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The Infinite Staircase

February 24, 2015

The Silicon Valley is heralded by a lot of people as some sort of a modern-day version of the California Gold Rush, one that not only promises wealth or success but also a degree of honor, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of that comes from historically successful examples from Silicon Valley like Apple, PayPal, and Facebook, but I think there is also a significant amount to be attributed to something else: the act of creation. I think the notion of having an idea in your head, and then being able to make that idea a physical object that thousands and potentially millions of people use is one of the most fulfilling things we can pursue, and Silicon Valley is the epitome of that. Regardless of if you're making an electric car, an app, a website, or even an entire company, I think this kind of "creation" has a very attractive allure to it that most people would love to enjoy. But creation also happens at much smaller scales, in writing books, taking photographs, playing music, or even producing films. Regardless of what kind of a creative act you take part in, I think everyone comes across a conflict of interest in whatever they may be doing: the question of quality versus quantity.

In creating anything there are really two distinct aspects of your work to focus on. First is the quantity, or how much you produce. Quantity is important because it determines how many people can benefit from your work, or for how long your work can last, or sometimes even whether or not whatever you're doing is sustainable, or it's a one-and-done deal that can't support you for any extended amount of time. The more you produce, the more people can enjoy it and use it to their benefit, for longer periods of time. If instead of producing millions of iPhones each month, Apple chose to make ten, extremely premium, extremely high-quality smartphones every four weeks, not only would Apple be a much smaller company, but the impact that the company is able to have on the world would be orders of magnitude smaller. The reason Apple is able to become one of the most influential brands is because they serve hundreds of millions of people globally. But on the flip side of the discussion, no company or individual would ever be successful unless they offered something better than others, something of quality. Quality ensures that whatever you make is worth the effort, that there is a benefit to using or enjoying whatever you make, and that it stands out from the mediocrity in the background. Apple sells hundreds of millions of devices, but those large numbers wouldn't be there in the first place if Apple didn't make high-quality products that those hundreds of millions wanted. In other words, the quantity of your work determines the scale of impact that it can have on the world, but the quality of the work determines how strongly it can impact the people who come across it.

Anyone who creates anything at a reasonable scale is faced with choosing between sacrificing quality for quantity, or quantity for quality.

The dilemma here is in the fact that making something of very high quality usually takes a lot of time. And when creating one thing takes a lot of time, making that in large quantities is much more difficult, and the quantity goes down. But when trying to make anything at large scales, it's difficult to hold the standard of quality as high, so the quality falls. So at first sight, there's a decision to be made by anyone who creates anything, between prioritizing quantity and prioritizing quality. What makes this especially hard is that both sides of the apparent dichotomy can be just as successful as the other. YouTuber CGPGrey, for example, creates a video far less frequently than many other creators on the website, often leaving a few months in between episodes. But his channel is one of the most successful on YouTube, because of the incredible quality and attention to detail in each of his videos. In other words, his success is due to choosing quality over quantity. But on the other hand, the joint vlog channel Vlogbrothers shares videos twice every week. Not to say that their videos are low-quality -- they are far from it -- but their videos certainly aren't as information-dense or filled with detail as CGPGrey's videos. They nonetheless are also one of the most successful YouTube channels, this time, focusing on quantity and consistency rather than extremely high quality. Of course, choosing one over the other is hardly an option. Completely abandoning quality over quantity or vice versa will lead you nowhere, because high-quantity creations only have value if they're worth the time and effort, and high-quality creations are only as valuable as the number of people who enjoy it, and the number of times people come back to revisit them and find new content.

I've been thinking about this more and more in the past few weeks, as I look to make even more content on other websites and video platforms. That means at peak, I'll be writing almost three to four thousand words each week, as well as filming and producing a video each weekend. On top of schoolwork and other errands, my concern is that while focusing on making more content for more purposes, each individual piece of work that I make might lose its quality and value. And I think everyone has this issue at some point -- a conflict between doing more things or doing fewer, but better. After thinking for a while, I found that I particularly liked an approach that YouTuber MKBHD advocates, that I'm calling the "infinite staircase" approach. In short, I would commit to a set schedule of consistent content, making a certain number of videos every month and some writing pieces every week. In other words, I want to keep the consistency that I have, because that keeps me going on track and focused. But in making new things so often, I also want to make sure that every blog post that I write, every new video I film, every new song I produce, is better than the one before, even if just slightly. In that way, I also ensure that the quality of what I make doesn't fall.

"Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them." - Carl Schurz

I think this approach is so effective in keeping both quality and consistency because quality doesn't have an upper limit. You can't just create something that has perfect quality. So a better way to think about creating something of quality is by iteration, by looking at others that you've made and other people are making, and improving upon those. I think German revolutionary Carl Schurz put it best, in saying, "Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them." In writing, in music, in film, and anything else involving the act of creation, I don't think the choice between quality and quantity is a pure dichotomy, and sacrificing one for the other makes no more sense than replacing a normal staircase with one with larger, fewer steps or smaller, more numerous ones. Like the steps of the infinite staircase, quality and quantity may not always be easy to reconcile, but one has no effect unless the other is cared for in conjunction. And as I look forward to a more hectic end of the school year, that's certainly one thing I won't forget.