In the Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance, the author brings up the concept of quality and how he pondered the question of what it actually is while a professor of philosophy at university. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem—quality is always relative and derived from our internal notion of quality for other things, which depends on our societal notions of quality in different communities. Can you even approach deriving a definition for quality in the absence of all of that, abstracted to the extreme? The author struggles with this question and more specifically, struggles to come up with an answer to it when teaching his students: how does he know what he’s saying is right? Is he just coming up with stuff to make it look like he knows what he’s talking about?
The core issue is that quality is not something we can be taught in the same way that we can be taught the grammar rules of a language or that the “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” It isn’t just a composition of facts and rules, a set of if-this-then-thats. It’s something deeper and more complex and closer to feeling and art than science. Instead of teaching it directly as you would normally do with facts, the only thing you can do to support someone’s journey to quality is setting up the proper environment for discovering it themselves. It’s a big mindset shift from telling people the right steps to follow to nudging them to go in the right direction.
The unavoidable step in truly understanding this concept of quality is just making shit.
Only through doing things and making things, do you start to understand what works and what doesn’t. Through the closeness between mind and material in the act of creation, you come to intimately know the skill and the subtleties of the craft. This sort of thing simply can’t be learned through showing. You can show what’s good through examples of things that work and you can show how to make that thing, but that doesn’t translate into the sort of magic needed to create generically good things in any context.
So much of getting good at anything is just pure labor: figuring out how to try and then offering up the hours. If you’re doing it wrong you can do it a thousand times and not produce any particularly interesting results. So you have to make sure you’re trying the right way.
This is why trite advice like “just do it” and “practice makes perfect” are so resonant (and effective if you’re stopping yourself from making). Making bad shit and mediocre shit and dumb shit and shit shit and everything in between is the key to unlocking what components could be in good shit. Sure outlines and principles and methods are useful mental models to approach that, but they are useless in the abstract when detached from the reality of making stuff and seeing which parts stick.
In any craft, you can learn the nouns and the verbs (the objects and the mechanics that manipulate them), but they’re meaningless without some end purpose tying them together. The fundamentals are useless without a direction to point them in and a story to tell about them. We’re all chasing after the stories that our shit brings to life. Our craft is a series of accumulating stories, tales of our triumphs and frustrations and despairs and joys, all the messy middle involved in bringing something from our minds into the world.
Some remaining questions/thoughts on my mind:
How do we encourage people to make shit? It has to be fun, it has to encourage, and people need to come with a genuine sense of curiosity
How do we optimize for fun and playfulness to encourage this? (make software playful)
Remixing is one way of getting at this, how to expand this while avoiding issues around “copyright” and “ownership”?
This is the 15th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.