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Cave Dweller to Counsellor? Oh, the Stories We Tell!

Learning vs. knowing: Is one of my favorite #Success stories a lie?


In a recent email edition of "Tips from Tom's inbox" I shared another learning journey to correct my misunderstanding of the origins of one of my long-standing success mantras: "lots of pots." 

Lots of pots - based on image by Gaurav Gupta via Pixabay

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What I mean(t) by "lots of pots"

Before we get to the email that shocked me and led us here, some background. I first read the following story back in the early years of the millennium in Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"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 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 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."

For nearly two decades I have encapsulated the lessons I took from the story in the phrase "lots of pots." I use it to remind myself that my first draft, first dozen attempts — indeed all of my actions in this lifetime — will not be perfect.

And that's okay. More than okay, "lots of pots" is the path toward excellence.

Note that the ceramics teacher did not rate any of the pots as perfect, only as "the works of highest quality."

The converse lesson is just as important. Worrying about perfection before we even start will often prevent us from any meaningful achievement.

When I use the "lots of pots" phrase with clients and others, I usually have to retell the story to get my point across.


Have I been lying all these years?

Recently I got two emails that reinforced the message of lots of pots.

The first came from our long-time friend from our early blogging days, Phil Gerbyshak via LinkedIn with the subject line, Take the Imperfect Action. He wrote:

"Take the imperfect action and just get started. In time, with practice, you'll get better. And maybe, just maybe, you'll learn to like doing it."

All good there.

Then came an email from Derek Doepker, focusing on the converse lesson with the subject line, How "high standards" can keep you stuck (no online version found).

Given my tagline "Coaching help when you're stuck" I opened right away and found both comfort and confusion.

The comfort came from his support for my own messages on why we must embrace imperfection in our work. He wrote:

"Having 'high standards' can sometimes sabotage your performance. ... There’s a time and place to raise your standards and focus on quality. Particularly after you’ve gained experience. The lesson though is that putting extreme pressure on yourself can sometimes backfire. ... Remember, when you focus on repetition and progression rather than perfection, you often get better quality work as a nice side effect."

Again, his message aligns nicely with mine.

But when I read his summary of the story he used to illustrate, well, shock and confusion sum up my reaction. Citing James Clear, he told a very similar one to the ceramics teacher tale, but used a college photography professor and his class!

That can't be right, can it?

Of course, I searched immediately for the source and discovered this new version in an excerpt from Clear's book, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, posted on his blog.

The blog post is entitled, Why Trying to Be Perfect Won't Help You Achieve Your Goals (And What Will) and under the subheading "The Danger of Aiming for Perfection" he offered this telling:

"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."

Thankfully, Clear included a footnote/endnote to relieve my disorientation. I confess I'd always shared his apparent curiosity about whether the story was true, but he took the next logical step and contacted Ted Orland to find out. Here's what he (and now we) learned:

"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. ... In the end, [Clear] 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."

Ah, so I wasn't lying, just exercising literary license! 😁


What to do now?

Should I continue the use the ceramics class version, because I just love the handy "lots of pots" capsule?

Or maybe switch to Professor Uelsmann's photography class and change the capsule to "lots of shots"?

Two more notes:

One, the lessons from the story are not limited to beginning pottery or photography students. Just as importantly, no matter how experienced we become, no matter how we've excelled at something, we can always improve. And continuing to improve works best when we can maintain a "beginner's mind."

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few. ... The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind."

 — Shunryu Suzuki, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Another way of phrasing the lesson comes from a book we published back in our WME Books days, Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing, by Lee Thayer. He advised leaders to keep themselves – and everyone on their teams – in "learning mode" vs. "knowing mode." Learning mode, of course, means you don't already know how to make the perfect pot, take the perfect photo, or solve the next problem.

Knowing mode assumes there is one right answer and once you have it, you're done. Thayer calls knowing mode the driver of mediocrity, because "what you know is always an obstacle to what you could know ... what you need to know."

Learning mode allows you to focus on asking the next right question.

Two, the one element that has always lurked in the background of the story for me was the role of the teacher/professor. It seemed unlikely that he offered no input or feedback on the students' efforts all semester. For the students in the quality group, seemingly paralyzed in their efforts to analyze how to produce that perfect pot/photo, perhaps he gave them resource lists, showed them famous examples to emulate, and demonstrated his own techniques?

But for the quantity group, he would be able to give frequent, detailed feedback and suggestions on their own attempts. This kind of ongoing "coaching" would likely play just as important a role in their progress toward producing "the works of highest quality" as the sheer number of repetitions.

On that point, here's a quote that came in another email that same week (doncha love serendipity), this one from Marc Mawhinney of Natural Born Coaches, with the subject line, The best quote about coaching ever? (no online version found): 

"I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their full potential."

 — Bob Nardelli, former CEO of Home Depot

And more from the serendipity department, just before scheduling our newsletter version to send, I received James Clear's 3-2-1 newsletter for that week and thought, he might be casting a vote for the "lots of shots" version. In his "3 Ideas From Me" section: 

"Just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice.
The world is full of probabilities, not certainties.
Find a game where the probabilities favor you and keep taking shots."

Different meaning of "shots" I know, but maybe that flexiblity is a strength?

It allows us to expand our thinking from the literal story line of photography "shots" to sports metaphors (sorry, but I can't help myself):

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

— Wayne Gretsky

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career.
I've lost almost 300 games.
26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.
I've failed over and over and over again in my life.
And that is why I succeed."

— Michael Jordan

And on to the generic "give it your best shot." Lots of them.

Or just keep making "lots of pots."


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