Do the busy work. Do the calculations. Write it all out. Nobody is better than the busy work: it pays off and it's how you learn.
Years ago I ran a small business in my mid-20s, and one of the critical mistakes I made was getting hopelessly behind in our bookkeeping (and by hopelessly behind I mean it - things were going well and the bank account kept going up, so I kinda just piled the sales receipts on top of each other for close to a year).
When the company started to grow up, we had to get properly reconciled financial statements in order for our bank loans to be renewed. I hired what felt like an endless stream of contract bookkeepers and financial consultants who all had their own way of “doing it more simply” to try and avoid what at that point was probably 100 hours of busywork to reconcile all the credit card transactions.
They all failed. We just kept falling more and more behind and lost resolution on how the business was doing.
In the end, the ONLY thing that worked was when I found someone who understood this and just rolled his sleeves up and did the work. There simply was no way around it. No shortcuts. No way to intuit how your business was doing without knowing exactly how much each customer spent. And no way to do that without matching up each credit card transaction.
Do the work. Don’t try to find ways around doing it because it’s hard or rote or mind numbing. Do the work.
Turns out, everything I hated about QuickBooks for all these years centered around its inability to bulk-edit transactions or categorize/recategorize things en masse, leading to countless hours wasted clicking or, worse, those bulk journal entires to move things from one place to another (which forces you to follow a breadcrumb path of asset movements, which is a nightmare).
But when everything is just a list of things in a text file, you get the power of every great text editor on earth (vi, emacs, or whatever) and can make mass changes trivially. Life's much much much much better this way.
However the kind of work you’re discussing doesn’t match my understanding of “busywork”. Busywork means unnecessary work done to give the appearance of actual work. Busywork doesn’t produce much value beyond appearances.
The work you’re discussing is “the work”. It’s the underpinnings, the research, the practice, the artist’s sketchbook, the exploration, the learning. None of that is “busywork”. If anything, it’s the opposite. Much of it will look like busywork (i.e. bringing little value), yet actually producing the highest value in the long run.
That is one source. The time wasting can have several (non-exclusive) motivations, however:
* Important but not urgent work
* Creating the appearance of insufficient resources to prevent allocation of labor elsewhere
That last motivation also applies to self-assigning busywork, of course.
The "genius" perception hides all the hard work, false turns, recoveries, retries, .. busy work as you put it .. that's behind the core insights and discoveries.
Further to that, when Einstein worked in the patent office, it's likely that applications related to railroad time synchronization crossed his desk, inspiring his work on relativity.
I have been playing guitar for 28 years and barely improved in the past 15 years - after a teenage burst of disciplined, daily drills with metronome and recording a lot of music, I still regularly doodle and learn new songs, but it is just not enough to give me escape velocity from the current plateau.
As for guitar playing plateaus, I highly recommend embracing alternate tunings as a shortcut / forcing function for adopting "beginner's mind", re-engaging your ear and your curiosity, and discovering new peaks to ascend.
A few of my favorites:
- DADGAD (Black Mountain Side)
- DADF#AD (Little Martha)
- DGDGBE (Open G6)
- CACGCE (Bron Yr Aur)
- CGCGCD (Rain Song)
I remember that film; Glen Hansard's absurdly beat-up guitar (with effectively a second, larger soundhole) even featured in Fretboard Journal. "Falling Slowly" is the song that got all the attention (which IMHO it deserved; gorgeous song and harmonies) but I'll go dig up "Gold" and give it a listen... thanks again! :)
For the first month ;-)
Consider it an experiment, for science ^^
There's a ton of work behind the genius. There's no "apple on the head" story, almost never.
That seemed to have intriguing potential as an educational story.
But it felt odd. Briefly googling suggests optical polishing compound grains are almost all 1+ um. But maybe that <1 um tail is key? This shows larger grains, with a tail growing over hours. But lens roughness is already at ~1 nm without the tail, and the growing tail only slightly improves that. On the other hand, perhaps sub-um fragments from the hydrated damaged surface are being entrained by the lap pitch or wax or slurry? Don't know. But it seems a half-lambda grain-size story has difficulties.
Oh well. :) Thank you for this. I wish I could find an online community interested in crafting improved stories for teaching science and engineering. My in-person ones... covided. :/
 eg, for plastic lenses, https://secureservercdn.net/126.96.36.199/i1r.357.myftpuploa... from http://www.gkci.com/opthalmic/ready-to-use-plastic-lens-poli... .
 page 7 of https://www.osapublishing.org/oe/fulltext.cfm?uri=oe-16-14-1...
You can find this inspiring story, and many, many others, on Feynman lectures on physics. I'm sure the stories as written by Feynman will be exact and true.
