The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Growth Matters: Focusing on Quality over Quantity? Maybe you shouldn't

Dwayne's picture

Growth Matters: Focusing on Quality over Quantity? Maybe you shouldn't

I received the following from a friend and I thought that it also applies to the Bread World too.


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Focusing on Quality over Quantity? Maybe you shouldn't


This post popped up on HackerNews which is pretty inspirational: "I'm learning to code by building 180 websites in 180 days. Today is day 115" (JenniferDewalt). But it was the first comment by Derek Sivers that is really resonating with me:

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.

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Dwayne (on my way to 50 pounds of good bread)


DavidEF's picture

Thanks for the perspective there, Dwayne! I've been cursed with an analytical, perfectionistic mind all my life that has, at times, kept me from acting, for fear of failing. My wife found a relevant quote a while back, and posted it on the wall over our computer desk. It says "Imperfect action is better than perfect procrastination." I'm learning to bake sourdough bread, and so far, I've counted all my loaves as failures in one way or another. But, thankfully, even my failures are better than the stuff from the grocery store bread aisle. I don't know if I'll ever reach 50 pounds of good bread, but hopefully, by the time I reach 50 pounds of bread, it will be good enough to also get an "A" in quality.

golgi70's picture

I like that.  I say to new bread bakers about shaping.  First you need to understand how to shape the loaf.  Once you've got that down you go for speed and in the end you'll have both quality and quantity. Otherwise they take too long trying to make each shape perfect and get less practice because they aren't going fast enough.  I was never sure that this was a sound approach but it was the approach I took when i learned to shape bread (on a production level of course) and worked for me.  Now I feel a bit more confident about it.  


dabrownman's picture

when I too ceramics in College everything i made turned out to be an ashtray,  I have to agree completely and have many examples to prove it but will use 2 here.  During the millennium in 1999 ( not 2000 as so many assumed) i decided to kill 3 birds with one stone.  I hadn't done any painting for 15 years.   My daughter was 8 and I wanted to teach her some painting techniques while restarting my paining as a hobby.  I also decided to document my millennium by doing a painting a day every day while I was out of town on business - to have something to do from 9 PM to 11 PM each night.   That's 4 paintings a week for 50 weeks that year.  There were a few rules; none could take longer than 2 hours from start to finish, all were the same size and all tempera on paper.  200 paintings later.... the last 16 were by far the best.

My 2nd example is bread baking,  For a year and a half, all documented on TFL,  I baked 150 different breads without nary a repeat and few of them were someone elses exact recipe - even though many were inspired by other bakers of all stripes and most of them TFL'ers.  Each bake was posted no matter how bad it was.  As a result,  my apprentice and I learned much about all kinds of different breads from all over the world.  We tried to  experience every facet of bread making a home baker can, did every baking technique that we ran across, personally trying them all out.   But the result is; now my breads are way, way better than they were or would have been if I had baked less, not tried out the techniques or baked without all the variety, with repeats and or baking the same bread until it was perfect.  It was much less boring as well.  There is no such thing as perfect.  No one, no matter how rich, can afford perfect.

It is so much better to have a idea and do it as well as you can, even if you fail miserably and you will fail miserably too if you are normal and want to be successful, rather than say I wish I would have done that instead of doing nothing where the only outcome is failure - every time.   Now if I could learn to slash.....and bake in my Pyrex mixing bowl like I learned here today.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring:-)  just say yes and do ...rather than say no and later wish you would have at least tried.

The one thing that no one can ever take away from you what you have done and thanfully only you have to live with it too :-)

proth5's picture

is a lovely parable about the virtues of action.  But I believe it goes much deeper than the simple interpretation of “Quantity leads to Quality.”

Lately I have been considering that observation shows that those who achieve excellence in fields like sports or performance arts have one thing in common.  Oh, they all have natural gifts in their chosen endeavors – but what they all have in common is at least 10,000 hours of practice.

In the pottery class story, certain of those (not all, if you read carefully) who were graded on quantity achieved quality.  They did this by observing their shortcomings and adjusting the process next time to “improve.” But “improve” what? They were supposedly interested only in volume. To me this means that even though certain individuals knew that their grade would depend only on quantity, they had a vision of quality that could not be denied and were willing to put in the extra effort to achieve it.

Adding this to the 10,000 hours of practice paradigm takes me back to my dog show days.

I drift back to those years frequently, not only because they occurred during that phase in life where our character is developed and locked in, but for me, I was in a field of endeavor where perfection – quality if you will – was clearly defined and so is easy to discuss.

