Response to Justin's comment about Quality vs. Quantity story from Atomic Habits

Continuing the discussion from (Classical) Liberalism [CF Article]:

(Posting this in a new topic in friendly because it ended up being long, rambly, and off the cuff. Didn’t want to clutter the original thread and it doesn’t seem suitable for the ET category.)

That story is familiar. I think I’ve heard it in the context of some other experiments/stories that were like groups of people told to make paintings, with one group allowed to do one painting per day judged on quality and another group judged by how many paintings they could pump out. The group that pumped out a bunch of paintings and had little fear of being judged on quality ended up making the best paintings.

Also makes me think of curi’s advice when I asked about how to get as good at him at writing, and he had mentioned writing lots of blog posts (like tens of thousands). (Tried to find the original quote but couldn’t find the discord server for some reason). Also reminds me of something Adam Grant mentioned in a podcast with Sam Harris where basically people like Mozart and Beethoven are often considered as having been prodigies that produced masterpieces routinely, but it turns out that they also produced like 10x more pieces than other composers at the time, and they did have some lower end pieces. They just produced a lot more to be able to pick more from the high quality results, and I guess it made them better in general too.

Overall I think not worrying about sucking at something at first and just practicing and producing finished outputs (like making small indie game projects) is better than trying to get a perfect result the first time (if doing so gets you stuck in the process). Seth Godin also has a take on this regarding writer’s block where he says nobody has talker’s block, and if you can say it, you can write it. Writer’s block is really just people wanting to write something great the first time. Every time someone complains to him about writer’s block and asks for advice, he asks them to show him their bad writing. Their unfinished novels, incomplete movie scripts, terrible blog posts etc. But they never have anything to show him. In his view you have to be willing to write badly to learn to write well, which is a step some aspiring writers don’t seem to be able to get past. Maybe writer’s block becomes an easy excuse to use instead of just setting a time to write and writing whatever comes to mind, even if it sucks. I know there are writers who followed this technique daily, like Isaac Asimov and Roald Dahl, leading them to publish lots of great books over their career, even if they only spent like 3 hours a day writing.

Edit: To this end, I like that ET does freewriting and also talks about it to the point where I’ve seen other people doing freewriting (max and internetrules and Alisa off the top of my head). I should try doing it sometime. It’s not an activity I’ve seen advocated by anyone else explicitly.

I don’t know about this. I’ve seen plenty of bad blog posts. I imagine some of those people get stuck at other times. One issue is they may only have shared those posts thinking they were good.

Are you going by reputation or do you have actual knowledge that any Asimov (or Dahl) book is great? Although I’ve been looking for sci fi, my impression is Asimov is too awful to read.

Apparently it’s an adaption of a story from a different context. It’s a bit confusing. There’s a note in the book:

* A similar story is told in the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It has been adapted here with permission. See the endnotes for a full explanation.

and then the endnotes have:

In the end, they had little to show for their efforts : 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 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.

Are you going by reputation or do you have actual knowledge that any Asimov (or Dahl) book is great? Although I’ve been looking for sci fi, my impression is Asimov is too awful to read.

I guess I’m going by reputation. I read some Asimov books as a kid and liked them. They were what got me into science fiction. But I don’t think my knowledge as a kid (or even my knowledge now) is enough to say that they are objectively great. You would be a better judge of that, so if you say his work is bad then I defer to that judgment. I also liked Roald Dahl books as a kid, but same issue there and I can’t say they’re objectively great. They’ve both sold well in general and are considered prolific authors by sales, but that’s not a good metric for judging greatness since what sells well isn’t necessarily high quality but might just pander to masses e.g. idk if Harry Potter is great. It might have sold well because it was great, or for other reasons. I liked it as a kid but I haven’t read enough or judged books critically to say if stuff is great.

I have some sci-fi books you’ve mentioned on my queue to check out specifically since you mentioned them (Heinlein comes to mind) but have mostly been reading non-fiction the last few years. I think one other thing might be that I only learnt about capitalism and classical liberal ideas being good recently, so I may not have noticed them as bad from lots of sci-fi or other fiction I read (I mention this because I think in some of your book review comments/blog posts you mentioned some authors who wrote futuristic, realistic sci-fi that also values personal liberty and stuff). I’m thinking sci-fi books that have unrealistic political ideas or bad takes on politics (communism, government control being good, utopias being viable etc.) would be objectively bad, but I wouldn’t notice those issues (maybe today I might notice some of those issues or have some questions instead of just accepting them though)

Thanks for the additional notes Justin. That explains why I’ve heard it in different kinds of contexts… I think I’ve come across photography, pottery, and paintings all used in that example. Not sure where exactly I came across the stories, might be from different books in the corporate culture/pop psychology/self-help genre since I was reading a lot of stuff from that genre between 2017-2018.