I would also say that this applies more broadly - that busy work is required in all parts of one's life. Deconstruct everything. Accept nothing. You will still learn, but you will recognise the assumptions and beliefs that you hold, and having recognised them you will also test for their truth.
I see 'busy work' as the root to a more valid personal epistemology; one that is based on personal use of the scientific method.
It might need some internet sleuthing to find it. I'll try later.
I do not think that it is surprising that practice improves skills though (well, except for people with an exceptionally fixed mindset ;).
(For today's lucky Ten Thousand, "fixed mindset" refers to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindset#Fixed_and_Growth_Minds... )
(For today's lucky Ten Thousand, "today's lucky Ten Thousand" refers to
> On the first day of the class, the ceramics teacher divided the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the class, he announced, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
> The works of highest quality, the most beautiful and creative designs, were all produced by the group graded for quantity.
If anyone has some kind of study or more concrete example, I'd love to hear about it.
I also think it's highly likely the anecdote is supposed to be illustrative rather than literal. IMO it's meant to be advice to students not to fret about how perfect their work is and that with time it will improve. It's just been distorted by the "one quick hack" culture of self improvement.
If it is a made up anecdote, that would be rather misleading under a headline that says "science-backed".
The article argues that it's supported by data that focus on quantity leads to better quality than focus on quantity.
It doesn't argue that it's merely a compelling idea that we should try for ourselves.
Plan 9 and GNU Herd vs Linux.
Spring vs EJB.
Rest vs Soap vs CORBA.
C vs Algol.
It's easier to do something simple and iterate on it than to do something perfect from the start.
Rather the whole point here is that when learning it's better to focus on quantity over quality AND by doing so that quality will naturally be better. The parent is looking for examples of this latter idea.
But let's take the idea to the extreme, imagine we are building an system, one team starts building and improving on the design for 6 months. Other team builds and starts anew every 2 weeks. Who would have a better system at the end of 6 months? Tough to tell, the iterative one will probably build it from the ground in a better way with less technical debt but who will have a more complete system or more features.
I also think it's being misapplied when put into a completely different context. Teamwork, not students learning, project that is harder to start again and slower to iterate that way etc. I'm not sure we should consider every piece of advice as being some how completely universal.
We could also overthink it in the other direction. The students themselves could have come to the conclusion that the best way to get quality was lots of practice and made lots of pots or parts of pots until they had perfected pot making and merely presented the final result. Whereas the students that went for quantity merely made a load of crap pots. Same lesson but roles reversed.
Agreed. There's a lot of pedants on HN who have what I call "the Snopes illness."
This is basically agile vs waterfall.
Iterating on a project is definitely a great way to learn about it, refine how you make it and accrete complexity. So it can but doesn't necessarily have to encompass both ideas.
I also think that whilst it's tempting to stretch the anecdote to fit all sorts of ideas it's particularly unhelpful when trying to discuss the idea it actually references.
Perhaps it would be best to iterate fast early on in the project, throw away a couple of weeks with PoCs and then go for the big one.
EDIT: Ah, you mean the order is different :)
And it can work well:
- Git (not the later additions)
But this thought experiment doesn't tell you what works, as either outcome is quite compelling and plausible. So it's not much use as a thought experiment, other than to show that it might be interesting to study it in the real world.
I.e. it might be "obvious" to you that focus on quantity over quality leads to better quality as assessed by another in the thought experiment. But it might be equally "obvious" to someone else the other way.
A real study would be interesting, because there might be a real world consistent pattern. It might actually be useful to know which one works best for real.
Also since this human behaviour we talking about here. Experimental Psychology is a field known for its credibility crisis, its inconsistent and possible non-reproduceable results, that I have not much faith in it to give us useful insights, and I would be more interested in hearing many of those matters addressed from a purely theoretic point of view, than through conclusions from dubious experimental data.
In this case, when I do the thought experiment, my mind runs both possibilities and concludes they are both plausible and compelling.
When I do the thought meta-experiment of imagining other people doing the thought experiment, it sees some people imagining one outcome is compelling and likely, and other people imagining the other outcome is compelling and likely.
I'm not sure what useful theoretical point of view you would draw from that, with regard to this particular experiment.
Of course, the idea that you need practice to be good at things is obvious. But first, that's not quite the claim in the anecdote, which is about being told to aim for high quality. In any case, the vivid anecdote would be better off if people were clear that it's a hypothetical.
> It might need some internet sleuthing to find it. I'll try later.
The earliest reference I am aware of is the 1985 book "Art and Fear", at the beginning of the section on perfection:
The book doesn't have footnotes or a bibliography, unfortunately.
