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There’s this great story from the book “Art and Fear”, that's very appropriate here:


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: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 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.


Advance congratulations to Jennifer. This is amazing.

This is a great reason to do what is often frowned upon by us high achieving Hacker Newsers: get a job.

I have worked on so many projects in so many jobs that I lost track long ago. But it's always been the same: Get it done, good enough, on time! At first, I was always frustrated that I wasn't delivering product up to my own standards. But a funny thing happens when you do that hundreds (or thousands) of times: You get so good from sheer repetition that "good enough" morphs into "pretty damn good".

Don't be afraid to take what appears to be a boring, repetitious, or demeaning job. You never know what you might become.

Thanks for the great story, Derek!

And thanks for the great post and project, Jennifer. You inspire me.

Thanks, I've been feeling like what I've been doing lately just isn't up to snuff, and have been getting frustrated. I think this will help change my perspective.

I took a really boring job, and it was a terrible experience but I came away with 2 lessons 1. python can be just as terrible or worse than java when written by ex-java programmers 2. I can now understand and read some seriously scary large and ridiculously bloated code bases - which is a valuable and painfully learned skill.

That's very helpful, Ed. I recently started a new job, and I've been frustrated that my work output isn't 'perfect' yet. I rationally know that I just need to keep my head down and churn through assignments over time, but it helps to hear that from someone else, too.

Rather than a poster, check out the original source[0], I find Ira Glass' delivery more relatable.

[0] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI23U7U2aUY

Quoth Ira Glass. I wish whoever made that had attributed it - Ira certainly deserves it.


Ever consider setting up a freelancing profile on oDesk or Guru or wherever, and getting paid to do interesting, challenging, different kinds of work of your own selection (more or less)?

Depending on the definition of "getting paid", it's better to do it on the own time for free than bothering with oDesk or Guru if you are located in a developed country.

Have you tried finding some productive use for your downtime?

Practice makes perfect. It's a tired adage, but it's absolutely true.

True if you know what perfection is (be sure to have some guidance, mentors, etc)...

Otherwise practice makes permanent in many cases. Just hope you're doing whatever it is right.

True, for sure.

But then perfect is the enemy of good, which for anyone doing software should remember.

Until a customer or someone important actually cares about that 2px off CSS, that refactor you want to do, or your caching/performance numbers, just don't do it. Wait till someone asks and then get after it.

I love how OP put her work out there to prove her wide array of skills, or more important, her ability to learn random skills. Who else has put out 180 sites for public review?


I agree - but I don't think the statement semantically means perfection. It really means "practice makes greatness." Perfect just has a P.

Yes, you said it much more succinctly than I did.

Only if you are making an active effort to improve yourself.

Thank you Ed, you have not idea how I needed those words right now.

I'd agree and add to that: go work in sales for a while. Pitching and selling becomes second nature :)

I like the story very much!

And that's a great project, Jennifer.

Perfect practice makes perfect!

I believe in "just do it" and worry about the details later.

However, on the internet, there is a worship of "hard work" that strikes me as emotional more than real.

Hard work is 1/2 of the equation.

The other part is your wiring: intelligence, skill, etc.

Not everyone can do everything.

We can dumb down any task to the point where anyone can do it... but at that point, it's a bubble waiting to pop.

Hard work is half of what equation?

Is the equation 'success in life as measured against everyone else,' or is the equation 'success in life as measure against yourself'? If the question is the latter--which is the only question a person should care about--then hard work is very close to 100%. This isn't an emotional claim, it's a rational and evidence based claim.

The reason that there is a rightful reverence to hard work is because working hard is the variable we can change. Not only that, it's guaranteed to produce results. If you intentionally build 180 web sites in 180 days, you will get better. You may not get better than someone more intelligent, but you can't be that person, you can only be who you are.

Not everyone can be everything, but anyone who does nothing will be nothing.

>>Hard work is half of what equation?

I'd say the full equation is to find a worthwhile goal to work hard on. While learning, the 'How to build 180 websites' goal works fine.

