How to ImproveIt’s easier to follow a model than try to avoid mistakes.

Posted: Last updated:

I came across the following story, from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:[1]

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 the 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 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, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the 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.

But this is not a conventional take on how to train a skill. Most music teachers, for example, prioritize getting it right. Slow practice is a traditional technique for doing this, as suggested by this story about Mozart (from Ernest Dras’s book, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster):

The elder Mozart would place ten dried peas in his son’s left coat pocket, and for each successful attempt at a difficult passage, Mozart would move a single pea to his right pocket. When he failed on any piece, even if it was the tenth repetition, all the peas had to be placed back in his left pocket — Wolfgang had to begin anew. What usually happens when using this method is that the student slows down his tempo in order to play the passage perfectly.

The latest technology for skill improvement calls for not just slow, but deliberate practice.[2] Playing a piano piece 100% correctly, whether fast or slow, will not necessarily help you get to be a better piano player, no matter how many times you do it — if that piece happens to be within your current skill level. Instead, the advice is to select passages that are just outside your ability level, and practice them (slowly, if necessary) until you can do them correctly.

So there’s an apparent paradox. The pottery teacher’s experiment suggests that we can achieve better results by de-emphasizing quality. But slow or deliberate practice keeps quality front and center. How can both approaches be useful? Perhaps, is the pottery story apocryphal or just plain wrong?

A key question is what paralyzed the pottery “quality” group and prevented them from taking action. Why didn’t they make a pot, identify its flaws, make another to remedy the flaws, and so on? I can see two reasons why this group might have been inhibited. One, the students may not have been given a clear standard of success. The passage implied this by saying this group was “theorizing about perfection.” Two, they may have been intimidated by the possibility of a bad grade. While the “quantity” group knew for sure that they could get a good grade if they just cranked out a certain amount of work, the “quality” group was faced with the possibility of failing no matter how hard they tried.

Both of the theories of improvement — the “quantity” theory and the “slow/deliberate practice” theory — share (1) a clear standard of success and (2) ignoring, instead of punishing, bad results. (Even the Mozart pea technique doesn’t actually punish mistakes, unless you consider playing piano to be a punishment to begin with.) The common theme is moving toward success instead of moving away from failure. This may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, so bear with me.

An anonymous expert piano player, via the Study Hacks blog,[3] describes this in the music domain:

Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.

Another parallel exists in the way modern web rendering engines like React generally work. The framework maintains a model of the web page in memory, and when software or user input modifies this model, the framework analyzes the difference between the model and the actual page, and tweaks the web page to match the model. The framework doesn’t care how or why the web page might be “wrong” at any given moment, it just constantly moves toward the goal.

Quoting Ben Horowitz, from his post “The Most Difficult CEO SKill: Managing Your Own Psychology:”[4]

When they train racecar drivers, one of the first lessons is when you are going around a curve at 200 MPH, do not focus on the wall; focus on the road. If you focus on the wall, you will drive right into it. If you focus on the road, you will follow the road. Running a company is like that. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely capsize your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

Of course, it seems kind of important not to put your head in the sand and avoid thinking about possible pitfalls or dangers. Doing a post-mortem of a significant mistake can be useful. Tim Ferriss is enthusiastic about a process called “fear setting”[5], in which you take a good look at your fears so you can deconstruct them. The key word is focus. Horowitz’s advice hints that being preoccupied with mistakes can distract you from creating a clear enough vision of success.

Moreover, moving toward a model of success is a more direct use of energy than trying to prevent or fix a potentially unlimited number of possible mistakes.[6] It’s usually easier to do (emulate) something than to not do (avoid) something. (The a classic example: “don’t think of an elephant.”) We humans are natural mimics. Just observe how much easier it is to learn something by following a tutorial than by reading about it from first principles.

But it’s remarkable how tempting I find it to perseverate on mistakes. It’s like there’s a part of me that believes the exact opposite of this principle is true — like maybe the more I keep my errors front and center, the more virtuous I am, and better equipped I am to avoid them. It’s almost as if improvement is not the goal of this part of me. And I think it’s probably not. This will have to be the subject of another post.

1. In James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Clear tells another version of this story, in which the teacher is Jerry Uelsmann at the University of Florida and the experiment involves a film photography class. According to endnote 141 in Atomic Habits, Clear corresponded with Bayles and Orland and learned that this passage in Art & Fear was an adaptation of the Jerry Uelsmann story.
2. Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog has a series of articles on deliberate practice. Some highlights: “The Grandmaster in the Corner Office” | “If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong” | “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre
3. Excerpt from the Study Hacks blog post Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre
4. Ben Horowitz, The Most Difficult CEO SKill: Managing Your Own Psychology, Andreessen Horowitz blog (formerly Ben Horowitz’s personal blog), 2011
6. Wikipedia: Anna Karenina principle: Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina opens with the famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”