I think people take away only part of the lesson from this anecdote, and miss the implication that, since getting an "A" was trivial for the "grade by quantity" group, students were not just encouraged to practice, but were also free to experiment without fear of failure (after all, they could easily make up any shortfall by firing a few unworked lumps of clay to get to 50 lbs).
But I wish we had data on the number of students, distribution of grades, number of pieces each student made, etc. because it should be obvious that we can't extrapolate too much from the fact that some data points on the "high quality" end of the distribution were all from one group. The three best? Ten best? The best half? What was the size of the class anyway? Did anyone try to game the system by just firing 50 one-pound lumps?
In some sense, this is a bit like evaluating software based on SLOC, and we all know how that ends up.
It should also be obvious that none of the students had any particular incentive to explore the "delicate" end of the possible artistic design space, although at least the "quantity" group wasn't penalized for doing so. So, if no students cottoned on to the "50 1-pound lumps" hack, I would expect to see coffee mugs rather than teacups in their work.
Searching Google Scholar for older publications on the topic of quantity vs. quality did not turn up anything useful either. Looks like we are out of luck here.
The shorter poses don't let you put in any detail but you learn how to quickly express gesture and delineate important masses and shadow.
For 5 minutes poses you're essentially practicing the first 5 minutes of a drawing intentionally without intending to finish it.
It's essentially a similar idea.
The analogy of being graded on quantity in an art class tends to make me imagine I'd just line up a ton of canvases and slop paint on them all at once to be the top of the class, or create pots in only their crudest acceptable form.
That is, quantity does not lead to quality by itself. The student must be trying to learn something new with each new piece. Quantity iterates the feedback loop. The student still must be able to identify mistakes or areas where improvement is needed. Doing that means paying attention to quality.
So it's not really about ignoring quantity or quality for the sake of the other, but finding a good balance.
"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."
As a creative person (UX designer, cartoonist, painter), I have experienced this throughout my life, especially in drawing. As a kid I drew constantly, in school, at home, everywhere. All through my life I drew and drew. If quantity was all it took, I would be a master. But I am not. I still can't draw bodies and poses and Im not consistent at all.
Quantity gets you to learn quickly to a point where you platou. I've seen this in my painting, games, and even work.
You need to pause and start thinking about what you are doing, what each part means, how it works together, coming up with what you are doing wrong, what is right, and practice that. You still need to put in more work but its a dance of pause, think, do, repeat.
I observed it myself with a lot of things, esp. when it comes to learning an instrument over the course of almost 2 decades (piano specifically, in my scenario). Sure, you can pick a few notesheets and keep practicing the entirety of them from start to finish at full speed over and over. However, the process will be extremely non-efficient and will make you take much longer to learn the song, and it won't make you take away as many lessons from it that are unrelated to that song specifically (i.e., those "unrelated" things that make you a better piano player overall).
Instead, you need to be mindful of what specifically goes wrong, what goes right, and target practice those problem points specifically. Let's say you have a few bars with a syncopated rhythm in a song you are learning, and you are struggling with that section specifically, you nailed the entirety of the song otherwise. Instead of just keeping playing that entire song over and over, you should practice just those few syncopated bars by themselves at a very very slow pace with a metronome. It will feel very awkward at first and give you a feeling that you aren't progressing much. Then you start incorporating that small problematic section into the entirety of the song. Then you speed up the tempo on that specific section and practice it at that tempo over and over. If the problem is in your left hand, you practice the left hand by itself first, then graduate to both hands. Then you try to incorporate it at a higher tempo into the rest of the song.
The whole process of that sounds very tedious and painful, but mostly because it actually is. However, it will lead to much better results. Not only you will learn this specific piece much quicker using such a methodical approach, you will perform it much better and way more consistently at the end. You end up dissecting that problematic point so much, whenever you see syncopated bars in the future in completely different music pieces, you will have much less problem with them. Which will allow you to spend more time improving other aspects of your play or learn other techniques. All of that learned knowledge ends up snowballing and compounding so much, over the course of a few years you end up massively outperforming someone who just blindly kept practicing pieces over and over from start to finish until they got them right.
I don't believe there is such a thing in real life as "perfect" piano practice either. Everyone has different needs in different areas of piano that they would need different approaches to overcome. That original post of mine just described a basic core idea that should be a solid guideline for getting more efficient at it, but without specific details and choices each one would make. If this was all there is to it, then piano instructors would be obsolete, and they are far from. Even top tier pianists occasionally take lessons from others.
