Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Orange Juice and Toilet Paper

There are two things one should never try to save money on: orange juice and toilet paper. In my experience the difference in quality between the low end and high end for both of these products is so overwhelmingly vast that spending a little extra can make your whole day better. But quality is a funny thing; we all say we want it but only to a point. Real quality costs money, sometimes big money. It can be hard for consumers to tell the difference between quality features and luxury features, and it is even harder to get someone to pay for quality that you can't see versus luxury that you can. (The car market is the perfect example of this in action.) In the business world high quality often is put alongside rapid delivery and low cost of production as desired goals. But quality is far, far harder to measure and tends to make the other two metrics get worse. Naturally, the quality target quickly becomes "good enough."

There are even times when quality shouldn't be a concern. In his book Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson points out, when you are learning to draw, quality is just an adjective. Really, doesn't that apply to learning in general? When you are at the stage of trying to learn how, trying to create high quality can be counter productive. Attempts to achieve high quality always involve more complexity, and as a result time and effort, than just doing the minimum necessary. The additional frustration involved can lead to heightened self-criticism, which easily translates into giving up. Computer programmers have a maxim, "build the first one to throw away." This acknowledges that for any complex undertaking, the first step should be to learn how to do it at all. Doing it cleanly and/or robustly can wait.

Judging when to pursue quality is a big factor in life as well. When Nike tells us to "Just Do It" there is some irony. After all, their shoes are of notably poor quality. However, the athletics they support require one to get out and practice, strive to simply start doing and get better through the learning process rather than be good immediately. One can't, just for instance, wait to become a good writer before starting a 'blog. We have to write volumes, consciously evaluate ourselves, and apply the feedback to improve. What does the word quality even mean if we try to apply it to our personal relationships? Is not "quality of life" the most elusive of all pursuits?

To the business world, quality is a key differentiator and a huge factor in the value equation. Deciding how much quality is necessary and how best to achieve it can make or break a product, a company, or a career. Business is all about competition, and quality is extremely important when there is a competition going on. Luckily, life is not business. At a personal level, collaboration and cooperation is usually much more important than competition. The difference between someone who can't dance and someone who is a poor dancer is far vaster than the difference between a poor dancer and a good one. In life as in art, quality is often just an adjective.

But there is no excuse for subjecting anyone to cheap toilet paper.

[Editorial note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a re-post of something I wrote back in June of '07. Superior search and navigation of the stuff I have written was one of the primary features that drew me to Blogger, and because this is easily my favorite of the things I wrote in the old location, I wanted it here so I can find it in the future.]

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