Hard work is fruitful only when applied in the right direction. Work 16 hrs/day in a large corporate and all you will get is some middle manager taking credit for all your work, grabbing all the milk and honey for himself and throwing some peanuts at you along the way.

If you are good, find a lofty goal, which is in your best interest and work on that.

> "If the question is the latter--which is the only question a person should care about--then hard work is very close to 100%.

'Success in life as a measure against yourself' is only a part of the consideration, though. Another part is 'Should I be doing this?'

You allude to this in your discussion but don't come out and say it, which is why 'success [sans the "in life" bit] as measured against everyone else' is an important question as well.

After n units of hard work, how much closer will I get to that someone more intelligent than I? Close enough to be competitive, or simply closer to my potential? Is my optimum potential competitive against my peers? If the effort is to be more than a hobby, the answer to that question (borne from the first of your two potential equations) is the key to deciding if the hard work is a variable we _should_ change.

In the case of that first equation/gate check, might wisdom and intelligence be the weightier reagent?

> "Another part is 'Should I be doing this?'"

Absolutely. I intentionally alluded to this but didn't enter into that discussion because I didn't want to draw from the point I was making, but it's just as valuable of a discussion to have.

> "Is my optimum potential competitive against my peers?"

I would say that your peers could only reasonably be defined as those people who have the same upper-bound of potential (optimum potential) as you. I'm not in the same optimum potential league as John Resig; both because I haven't worked as hard as he has up to this point (focused in the right areas) and because I don't have the same optimum potential (I would imagine). He and I are not peers in this sense, despite being peers across many other areas.

But if I interpreted the question of my success in terms of my self or my peers through the filter of that fact, I would do myself a great disservice. I can't live the life where he and I are peers and I can make changes in my life to compete with him. I can live in the life where I can make changes in my life that will affect my success compared to people in the same optimum potential as I am.

Besides that, despite the differences in optimum potential, I may still be able to reach the level he is at now after, say, twice as much work. In other words, his level is not unobtainable for me, I just have a lot further to run in the race.

And I, for one, welcome that challenge. Anyway, great point, thanks for making it!

Better is potentially a difficult term when you're only judging against yourself. Especially with forms of art, where our appreciation of beauty is going to be informed by social standards. When we start talking about better and worse, then we're inviting a general standard into the discussion. After which the question might go something like: To push themselves and at the end of the day just be a bad web designer (or whatever). Is this what people really want to get out of effort?

Doesn't that seem kinda sad to imagine?

Maybe that's another variable people can change: If they can identify the similarities amongst what they enjoy doing, then they can form more abstract goals that can be satisfied by multiple approaches. If they've done that, then the ability to recognise their relative strengths and weaknesses becomes more important again.

Also context is important: the hard work of the poor guy in Mozambique can make an infinitesimal part of his alter ego in US.

But it could mean the difference between life and death.

> Is the equation 'success in life as measured against everyone else,' or is the equation 'success in life as measure against yourself'? If the question is the latter--which is the only question a person should care about--then hard work is very close to 100%. This isn't an emotional claim, it's a rational and evidence based claim.

I can't agree here. Success is measured in terms of what you accomplish, and that's not solely a personal measurement. Life is not subjective.

Then again, success isn't entirely external either.

However, I can't agree with the notion that "hard work" (a conveniently vague term) is 100% of anything. If it is, that means the work is robot-work.

More likely, it's a lot of careful thought, applied by the amount of work required to make the idea come into reality, and then the missing "fourth wall" of creation, which is: is it actually useful?

I feel like we have an equal problem of thinking of intelligence and skill as immutable constants. I think of both as a muscle, the more I exercise them the better they become. While I realize that everyone starts with certain advantages if you find something you enjoy or want to do and you work hard at it, you will be successful.

I like the muscle analogy. If Mozart had languished and not applied himself, he never would have been a great composer. But not everyone can be Mozart.