Compared to other skill-learning experiences that require practice that I had, I don't think piano is in its own separate category, it is very similar to pretty much everything else. I simply picked it because piano makes it easier to illustrate that principle to the general audience. Same thing can be said about sports, visual arts, etc., anything that requires work through repetition, heavy knowledge/experience, and is heavily-reliable on manual execution with a very high (nearly infinite) skill-ceiling (i.e., not something like writing software where knowledge is about 95% of the work, execution is about 5%, since execution is literally just typing and knowing your IDE shortcuts, both of which have a fairly low skill ceiling).
“A novice practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”
It reminded me, at the time, of the great drummer Neil Peart who has since passed away. I saw a video of him practicing and possibly performing doing a solo and as he was doing a fill down the drums I barely noticed he had broken a stick in the middle of his drum fill and replaced the stick with a missing one. I was so in awe I had to rewatch that part. To him even something as rare as breaking a stick was prepared for and second nature for him to react to. It just amazed me the practice he had had to make that possible. They call this man the human metronome for a reason he would almost quite literally never miss a beat.
>Whatever you do, do the best you can, because the film lives forever. No, "because that day it was raining and the actor don't have time."
>I said, "would you go to every theater and tell the audience?" No! The audience sits in the theater: good movie? Bad movie? That's all.
And he practiced what he preached, sometimes going through hundreds of takes to get a stunt just right.
Typically for films the shooting portion takes only a few weeks to finish, so lots of retakes = money lost. Jackie Chan does a lot of random flourishes in his films that end up with him needing a lot of takes. For example, how he scales fences. 
The way he scales the castle wall in Wheels on Meals (1984) is probably my favorite example.
The obvious issue here, is that the process becomes so important, that people forget about the output; which is really the only thing that customers care about.
So balance, is, indeed, critical.
1. Writing more code (and being conscious of it) makes you a better engineer. You'll run into more issues that you will fix and, hopefully, remember.
2. If you'd take the art example and say "Paint 20 cubist pieces", and then transfer that to "Write 20 authentication servers", each iteration you'll benefit from what you learned and be able to 'clean up' the code. It's essentially writing 20 PoCs where each PoC improves on the last one.
EDIT: Writing more versions also allows you to explore more ideas without fear. If you have to write "one good version" you'll be less prone to exploring 'exotic' ideas. So you'd benefit from that as well.
Don’t get hung up on some big new MMORPG game you’ve got in your head. Just start by making Pong, then Space Invaders, then Pac-Man. Then make a dozen small prototypes of your own ideas, each time based on what you’ve learned.
You get practical development experience but more importantly, you learn that iterating and experimenting is where good ideas come from and where bad ideas are discarded.
Of course, I appreciate concise writing and if it were 100 unedited rambling pages it would never be posted on HN or read by anyone. But admitting that seems to be antithetical to the entire point of the blogpost. It just seems like the article doesn't even believe in the idea. It also feels like there wasn't a whole lot of thought put into the post, and I guess that's evidenced by the fact that the art class anecdote doesn't have a source.
The blogpost also ignores all of the issues related to being prolific. Imagine a would-be-weightlifter who has awful form, but does a ton of reps. Not only is their exercise near worthless, it could be potentially dangerous. Or in music, where you could accidentally continually practice a bad habit instead of taking the time to find a mentor and learn how to practice correctly. In software, you could potentially produce something that is buggy and insecure by default. If the code were then included as a dependency in larger projects it could be a cause for a security disaster. I think there's more to high-quality work/practice than just doing it more often, even if that ends up being the most important part of getting good at something.
I do agree with your latter points about bad practise. I think this works best for forms of output where bad work has relatively little downside for the individual. It's harder to get bad habits that dampen your growth in things like writing, art etc and so this system works great for those types of activity. Maybe a good way to think about it is that you need a base level of skill to then improve. In writing most folk will have the base skills from school (spelling, grammar etc), whereas in software you first need to learn the basics (syntax, high level incepts like classes and functions, debugging etc) and then this theory will work for you.
The author's point is about developing a skill, not about creating a specific piece of work.
Even if it were about creating a specific item, there may be 100 pages that the author wrote but didn't publish. The point wasn't to share all of one's work, but to do a substantial amount of work and also to share work that can garner good feedback.
Being prolific isn't the same thing as doing a lot of repetitions. "Prolific" refers to a quantity of creative works. The weightlifting and musician examples aren't apt, any more than saying "don't be a prolific author because there's a high risk you'll slouch in your computer chair when you're doing all that writing." Ergonomics are orthogonal to exercising one's creativity.
"Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect."
But we're probably splitting hairs that a reasonable person would understand don't need splitting by looking at the whole piece, which can be boiled down to: "Make lots and seek feedback more."
