The Signal of Quality

Make yourself a sensitive recording plate

The Bees Discover Lemon Balm

Once upon a time there was a beehive. Queen Bee began a competition for the bees to see who could find the best flower in the field.

The bees set off to find their favorite flowers. The first group of bees carried a flower back to the queen. It was large and full of pollen, but its colors were dull and its thorns were sharp. They hummed together, “Queen, this flower is the best in the entire field. When we visit it, we come back coated in pollen. With these we can make enough honey to grow our hive ten times over.”

Queen Bee considered it. “Yes, it is full of nourishment. But its color and fragrance are dull and uninspiring, and its sting is worse than ours. I’m not sure it is the best.”

The second group returned carrying a bouquet of small flowers with many bright colors. Their fragrance filled the hive and the bees danced around at the sight of them. They wiggled together, “Queen, these flowers are the best in the entire field. They are bright and lovely to smell. They are great fun to fly in and out of and play games with. They will make us cheerful and hopeful in our long winter’s rest.”

Queen Bee considered the bouquet. “Well, these are almost as beautiful as I am. But they don’t carry much pollen. We could not survive on these alone. I’m not sure they are the best.”

The last group of bees returned with no flower at all. They swarmed together, “Queen, we have found the best flower in the entire field, but we dare not pick it to bring it here. It is so beautiful and fresh, you must see for yourself where it lives.”

All the bees went to see. They found a warm grove full of fragrant green leaves and small white flowers. “Queen, these flowers are the best in the entire field. They appear for only a few short weeks each year, and they don’t carry enough pollen to feed us through the winter, and their colors are not as bright and bold as others. But their fragrance makes us invigorated to work and to play, and their pollen is rich with life that makes us strong and healthy.”

And the bees rushed to collect the pollen and enjoy the fresh fragrance of the small white flowers.

The bees are facing a grand illusion. It seems as though they can’t decide what makes something “good.” What values should they use to determine which flower is “best”? What signals matter most? Some bees look for the most useful flower. Some look for the prettiest and most fragrant flower. In the end, the best flower is not the most useful or the most beautiful, it’s one that brings them them such enjoyment and nourishment for the time it’s available that there’s no debate about whether or not its the best. They simply begin to enjoy it.

This is the other challenge hidden in the quote we spoke about last time:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

–William Morris

Or. Useful or beautiful. Two people living together who read this quote and begin to sort through their home together might become deeply confused when the other starts throwing away things they believe are useful but not beautiful, or beautiful but not useful. They’re looking at the same reality through a different set of values.

Tuning in to the signals of “usefulness” and “beauty” as separate signals leads to a tug of war between two seemingly opposite sets of values. It creates an illusion of a split so deep that two people can feel like they live in completely incompatible realities, one in which the only thing that matters is how something works, and one in which the only thing that matters is how something feels.

One person might say, “This chair is great! It’s sturdy so I can stand on it if I need to reach that high shelf, and I won’t need to replace it anytime soon.” Another might say, “Yes, but it’s kind of dull looking and doesn’t go with the rest of the furniture.” One person might say, “I love this painting! Let’s buy it and hang it in the living room.” And another might say, “Yes, but what use is a painting? We need to buy a new oven, something that actually has a practical purpose.”

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig called these two stances the classic and the romantic. The classic view is concerned with underlying form, function, and purpose. It’s an abstracted, logical understanding of how a thing works. The romantic view is concerned with immediate experience, appearance, and vibe. It’s a direct, intuitive understanding of how a thing feels. The classic is seemingly objective, while the romantic is seemingly subjective. The classic tends to be slow and focused on small details, while the romantic tends to be fast and focused on the big picture.

The illusion is compounded when we’re making something new, or editing or repairing something old. We might assume it’s a trade off. It can be useful or beautiful. It doesn’t need to be enjoyable if it gets the job done, and it doesn’t need to serve a purpose if it’s only decorative. This leads to software, homes, offices, tools, music, stories, or art that may be functional but not enjoyable, or that look elegant but are nearly unusable in practice or have no coherent structure.

Practicing creativity is in large part practicing seeing through this illusion and acting from a stance of wholeness. Beauty, of course, is useful. And not only is it useful, it’s as necessary as fresh air, sun, and nourishing food and drink to our well-being. And wonderfully functional and efficient structures are, of course, beautiful. They carry their own elegance, enjoyment, and wonder. When the illusion is spotted, other illusions start to fade along with it. Both the idea that “art can be anything, it’s just whatever you like” and the idea that “pure objectivity is the goal, personal experience or opinion doesn’t matter” become unstable. The way the world appears to work might start to make a bit less sense, but the practice of creativity and pattern shaping might start to make more sense.

The assumption that enjoyment/beauty and practicality/usefulness are separated from each other as absolute opposites must be shaken off at every opportunity as we practice creativity and the Timeless Way of Building. What Christopher Alexander calls the Quality Without a Name and what Robert Pirsig simply called Quality describes the nameless characteristic found in things made this way—a hidden wholeness in which both beauty and usefulness are pursued as one.

Usefulness and beauty are distinct signals, and often it’s necessary to shift between one or the other during pattern shaping. But only as a way to get a clearer sense of the larger signal of Quality. We must carefully, patiently, and persistently look for its signal, making ourselves a “sensitive recording plate” for its unnamable signature of aliveness, wholeness, and timelessness.