Thomas Edison had an atypical life. During childhood, his mind wandered too much resulting in him being taken out of the classroom to be taught by his mother at home. As a young adult, Edison worked as a telegraph operator for a few years while he experimented on the side. The remainder of his adulthood was dedicated to a life of innovation over which he produced an incredible 1,093 patents and developed several devices that earned him a reputation as one of the greatest creative geniuses in all of history.
Edison's most notable inventions include the phonograph, the first practical electric light bulb, and the first industrial research laboratory (1). In 1877 he invented the phonograph, the first device that could reproduce recorded sound and which was also the precursor to the record player. In 1879, as an alternative to gas and oil as well as the commercially unfeasible electric lamps of the time, he developed the first long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Perhaps Edison's greatest innovation was the establishment of the world's first industrial research laboratory, a venue utterly to research and development as well as the precursor to the modern research institute.
These successes are indeed legendary - however, Edison also produced many failed inventions including a talking doll, an electric pen, and a giant magnetic contraption for mining iron ore (1). The talking doll consisted of an imported German figurine with a miniature built-in phonograph but it was too fragile and the sound recordings were poor - it failed. The electric pen, powered by a small battery and an electric motor, was supposed to punch holes through paper to create a stencil of a document so that further copies could be made but it was too expensive and noisy - it also failed. Perhaps Edison's greatest flop, before which he bravely declared that "I'm going to do something now so different and so much bigger than anything I've ever done before people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical," (2) was trying to find a way to mine iron ore using powerful magnets to separate the bits of iron out of either a mixture of ore and sand or crushed ore, but relentless technical problems plagued his many attempts to do so - all of them failed.
In the final analysis, Edison's truly superlative creative achievements can be counted on the fingers of one hand (1). Out of his impressive output of 1,093 patents and inventions there emerged only a few innovations of real quality, and yet these quality inventions outshone his numerous failures.
Chasing The Apparition Of Quality
Many people strive to improve the quality of their works, often to exceedingly high levels - the writer seeks to transcribe that best-seller, the one that will receive widespread critical acclaim; the composer struggles to forge that musical masterpiece, the one that will endure for centuries; the entrepreneur strives to execute the perfect commercial concept, the one that will make a dent in the universe (and hopefully turn a profit). In all of these cases, the aim is to produce something "better."
Unfortunately defining what is better or of quality is surprisingly difficult. We could define quality as something marked by a degree of excellence or superiority (3), but these are subjective concepts that vary from one observer to another. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig pursues quality in a rigorous, half-crazed fashion, yet ends up concluding that since it always exists as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought of in a descriptive sense, quality can be known but never really defined (4). Regardless, whether one chooses to define quality subjectively or chooses to accept that it is knowable but undefinable, the point is that since the goal cannot be defined it is difficult to produce quality by directly aiming for it.
Moreover, it is widely assumed that a trade-off exists between quality and quantity, that in order to do work of higher quality, one must generate fewer ideas and refine them to perfection. Occasionally this turns out to be true, with backtracking studies showing that some people do manage to come up with quality ideas early in the creative process (5). However, in the majority of cases this notion is patently false - more often than not, a person must generate at least a couple of dozen headline ideas before they strike gold (5). The reason for this is that a person's first few ideas are usually the most conventional, the closest to the default that already exists; they are not quality (6).
Thus, trying to directly produce works of quality by refining a few ideas to perfection does not usually work. Perhaps there is a better way.
Finding Quality Through Quantity
In contrast to quality, the notion of quantity is often denigrated - the writer would rather transcribe a single best-seller instead of a dozen mediocre books; the composer would rather forge a single chef d'oeuvre instead of a dozen average songs; the entrepreneur would rather focus on executing the single perfect commercial concept instead of a dozen sub-standard ideas. However, there is more to quantity than meets the eye.
We may define quantity as a considerable or great amount of something (7). When something can be "quantified" it means that it can be measured in some objective, agreed-upon fashion. So unlike quality, it is relatively easy to define quantity.
Paradoxically, quality seems to be best found indirectly, by pursuing quantity. Recall that Edison produced 1,093 patents out of which only a mere handful were regarded as truly superlative; he had to suffer a lot of failures before he struck gold. Edison is not the only example we could use here - Pablo Picasso created over 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, yet only a fraction of these works received critical acclaim; Johann Sebastian Bach composed over 1,000 classical music pieces in his lifetime, yet only three of them are considered among the 50 greatest classical music pieces of all time; Albert Einstein wrote 248 scientific publications, but only a handful of them were revolutionary (5). Perhaps the reason that quantity is so successful at producing quality is that once the conventional has been considered and ruled out, a person has more freedom to start thinking "outside the box."
Seen in this light, the best way to produce works of quality is indirectly, via quantity, by establishing not one but many works such that one eventually strikes gold. The key factor determining the success of this strategy is persistence - indeed, several studies show that folks underestimate the value of persistence in creative performance such that they quit too early, leaving their best ideas forever undiscovered (6).
Trying to create something brilliant? Perhaps it is best to stop obsessing about quality - about writing the perfect book, composing the perfect song, or building the perfect company. Instead, go for quantity - experiment a bit with a few different books, songs, or companies. Build up some volume. Persist.
Even if the first 24 works turn out to be bombs, number 25 might be the one that strikes gold.
Keep working, and wait for it.
References (1) Simonton DK. 2015. Thomas Edison's Creative Career: The Multilayered Trajectory of Trials, Errors, Failures, and Triumphs. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 9, 2-14. (2) http://ethw.org/Edison_and_Ore_Refining. (3) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/quality. (4) Pirsig R. 1973. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. William Morrow. (5) Grant A. 2016. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World. Viking. (6) Lucas BJ and Nordgren LF. 2015. People Underestimate the Value of Persistence for Creative Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109(2), 232-243.