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Solving the Quality vs Consistency Tradeoff

swyx
Infinite Builder 👷🏽‍♂️ I help people Learn in Public • Author, the Coding Career Handbook (https://learninpublic.org)
Originally published at swyx.io Updated on ・6 min read

You can listen to the associated podcast with audio clips here.

Every creator wrestles with the tradeoff between quality and consistency. I think I've found the answer: Default to consistency, and cut scope.

Consistency

"You just need three things to change your life. Number one, create useful content. Number two, post it once a week. And number three, do that for two years. And if you do that I can 100% guarantee that your life will change in ways that you can't imagine." - Ali Abdaal

The benefit of pursuing consistency is that it forces output. Good or bad, when your deadline comes you have to ship the thing. Again, and again. And again.

The cost of pursuing consistency is psychology and lack of direction. It's hard to keep trying your best when your best goes straight into a black hole. Committing to an arbitrary schedule guarantees you will publish work you aren't proud of, and some people will be turned off by the hit-and-miss (mostly miss) of your work.

Quality

"Doing a pretty good article every week, is far less likely to build a big career, than writing a great article sporadically, because the great article will stand out and people will forget [the rest]." - Tim Urban

The benefit of pursuing quality is that quality always stands out.

  • The competition for producing commodities in quantity is a fierce race to the bottom. But there is never enough quality in the world.
  • Quality is also non-linear: 30% of people click the first Google result, yet only half that click the second. Winner takes most.
  • The Internet is a max() function — by definition, most people will only encounter your best work. Spiky greatness over consistent "meh".
  • Quality builds your brand: A single great achievement is an instant-credibility calling card you can keep using for years.

The cost of pursuing quality is perfectionism. The last mile is the most valuable, but it also sees diminishing returns. Nobody tells you when you've gone too far tweaking and adding, ruining a good thing long after you should have shipped it. Many end up not even shipping.

The Debate

We can put both together and observe "A Law of Conservation of Inconsistency".

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Either consistent output and inconsistent quality, or consistent quality and inconsistent output. It's near impossible to have both.

Near impossible.

Solution 1: Cut Scope

"I have this internal quality bar that I just like cannot get myself to release anything that is not good... So the compromise that I've come to with myself is something has to get out but I don't care how--what I will compromise on is not the schedule and not the quality, but I will compromise on the scope." - James Clear

What people forget when considering the quality-consistency dilemma is that there is a third axis - the scope of work.

Maybe you can't produce a great essay every week. But perhaps you could scale it down and make one great tweet or newsletter.

Make up for lack of skill by spending disproportionately more hours on a thing than people normally do for that format. Relative effort stands out and the constraint breeds creativity.

Smaller scope encourages brevity. Society increasingly rewards those who can deliver a message in 2 minute pitches, 30 second soundbites, 15 second videos, 280 characters, and Two Words.

I think the future of "big content"/"10X content" is, paradoxically, bite-sized content. - Rand Fishkin

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Solution 2: Default to Consistency

As I conclude in my podcast recap, both Tim Urban (Mr. A+ Quality) and James Clear (Mr. Cut Scope) agree with Ali Abdaal (Mr. Consistency) that you should start out with consistency. Get your 10 bad talks out of the way. Master your tools. Figure out what "good" even means, to you.

100 seems like a magic number for the "consistency starter pack". @visakanv says to "Make 100 Thing" (sic). Ali Abdaal's "one video a week for 2 years" works out to 100 videos.

But even after you have achieved greatness, I think there is still an argument to continue being consistent: We are LOUSY judges of our own work.

This is known as the Equal Odds rule in academia — the unintuitive finding that the prior reputation of the author has no bearing on a paper's success. This is replicated in many other settings. Famous comedians bomb all the time. Writers of highly successful books and movies flop afterward. Einstein changed our understanding of space, time, mass, and energy in a single year and then spent the rest of his life being wrong about quantum mechanics, gravitational lensing, and universe expansion.

The max() rule applies to all great thinkers of our time. Euler published 1500 articles. Picasso made 50,000 works of art. Beethoven made 722 compositions we know of. Van Gogh produced one painting every day for the last two years of his life. They're each only really known for a dozen things at best.

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Other Notes

Edit from the future: Workshop it!

Use Competition. Friendly competitive spirit brings out the best in people. We have no problem asking athletes to consistently be great at tournaments and sports leagues. The intellectual equivalent is conferences, hackathons, and mastermind groups.

Automate and Build Infrastructure. After a period of consistent output, observe repetitive work and build systems to eliminate it. Make greatness easier.

Strategy Turns. After you get off the ground, it can be useful to throttle back the consistency of your output (but not your input) and go for more quality. Use Workshopping as a buffer.

Enjoyment. This may sound simplistic but make sure you pick something you enjoy. You approach creative work as an artist, not as a profit maximizing machine. You are more likely to stay in the game (Consistency) and have great taste (Quality) if you have a great love for the thing you do.

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Discussion (1)

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James dengel

I believe that you learn far more by being consistent (This does not mean outputting complete garbage 7+ times a week).
Each piece of work you do if you set a realistic goal will push you to learn slowly and steadily towards getting better so that each piece of work on your schedule will get better and you will achieve and learn more.

A huge part of everything is learning, getting better at producing content, improve your tooling, improve your method etc.

Many of the best professionals never stop learning, they are master of learning, consistently improving as I'm sure James Clear would agree 1% consistently is great work.