One of my first jobs out of highschool was as a cad drafter for an architecture firm. As the low kid on the totem-pole, I was given the tasks that were not liked by the architects: drawing detail sheets and reproducing blueprints. -- both tasks were highly repetative.

I took both as opportunities to find a meditative cadence to the work. I actually really enjoyed the rhythm of taking plots of large 30x42 inch drawings, marrying them with a blueprint sheet and sending it through the machine. The room was rather small - so you had to pickup a sheet, flip it over, rotate it, stack them, rotate the pair and feed it to the machine. It became a beautiful meditation in movement and was really enjoyable.

With details - I had to draw so many and build so many of the same sheets - I became exceedingly proficient and soon was an exceptionally fast cad drafter...

There is a lot one can learn through mass repetition especially if you do so with the right frame of mind - and not lament the task.

I've definitely had that moment before through repetition, in a rather unlikely subject: manually doing Fourier Transform integrals.

Is this something you could teach me?

Oh my goodness -- you too?!

I spent many a summer day matching blue paper against printed sheets and the occasional Mylar! I found the same zone you're talking about.

Except ... did you ever get a paper cut and then reach over the ammonia fumes coming out the back? :-P

Ah I remember the joys sharing the basement with our printing section though a dyline printers fumes did wonders for cutting through a heavy head cold.

Only down side is they kept flooding the basement having tide marks on you computer rooms walls is not ideal :-)

I really liked your take on viewing a repetitive task as a way to improve and relax.

Another nice thing about a repetitive task is that it is perfectly predictable. You know exactly how long you should take because you've done it before and can expect very few surprises.

Much unlike any sort of difficult debugging or implementation which can be unpredictable, although enjoyable.

> 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.

I find this story very suspicious.

Even theorists like to apply their work and prototype.

It sounds more like they were scared into inaction by the grade-weight, which is something I've seen in classes where one test determines the grade for the whole semester.

"It sounds more like they were scared into inaction by the grade-weight, which is something I've seen in classes where one test determines the grade for the whole semester."

I would love some deeper insight into this, do you have any sources? Thanks.

Other than personal observation, no, I'm afraid. I doubt there is any (greater than zero) interest in researching this topic, especially since most of us get nostalgic for any type of system if we've succeeded in it.

However, having gone through a number of competitive schools at different levels of education... the smartest kids were not always at the head of the class. There were also people of moderate to high intelligence who suffered huge test-taking anxiety, which got worse when you had a situation where one test or one project determined the semester's grade.

It's kind of like your first driver's test to get your license at sixteen. Sometimes the stress was so much that people fainted while waiting in line.

This has been my experience, too. If you looked at the makeup of the top 10 students in my high school class, you'd find it composed of about 50% raw intelligence and 50% hard work. There is absolutely no question that there were a couple handfuls of super-smart folks who graduated nowhere near the top of the class (but still in the upper quartile, generally because doing worse than that is pretty tough if you're reasonably intelligent), but the consistent effort at producing quality output by the hard workers earned them top marks. Not surprisingly to anyone, this cohort tended to perform better at university, where independent study is more critical to success, and (afaik) they're all doing great professionally. Of those top ten, the hard workers are mostly doctors now and the geniuses are mostly STEM professionals.

Of course, this is a tiny sample size and there are all kinds of biases, so take it as it is -- a personal anecdote.

I'd agree there but with a couple of caveats.

First, I went to a type of magnet school, so it was more difficult and required more initiative than most colleges.

The top tier of students were probably about 50-50 intelligence and labor, but it wasn't "hard" work per se so much as diligence. Leave no stone unturned and spend a lot of time on repetition.

On the other hand, I did know a number of highly intelligent people who were at the bottom of the class. The phrase "not engaged" comes to mind. These are 50-50 hackers and liberal arts academes at this point.

Is your disclaimer licensed under the GPL? The same disclaimer applies to my narrative here.

Completely implausible, unverifiable anecdote obviously chosen to favor a conclusion -> "WOW! How insightful."

