QUESTION: How should we spend our time as creatives?
- working a lot on a few projects (focus on quality)? Or
- working a bit on a lot of projects (focus on quantity)?
ANSWER: the more works you publish, the higher the odds of producing a hit. This answer was arrived at by Simonton (1977) through the examination of the relationship between number of academic papers published and influence of their respective authors.
While trying to quantify creativity, Simonton named this examination the Equal-Odds Rule. It states that "the relationship between the number of creative successes and the total number of works produced in a given time period is positive, linear, stochastic, and stable." Put simply: the more you publish, the higher the odds of success. It has long been thought that focusing on quality is the path to creative masterpieces. But this is false, greatness is achieved through discipline of publishing a lot, frequently.
Publish or perish
The implication is simple but not easy: given that we can't predict our own success, we should just focus on publishing a lot, becoming prolific, and let our audience decide what is good or not. Becoming prolific is in our control, creating masterpieces is not. So how can we publish more? How can we become prolific, super creative? I answer this question in this three-part essay.
These questions have been on my mind for years, I have felt these tensions myself. I publish one article or video a week. As we inexorably become entrepreneurs of ourselves, I know many other creatives around me ask themselves the same questions. Analyzing the creative process from the perspective of creative tempo is new, and it sheds light on many challenges.
Based on this premise that we should publish more, I look at practical ways to systematically write, and I offer ways to measure the success or failure of these efforts. The level of abstraction of the analysis presented here is high enough, however, to be applicable to many creative fields. But the generalization of the following ideas will have to be further investigated.
Setting the rhythm
We describe someone as prolific if they produce many works, if they are highly productive. Being prolific is context-dependent: you are considered a prolific writer if you publish three books a year, but you are not considered a prolific photographer if you only publish three photos a year. Being prolific depends on the creative medium you chose and its associated intrinsic effort: publishing a movie takes a decade, publishing a photo takes a few hours of work. Creative mediums have different rhythms, different tempos. Some are fast paced -making TikTok videos- some are slow -writing a book. We can plot the tempos of creative tempos on a timescale like this:
We can go further and look at the average creations published for each medium. Let us call this measurement Creations Per Year - CPY. Though further (and more rigorous) research can be done here to provide accurate averages, it seems book writers have an average CPY of 1.22, meaning they tend to publish, on average, a bit more than one book every year. With IMDB data we can infer that the average feature film director has a CPY of 0.18.
Change the tempo
To become prolific, you can then either
- pick up a creative medium that has a faster tempo (instead of writing a book, write a blog). How do you think you can go from slow tempo to fast tempo if you're inexperienced in that medium you chose?
- try publishing more than the average CPY (publish 3 books in a year instead of 1 like the average). What is the average CPY of the medium you're interested in? Do you think you can keep up or exceed that tempo?
Creative thoughts emanate from our own minds. And though we are influenced by others, creative work is still a single-player game. But when we play on fast tempo, we can get more external feedback and improve continuously. Slower tempo mediums, those with low CPY averages like book writing or filmmaking, are harder games to play. When the tempo is slow, you have less opportunities to get external validation, funding is harder, the potential to mess up is higher. I think it's a good strategy to start with fast tempo to publish more and hone a style, and then move to slower tempo games when you have experience.
Becoming super creative
Being prolific is necessary but not sufficient. CPY is an output measure which doesn't capture outcome or impact of the work published. In this regard, it could be disregarded as a vanity metric. However, the underlying assumption here is that each time we publish, we improve or try something different than last time. We need to learn from each iteration and be creative. We cannot simply do the same thing over and over again. To be super creative (productive and creative), we should assume that for each creation: we refine our technique, push the boundaries of our skills and learn from each iteration. And counter-intuitively, as I explain in Part 2, we need moments of divergence, of exploring ideas instead of creating to create more.
- The Equal-Odds rule
- Slow vs fast tempo
- Creations per Year, CPY
- Acceleration of tempo
To recap, we've shown that creative mediums have tempos, and that to increase our odds of success we should publish frequently, on a fast tempo. Yet amid this imperative to create prolifically, we need periods of exploration. This is what Part 2 is about.
Over the long run only creatives that have been consistent win out. Not missing a deadline, not missing a beat, is the most important thing. And when we "play on the right tempo", the tempo disappears and we start to dance. This is what Part 3 is about. To get it the next parts in your inbox, just subscribe below.