For some more context on the Asimov books I liked as a kid:

I, Robot and a bunch of other short stories involving the three laws of robotics (and the zeroth law that came later). I think there was also a novel that was kind of weird, switching between a perspective on Earth, a perspective on the Moon, and a completely alien perspective, all separate but then they get closer to each other as the story progresses (like they start to meet each other/communicate with each other). I thought that was interesting. I think it was this one:

I read the Foundation series some but didn’t like it that much. I preferred his short stories and anthologies. There was one short story about a guy on Mars with his robot and the robot has to make some tough decisions according to the 3 laws of robotics to keep the guy alive. I’ll try to find specific names instead of just plots.

I just remembered that I did read some Roald Dahl more recently, again short stories though, from a book called Skin. I think I liked his short stories and Jeffrey Archer’s. They had twists to them and they were kinda spooky but they also explored some taboo ideas in what seemed like a realistic way, like people getting away with certain crimes or dealing with strange situations. The more kid-friendly Roald Dahl stuff that I liked as a kid was like James and the Giant Peach, The Big Friendly Giant, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and some others. My favourite was one where a boy learns to poach pheasants from his dad and then figures out an innovative way to catch them without having to shoot at them (putting sleeping pill powder into raisins and then picking the pheasants up when they get knocked off their perches at night, while all the guards are sent home for the night)

Now that I think about it though, that story with the pheasants portrayed the rich land owner as a mean guy and made it seem justified that they were poaching his stuff. So I can see how that’s an appealing story to me as a kid but today seems morally bankrupt because the author represents him as an asshole, but it’s not OK to steal from assholes. The story also implies that he’s super rich and hurting the town with his lavishness and the rest of the town is fairly poor etc. but based on what I’ve read here, people don’t get rich in a vacuum and they don’t (easily/usually) get rich by making others poor (unless they’re tyrants/criminals/warlords taking resources from others). This guy was more of an industrialist or business owner I think, so he would have been creating value to get rich, so the book likely didn’t portray him in a reasonable way morally.

In one example [of Dahl’s anti-semitism], in 1983 Dahl reportedly told Britain’s New Statesman magazine that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. … Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

The plot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is nasty, too:

In the factory, Charlie and Grandpa Joe marvel at the unbelievable sights, sounds, and especially smells of the factory. Whereas they are grateful toward and respectful of Mr. Wonka and his factory, the other four children succumb to their own character flaws. Accordingly, they are ejected from the factory in mysterious and painful fashions. Augustus Gloop falls into the hot chocolate river—while attempting to drink it—and is sucked up by one of the many pipes. Veruca Salt is determined to be a “bad nut” by nut-judging squirrels who throw her out with the trash. Violet Beauregarde impetuously grabs an experimental piece of gum and chews herself into a giant blueberry. She is consequently removed from the factory. With the hope of being on his beloved television, Mike Teavee shrinks himself, and his father has to carry him out in his breast pocket. During each child’s fiasco, Mr. Wonka alienates the parents with his nonchalant reaction to the child’s seeming demise. He remains steadfast in his belief that everything will work out in the end.

After each child’s trial, the Oompa-Loompas beat drums and sing a moralizing song about the downfalls of greedy, spoiled children. When only Charlie remains, Willy Wonka turns to him and congratulates him for winning. The entire day has been another contest, the prize for which is the entire chocolate factory, which Charlie has just won. Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and Mr. Wonka enter the great glass elevator, which explodes through the roof of the factory and crashes down through the roof of Charlie’s house, where they collect the rest of the Bucket family.

I read the first Foundation book as an adult and thought it was really dumb.

The three laws of robotics are also really dumb (the laws themselves, not the books, which I haven’t read).

Yeah I started seeing issues in the laws when I revisited them as I got older. There are contradictions and flaws in them for sure. I just didn’t notice them as a kid. Good point re: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s actually kind of not a children’s book with those parts of the plot. Seems anti-children too.

I do remember wondering if the kids had died when I first read the book and that seemed unnerving to me since even though I didn’t like the kids, I didn’t think they deserved to suffer a bunch or die just because they were spoiled/mean/entitled.

I’ve also seen memes more recently about how Grandpa Joe is bad because he just sits in bed all day mooching off his family while they live in poverty, but then when Charlie wins a golden ticket, suddenly Grandpa Joe is healthy enough to go with him on the trip. I didn’t notice that contradiction as a child but it makes sense now that I think about it. I don’t think Dahl ever addresses that issue.

The anti-semitism is also concerning… “Trait in the Jewish character” is just abhorrent and basically racism as far as I can see. Imagine saying trait in the African character or Asian character or anything like that, it would be considered heresy and rightfully so.

Edit: Heresy is probly the wrong word since it implies some kind of religious taboo. Maybe better to say it would be considered evil or wrong, and rightfully so.