"Hey, that doesn't match my experience." -> "Sources. Now."

There's no way the story is true because I'm sure that at least a few of the "quantity" people would have my thought and just take 50 pounds of clay and call it done.

This is the reason why a) I let myself off the hook for work that had to be rushed and isn't quite perfect when it ships, and B) why I'm not so goddamn critical of other people's work.

Most of us are works in progress, doing the best we can, iterating and making mistakes all the way through, but gradually and incrementally improving. This need to be perfect all the time is a neurosis that our society needs to lose because it results in us being perfect never.

We -- as a huge generalization -- also need to get better at asking for help. :-)

I think that your story is very interesting. Essentially, producing volume is the same as iterating on the same product over and over; only starting the iteration from scratch.

One thing I would like to point out, however, is that there exists a difference between the set of websites that can be built in a day and the set of websites which cannot. For example, websites which require back-end technologies generally fall into the latter category. The skills learned in perfecting the former are somewhat different than the skills necessary for the latter. I would encourage Jennifer to take some time after this and explore the second category to further her abilities.

I totally agree. This project is meant to be a jumping off point for learning to code. On day 180 I certainly won't be an expert at anything, but I'll have the tools I need to keep exploring.

>chacham15: For example, websites which require back-end technologies generally fall into the latter category. The skills learned in perfecting the former are somewhat different than the skills necessary for the latter.

The funny thing is you already knows unbelievable amount of backend code for a beginner. (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6099489)

Did you see her initial commit?[0] It's the default Rails app. Any tech-savvy person can throw that up on github in a day if they know nothing about it. The next time she changes the app/ directory, where all the actual Ruby code goes, is two months later.[1]

Absolutely nothing she's said has given the impression she is trying to mislead.

[0]: https://github.com/jendewalt/jennifer_dewalt/tree/258e91c40f...

[1]: https://github.com/jendewalt/jennifer_dewalt/commit/c0d02c8c...

I'm taking this approach with my wood-working: http://jeffrey.io/finishing-things

Oh wow, I love that story! Thanks for sharing.

I remember listening to Ira Glass talk about how terrible he was as a storyteller when he first started, and how the only reason why he got better was because of the real basic idea of keeping at it and increasing his volume of work.

Reminds me of a quote I really liked from a Macklemore song:

"The greats weren't great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great cause they paint a lot."

Is this the Art and Fear book you're referencing? I searched Amazon and found a few.


Yep. That's the one. Here are my notes on it: http://sivers.org/book/ArtAndFear

Excellent thank you, just added to my Amazon wish list and about to read through your notes.

While I love the message from the story, I feel the need to "hack it".

If I were in the "quantity" group, I would have just made one god-awful lump of clay object weighing 100lbs, then found other more interesting things to do for the rest of the class.

If you'd rather be doing something more interesting, why sign up for the class in the first place?

Beautiful story, but when think about the details it may misleading.

If the only object or the judgment criteria of the quantity way is quantity, and without any deliberate practice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practice_(learning_method)#Deli...) why the students finally not just only develop a way to produce high quantity product?

It's not the same way MacCready solve Henry Kremer's problem (http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/the-wrong-problem/), although looks similar.

That was a study. And I understand perfectly.

However. The typewriter factory output and productivity in the soviet union was also measured solely by weight. This did not fare so well. :-)

Thankfully this ceramics teacher didn't run an entire industry of a global superpower :-)

Two of the best screenwriting schools are USC and UCLA. The key difference between the two MFA programs (at least a few years ago) was that UCLA required you to write 4 screenplays and USC 1. The logic behind UCLA's requirement was that finishing screenplays is really hard. So many screenwriters have a pile of unfinished screenplays and some never finish any. You really need to get in the habit of finishing them. (Full disclosure: my source was my screenwriting prof who was a UCLA MFA.)

BTW, I read the same ceramics story in "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield (which I note came out a year later). Good book.

