This article is an excerpt from Atomic Habits.
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.
The Danger of Aiming for Perfection
On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.
Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on.
Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.
At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo. 1
It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”2
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?3
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of my book Atomic Habits. Read more here.
This story comes from page 29 of Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. In an email conversation with Orland on October 18, 2016, he explained the origins of the story. “Yes, the ‘ceramics story’ in ‘Art & Fear’ is indeed true, allowing for some literary license in the retelling. Its real-world origin was as a gambit employed by photographer Jerry Uelsmann to motivate his Beginning Photography students at the University of Florida. As retold in ‘Art & Fear’ it faithfully captures the scene as Jerry told it to me—except I replaced photography with ceramics as the medium being explored. Admittedly, it would’ve been easier to retain photography as the art medium being discussed, but David Bayles (co-author) & I are both photographers ourselves, and at the time we were consciously trying to broaden the range of media being referenced in the text. The intriguing thing to me is that it hardly matters what art form was invoked—the moral of the story appears to hold equally true straight across the whole art spectrum (and even outside the arts, for that matter).” Later in that same email, Orland said, “You have our permission to reprint the any or all of the ‘ceramics’ passage in your forthcoming book.” In the end, I settled on publishing an adapted version, which combines their telling of the ceramics story with facts from the original source of Uelsmann’s photography students. David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Santa Cruz, CA: Image Continuum Press, 1993), 29.
Voltaire, La Bégueule. Conte Moral (1772).
Thanks to Dan John for inspiring this post.