We all have goals that are important to us. But is it our drive to achieve a certain outcome that makes us better? Or something else entirely?
In the book Art & Fear (audiobook), authors David Bayles and Ted Orland share a surprising story about a ceramics teacher. This story just might reframe the way you think about setting goals, making progress, and becoming better at the things that are important to you.
Here’s what happened…
The ceramics teacher announced 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 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, grading time came and 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 around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Start With Repetitions, Not Goals
It’s not just art studios where repetitions matter. Whenever you put in consistent work and learn from your mistakes, incredible progress is the result.
This is why I force myself to write a new article every Monday and Thursday. I can’t predict which articles will be useful, but I know that if I write two per week, then sometimes I’ll hit the bullseye.
And it works the same way with almost any goal you could have…
Art. If you want to be a great photographer, you could go on a quest to take one perfect photo each day. Or you could take 100 photos per day, learn from your mistakes, and hone your craft.
Strength. If you want to be stronger, you could analyze every movement and phase of your technique until you’re blue in the face. Or, you could get under the bar, learn from your mistakes, and focus on doing more reps.
Writing. If you want to write a best-selling book, then you could spend 10 years trying to write one perfect book. Or, you could write one book each year, learn from your mistakes, and trust that your books will get better each time.
Business. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you could scheme and think and try to plan out the perfect business idea. Or, you could try to get one customer, learn from your mistakes, and experiment with new ideas until something comes easily.
It’s not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes you better, it’s the skills you develop from doing a volume of work.
In other words, when you think about your goals, don’t just consider the outcome you want. Focus on the repetitions that lead to that place. Focus on the piles of work that come before the success. Focus on the hundreds of ceramic pots that come before the masterpiece.
Put in Your Reps
When you look at goals this way, you start to realize that setting up a system for putting your reps in is more important than choosing a goal.
Everyone wants to make progress. And there is only one way to do it: put in your reps.
The goal is just an event — something that you can’t totally control or predict. But the reps are what can make the event happen. If you ignore the outcomes and focus only on the repetitions, you’ll still get results. If you ignore the goals and build habits instead, the outcomes will be there anyway.
Forget about the goals this year. What is your plan for getting in the reps you need? What is your schedule for putting in a volume of work on the things that are important to you?1
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Thanks to Dan John for inspiring this post.