerse yourself in a lot of really good work and develop your own opinions on them. These prompts will enable you to understand what quality means to you.
Visit the Greats
Prompt: Identify a piece of work that someone in your field recommends. Spend time with it.
“If you have writer’s block, you’re not reading enough,” says poet Nikki Giovanni to Mason Currey. In order to improve your output, you first need to improve your input. Consuming other people’s work is the best first step to understanding what quality might even mean in your field. Everyone who is making something, right now, has been inspired by someone else. For example, Michael Saviello has been inspired by Vincent van Gogh.
I’m personally not a huge fan of lists. But, if you don’t have any references or places in mind, start with the greatest-of-all-time lists for your field. For example, if you’re making music, you could look at Mojo’s Top 100 albums of all time, or perhaps just of the last decade. If you have no idea where to start, look for your favorites in the list, or start at the top of the list.
Pay attention to what you notice. With Dacoury Natche, he first notices the beat on a song, not the lyrics. With Michael Saviello, he steps right up to the painting and starts looking at it. Don’t worry too much about what to do. Just try, and you’ll know.
You could also study your heroes’ heroes. Besides making time to experience it, look into their lives. Dive into their creative processes and their perspectives on their craft. Read their biographies. Know the bar that your heroes set for themselves, and set your own in that direction as well.
Eventually, it’s also important for you to experience work outside of your field. For example, a person who writes can find inspiration in a song, or a coder might be inspired by a design. But this prompt suggests first understanding what excellence means, and feels like, in your field.
Study the Craft
Prompt: Experience the piece of work you selected. Study it. Answer this question: “What makes it great?”
Write down the first thing that stood out to you about the piece of work. Then, write down the second thing. And the third thing. And so on, until you don’t notice any more unique things. Then, read someone else’s commentary on the work—or if none exists, just call a friend and ask them what they notice about the piece. What do they experience that you didn’t? What interests them? What’s the difference between what you noticed and what they noticed?
For example, if you’re a writer studying an article you really like, write down the first 20 lines that interest you, and compare them with the first 20 lines of the piece. Or compare your 20 lines with 20 lines that another writer identifies, or perhaps 20 lines that an editor identifies.
In software, there’s a method of testing called rubber duck debugging. The method is simple—you explain to a rubber duck what your code is supposed to do and talk it out line by line. You can tell it what you plan on doing next as well. The rubber duck, in this case, doesn’t need to be for debugging; it can be the listener to your experience of a piece of art. If you’re shy and don’t want to explain yourself to a friend yet, just try it with a rubber duck.
These are all actions you can take to pay attention. Focus on the work. Watch how you react to it. Don’t blind yourself with the craftsperson or artist’s reputation. Instead, use other people’s reactions or reviews of the work as mirrors to discover your own—not as your own talking points. Understand why other people consider the work great, and, most importantly, decide if and why you agree with them or not.
Re-Create a Classic
Prompt: Starting from a blank sheet, re-create a classic.
When I asked Dacoury Natche how he learned to make music, he spoke of imitating as a way to refine his own technique as he was first getting started. There will be things that you don’t know how to do yet, and that’s the point. When you don’t know something, do whatever you can to replicate it. As producer Chris Kim pointed out, the search for the answer and attempts to imitate or reproduce the original often provide more interesting results than the original idea.
Copywork is a technique in writing. The idea is to get better at writing by typing out a piece of writing you like. Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way. The idea of copywork has been applied to UI design and software development; I’m sure you can figure out how to apply it to your creative work.
The goal of this prompt is to get you thinking about and feeling what it’s like to make something that you appreciate. It’s to learn from the process of copying and imitating. Of course, this isn’t the final goal; it’s an exercise to improve your skills.
As Michael Saviello said, “If you want to start painting, look at the masters, don’t imitate them, but do what they did because they were successful. People like it, so they’re gonna like your stuff. Just maybe change it a little bit, or make it your own kind of style, which I think I did.”
Prompt: Choose five adjectives to define what quality means to you.
Choose five words that best describe the attributes of quality in your perspective. For example, in defining quality for an article idea, I choose timing, societal impact, counterintuition, action steps, and prior coverage. For me, I discovered these attributes through noticing what ideas were accepted and rejected, through patterns I noticed in what I liked to read, and through papers I read. I refine the meaning of these words often, based on feedback from editors.
If you have no idea where to start, you’re in luck: successful people often share their criteria. For example, if you look into criteria for writing, Auden put out his criteria for major poets, Robert Caro shows some of his thought process in his book Working, and Mary Robinette provides feedback for editing articles. If you want to emulate Derek Sivers, he shows you how. The same with Paul Graham. You could also study any other writing you like, and learn how you can improve. The idea is to set your standards for quality, and then produce and release a lot of work that meets them.
It’s when you define these attributes that you’ll start to notice other people talking about how they define theirs too. For example, some people believe that counterintuition involves being provocative or obnoxious, but I’ve incorporated how Sivers phrases it: “My public writing is a counterpoint meant to complement the popular point.”
Criteria can be fluid; for me, they’re almost like rubrics, where I consider each of these factors, and I write down guiding questions to help me evaluate or test an idea. They also help me formulate the idea and position it. As a quality check, I then pitch these ideas out to professional editors to see if they resonate.
Prompt: Set the minimum bar for quality. Write down what passable work means to you.
Once you’ve defined what quality means to you, you can also define what is acceptable—the minimum standard you must meet to create something that you would give yourself a passable mark on. You want to pre-decide how to define something as acceptable. Not complete, certainly not perfect, but acceptable.
The most natural time to determine when something is acceptable is before you release it. You might double check to see if all the parts of your work pass your standard. In my line of work, writing, that means I’ll edit my draft three times before I send it to an editor. I check it for grammar, voice, tone, and flow. Similar to a factory line, though, it’s best to also add in other stages to check the work’s quality, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises at the end.
For example, I check if my idea is acceptable as a pitch, before I even write it up. Pitches for my articles are acceptable when I’ve explained to myself—and the reader—why the idea is well timed, what it means to society, what people may misunderstand about it, what people can take away from this story and apply into their lives, and how few people have covered it before. If the pitch fails in some sort of way (for example, if a lot of people have covered it before), the pitch does not pass, and it is not acceptable. I’m happy, as I didn’t need to spend time writing the entire story out only to realize this.
Creating acceptable ideas is a strategy that Dean Keith Simonton recommends. He writes in The Genius Checklist how the more attempts an artist or craftsperson makes, the more major works (or “hits”) they create. As a general rule, Simonton suggests that mass production of these ideas is a safer approach than focusing on a single idea and trying to make it perfect.
“Giving up on perfectionism doesn’t mean that you will not produce anything perfect, but rather that perfection will happen from time to time because of the sheer mass of output,” Simonton writes. Throughout their lives, some artists have made this prolific approach work. Famous examples include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 800 compositions, Pablo Picasso’s 20,000 drawings, and Vincent van Gogh’s 2,000 drawings as examples of this strategy.
There is an exception to this prompt, of course, as with all the others. Leonardo da Vinci is the most prominent example—he rarely completed any works because he didn’t want to make something acceptable; he wanted to make something perfect. “This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time,” biographer Walter Isaacson writes. One counterpoint could be that Da Vinci succeeded not because of this inability, but in spite of it. If he had tempered his fantasies with reality, his legacy may be even greater than it was today, and he may have left more work for us to appreciate.
When you choose to make something acceptable, rather than perfect, you reduce the expectations and ensuing pressure that could block your creativity. You complete your work, stay motivated, knowing another opportunity is just around the corner, which provides another chance to make something interesting.