In the blog analogy he could write 100k words and throw them away. They were for getting good. Then write 200 words for a blog post that gets published. Don’t publish the first 100k.
Or poker for example, play 100k hands at tiny stakes before moving up to higher stakes.
The weightlifter example is a good point. Some disciplines need education in addition to just practicing.
It could also be some sort of operation where artificially generated content and comments are put out to try to train an AI further or try to probe reactionary sentiment over specific key issues.
But that's as much intellectual gratification I'll self-administer momentarily.
His advice had more to do with enjoying the process instead of stressing about the end goal, which I quite liked.
In the context of software, I think that being prolific is certainly key, but it also helps to study the masters. I've learnt some pretty cool lessons reading the source code of popular OSS applications for example.
Is it worth doing 100 reps in the gym if they're all with bad form? It's better to solve the same problem in 5 ways or 5 different problems once?
I think that's the real message here. Be prolific in activities that can teach you something useful. Just pumping out a load of garbage won't help you any more than practicing bad shooting form will make you a good basketball player.
Nobody has ever just suddenly become good at something with 0 practice. Usually, there's a strong correlation between time spent on something and expertise.
If the discussion is about quality vs. quantity, then this is a strawman. You can make a 100 shallow todo list apps, and they'll all be worse than one you focus on and polish over time. That story about the art class is most likely not true and most likely not applicable to other examples. But maybe part of that polish is experimenting with smaller prototypes.
The point is to always use advice like this as a principle and not a singular source of truth.
I've painted more this month than I have the rest of my life combined and I've learned so much.
Also self-promotion say what? instagram.com/amtunlimited
It's hard to describe it, but in many areas you will find there's a level where you know where you're going wrong, or where you need external help, and generally whether you are on the right path.
Before you reach that level you will just fumble around forever. I'm pretty sure I could play a lot of silly piano tunes without getting anywhere, since I have no experience at all in that field.
There truly is an unfathomable amount of things you can do wrong and you literally could spend your entire life trying something and still suck. It wasn’t until I understood the basics well enough that I could meaningful make progress towards getting better (at cooking but also coding) or even understand what getting better meant.
Trying to get better at something by just doing it a lot is like brute forcing RSA encryption: talent, intuition, or inspiration about how to get better acts as a quantum computer speed up.
Or to put it more plainly: practice only makes perfect if you know what perfect is.
It's a rather fuzzy and abstract philosophical notion and any attempts for an absolute framing of "the one single truth" are flawed.
>Do you stay focused on one subject, iterating multiple times over the result, in order to achieve incremental improvements?
>Do you explore a wide breadth of problems, giving you new perspectives on thinking about the problem at hand?
>Do you churn out mindless crap just for the sake of it?
I just like to churn out mindless crap when it's absolutely required.
This is what takes up most of many people's time.
You're going to have to churn out some mindless crap anyway, so when you do things for the sake of it try your very best to make it non-mindless for a change.
Sometimes the mindless, or the crap, or the stuff for the sake of it can be the glue that binds all efforts in a way that they are always moving forward together though.
There’s a story about an art teacher that split their class
in half. They told one half of the students that they’d be
graded based on a single piece of work, and the other half
that they would be graded on the quantity of work produced.
(I don't disagree with the premise, I'm just curious about its basis)
More importantly, I’m constantly writing different stuff. I write about that here: https://medium.com/chrismarshallny/thats-not-what-ships-are-...
The iteration definitely helps me to be a better engineer. Also, pretty much every day, I start off with an issue ahead of me that I’m afraid of, and am not sure how to solve.
I often have several problems solved by 7AM.
Quantity is great, unless you are trying to change a paradigm. Iterative learning gets you trapped in local minima, so be sure to aim for quality once in a while.
I would also not take that “experiment” that seriously, because the requirements where obviously different, each class optimized as needed. “Quality” is an abstract concept, and most of the time you are better of saving the time than spending it on “Quality”.
Aim to write one story a week. That gives you 52 stories a year, and I dare you to write 52 bad ones.
If the system of incentives is preventing researchers from promising-but-still-risky lines of research, that's still a problem.
If it's steering researchers away from meaningful research that won't produce anything publishable for a while, in favour of uninteresting variations on a common theme that reliably result in publications, that's still a problem too.
It also incentivises salami slicing,  which may result in scientific busywork.
(Disclaimer: I'm not an academic.)
If you make a bunch of art but don’t try to make it quality, you’ll grow very little.
You need to try hard many times and fail, then you get to mastery and quality.
There is no art teacher that did this. I wish we could find real examples instead of this fake one.