Well, the lesson I took away is that pottery students aren't smart enough to turn in 50 lb of unformed clay if that's all it takes to get the best grade.

(And that made-up anecdotes will take you pretty far.)

I have heard similar theories for this. It's also consistent with the 10,000 hours rule. Sometimes you have to do to learn and improve. The improvement is certainly evident here.

Exactly the anecdote that I thought of when I saw this project.

It also reminds me of Johnathan Coulton's breakout period - his Thing A Week project: http://www.jonathancoulton.com/category/thing-a-week/

Incidentally, this technique works. If you want to learn a creative skill, I'd argue it's about the best way to do it.

That's an awesome story. Kinda makes me want to get crack'n on things.

Wow! that's happened with me so many times. I'll start on a project and I'll always theorize all the best features, and then best technologies to use and I end up switching so many technologies and then going on a tangential curve to learn them, and then I eventually quit the project :(

I used to have this problem (and still do to some extent) but it's not impossible to improve. Pick an idea and commit to completing it in the way that you envisage it now, even if midway through you discover a new technology or better way to do it, stick to what you originally planned. There is always a better way to do something and if you allow yourself to be distracted by a "better" way of doing something midway through, you'll find midway through the "better" thing there's another new even better thing and the cycle will repeat. The best code isn't always perfect code, the best code is code that exists. You'll learn way more from a project if you work on it start to finish, even if it could have been built better. There's always Version 2.

Aka: don't repeat the mistakes of the Duke Nukem Forever team.

As for code, the best code is that which generates value (either for the creator in terms of learning or for the creator's customers). If the code doesn't generate value, then you might as well be writing FizzBuzz implementations all day.

"The best code isn't always perfect code, the best code is code that exists."

I totally agree to this one.

aka: you can't refactor code you haven't written yet.

Ditto. A common problem for me is starting a project, then becoming scared that I'll be inadequate, and not complete it properly. This causes me to give up on the project, and I lose out on any experience I might have got. Because I've failed to complete the project, I feel even WORSE going into the next one.

It's a vicious cycle.

Consider reading a book called "The Now Habit". The author discusses fear of success/failure and the inability to finish projects, and deems that these fears are what cause us to procrastinate. Then he provides a plan/approach/framework to overcome these fears.

Thanks for the book recommendation. Ordered this on Amazon.

This was my problem all growing up. I did well on the first exam, then fizzled out every exam after. I wouldn't study out of fear that I wouldn't do as well again.

Anyway, I'll check out the book thanks again!

If you want a quick overview:

Kindle notes and highlights https://kindle.amazon.com/work/the-now-habit-procrastination...

powerpoint presentation http://hashref.com/summaries/TheNowHabit.pdf

3 part youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63Si3Gb1WSg

I'd recommend Mindset by Carol Dweck. It discusses growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. It sounds quite pertinent for your fear of not doing as well again.

Thanks - ordered this as well. I've been on a self-help book binge. I shudder to think the ads I'll be seeing from google and amazon.

I second this book recommendation. I read it a few years ago and find myself referring back to it quite often for inspiration when I'm feeling unproductive and very procrastnaty.

i have the problem of starting a project, finishing up the "cool/interesting" aspect, and then letting it rot...


I have that problem to. I've found that the best motivator for finishing the boring parts is to have real users.

After receiving your 20th "I forgot my password" email, you're sure to build that reset-password feature.

Or you blind yourself to it and learn to just treat those tasks as one more excuse to not do the real stuff. I'm battling that at work: Many people see a flood of notifications etc. and disengage totally - if it's not causing a crisis, then clearly it does not need to be dealt with right away, and so it gets put aside if it's something boring.

I've forced myself to forgo almost all my mail filters and "consume" the raw stream of notification e-mails (thousands a day) and start each day with picking a few of the noisiest ones and addressing the root causes (and where possible doing so in a way that can be applied more broadly), but it's oh so tempting to just waste time on the superficial symptoms that are easy and quick to deal with individually, but will eat all my time if I let them.

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