I worked in AKC Obedience training. This is an area of dog showing that gets little play. It lacks the fun of agility or the glamour of the best in show ring. It looks, for all the world, like people walking around with dogs. Training a top obedience dog is like owning the gelding that wins the Triple Crown. The honor is nice and all, but there is no profit in it.

Each dog must do a certain number of things (heel, come when called, sit/stay, etc.) to qualify for an obedience degree, but here is where things get more difficult. When at heel, for example, the dog must sit when the handler stops. But the dog can sit all caddywhampus, or slightly ahead of or behind the handler. Or the dog can sit perfectly squared - hind legs tucked in, alert, perfectly parallel to the feet of the handler, shoulders aligned with the shoulders of the handler. The fist dog has done the task and will qualify for the degree, the second represents perfection. The judge has a list of the aspects of a perfect sit and deducts points in half point increments for any deviation.

My dog certainly had the raw trainability to do the work. Owners of Beagles and Afghan Hounds get down on their knees to pray that their dogs will someday reach the level of performance of my dog on his worst day.

But I could have stopped there.  Yes, we would need to practice every day to make sure that the dog performed consistently and wouldn’t fall apart in the confusing, distracting venue of the show ring. Each day we trained, we would get “better.”

But my trainers (the people who trained me to train the dog) saw more in me and my dog. They saw the potential for perfection (or at least excellence.) Their role was not to smile at my efforts, flatter me with praise, or to see that I had “fun.” Their role was to point out every small imperfection in either my or my dog’s performance and to show me how to practice to make it better. My role was to do the work. If the dog sat sloppily, the dog needed to be corrected into a straight sit before he could be praised for having done his job. If I said “sit up straight” once, I said it thousands of times. It was a stupid amount of effort for very small – yet very important – results.

10,000 hours.

My trainers weren’t there to be my friends. I adored them, in a way, but I knew that they were not going to let me get away with anything. Their coaching was sometimes hard to bear, but the gift they gave me was the real self esteem that comes from holding that big blue rosette and knowing that I had come ever closer to perfection. The ideal was my competition – not the handler standing next to me. My considerable efforts brought me closer to that ideal.

But I couldn’t just practice – I had to practice perfectly. I had to hold that vision of the perfect sit in my mind and put in the quantity of work that was required to achieve it. It made, as you might guess, quite an impression on me. It wasn’t just quality, it wasn’t just quantity.  It was both.

10,000 hours.

So on to our main topic, which is bread. I have been to a few international competitions and discussed what was occurring with people who know their way around bread. The baguette is a great competition bread because with its limited ingredients and classic shaping, bakers who have the same time constraints can show their skills by creating differentiated versions of this bread.

This is their trade and bakers will make many, many loaves in their lives and will increase in skill. But those who practice for competition must practice perfectly – dividing the proper weight with a minimum of cuts, pre shaping, shaping, working cleanly, working efficiently, judging proper fermentation, keeping to timings, scoring.  It all counts towards the ideal of perfection.

The variety breads are more ambiguous. I remind myself that the seaweed bread that made me gag was baked by the team that took Bronze at the Coupe du Monde. There is more to it than meets the eye or even the palate. But the diligent baker will bake the same bread many times making the smallest of adjustments, tasting, evaluating, improving and baking the bread over and over again until it represents his or her ultimate efforts. Quality, if you will.

10,000 hours.

The production baker must also keep the vision of quality – even when quantity is required. Some bakers – like Gerard Rubaud, make one type of bread only so that they may concentrate all of their efforts in the perfecting of that bread. Some, like Poilâne, make a few breads (and pastries) but are renowned for just one or two. Others make wide varieties of breads and strive mightily that each one is the very best it can be, but despite the variety will not bake some breads because their production situation does not allow them to bake them to their idea of excellence. They will, in fact, “not do” if the results would be less than they expect from themselves.

Some bakers will put in stupid amounts of hours (I’m looking at you, Mark!) to assure that their customers get a variety of the freshest breads possible. They use themselves up so that quality never escapes them.

They do not just chase activity, they learn, improve and push beyond mere doing to aspiring to being ever more. They rise above those who merely practice to join the ranks of those who practice perfectly.

10,000 hours.

So while agreeing to the premise of the story that sitting back and speculating about perfection hoping that it will appear without effort is a fairly useless endeavor, the question is not quality vs. quantity. The question is really coming to a working definition of quality and then putting in the quantity to achieve it. That sometimes one falls short is inevitable, but there is always value in the attempt.

I’ve had a snippet rolling around in my brain for awhile in this regard and I’ll finish with it.  It is from a poem by Robert Frost:

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may choose something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.




Dwayne's picture

Very interesting comments.  I get better every time I bake.  I'll never put 10,000 hours in the kitchen baking and none of my breads will be perfect, but I'll have fun and learn for the process.