The Two Q’s—Creativity in Practice
My first swim coach, Coach Mike, had lungs like a sergeant. I remember standing on the pool deck with my teammates—a twiggy band of eight- and nine-year-olds—dripping and shivering, as Coach Mike walked up and down the poolside, a whistle around his neck and bushy chest hair visible above his collar.
“Who,” he barked, “can tell me what practice makes?”
A buzz of mumbles passed. Nobody made eye-contact with Coach Mike.
“Raise your hand,” he said. “Who can tell me what practice makes?”
A lanky boy in the front tentatively raised his hand. Coach Mike pointed.
“Practice makes perfect, Coach Mike.”
“No,” said Coach Mike. “Everybody—ten pushups!”
He blew the whistle for each pushup to ensure we counted correctly. As we stood back up, brushing pool deck grit from our palms, he repeated the question.
“What does practice make?”
This was my second year, so I knew the answer he wanted to hear. I raised a hand and Coach Mike pointed to me.
“Practice makes permanent?”
Coach Mike nodded. “Practice makes permanent. So, what are we going to do? We are going to practice perfect! Remember: perfect practice makes perfect. Ten more pushups then swim to the other end!”
At the other end of the pool, and throughout the rest of practice, Coach Mike yelled, “What does practice make?”
And we responded, “Permanent!”
“What does perfect practice make?”
While I don’t completely endorse Coach Mike’s coaching philosophy, his viewpoint on progress highlights an important principle for working toward goals. I call it the principle of the two Q’s.
When it comes to working toward creative goals, we have two options: the quality approach and the quantity approach. If you’re in the first school, the quality school of thought, you believe that improvement in creative decision-making is directly related to the quality of the work you produce. Coach Mike is an example of a quality-oriented person, or a “quality-er” as I like to say. Mere practice isn’t enough for a quality-er—the kind of practice matters. Perfect practice makes perfect. In the feedback analogy, quality-ers tend to spend a bulk of their time listening with their microphone and only passing on sounds to the loudspeakers when they feel like their quality is sufficient.
Quantity-ers, on the other hand, tend to spend more time sending out ideas to the loudspeakers for testing. If you are a quantity-er, you believe that improvement in creativity is directly tied to how much you do a given task. My swim friend Luke and other quantity-ers believe that practice makes perfect. The thought that someone might practice at less than full capacity is absurd to a quality-er. Quality is not the question, but quantity. Success and improvement represent the result of iterative trials.
Neither approach guarantees creative success. For every person like Picasso—who produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings—there is a Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who poured her creativity into two novels and a spattering of articles in the course of her life. Both successful, but different in their approaches.
I recognize that dividing creators into quantity-ers and quality-ers oversimplifies reality. In truth, there is an entire spectrum between the two Q’s. I don’t think I fit either extreme, although as an engineer trained to iterate and prototype, I would side with the quantity-ers. It can be helpful to consider where you might fall on such a spectrum and remember that not everyone approaches creative goals the same way you do. Do you plan on making hundreds of yogurt burritos or do you plan to study fruit-based snacks to perfect your creativity? Maybe you could blend the two approaches. Do you practice your way through hundreds of colors and designs for your double-decker couch to see how people react, or do you study the best couches and try to blend already-accepted concepts into your design?
 Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, 10.
 “Obituary: Harper Lee.” BBC News.