My two year-old went “boneless.” For anyone unfamiliar with this tactic, imagine trying to lift up a 30 pound sack of jell-o. One that’s screaming bloody murder in the middle of a grocery store. Leaving me with the options of trying to calm him down or manhandle him out the door in retreat.
As parents know, there’s no shortage of looks and “advice” from the general public in these instances. It seems as though everyone in the store decided to walk past this exact spot and provide some judgment on my current situation.
One guy walks by, giving a disdainful look, telling me to get my kid under control. Another dad smiles with understanding, the knowing look of someone who’s been there before and is just happy it’s not their kid that’s on the floor. Then there’s the matronly grandmother who sees my frustration and reminds me to “cherish every minute.”
Parenting is one area where everyone is enthusiastic to hand out their own brand of advice. People are quick to tell us what “we just gotta do.”
So with all of this available feedback, you’d expect we’d have it all figured out.
Except parenting is also one area where there are no experts. Everyone is a strict amateur. Mainly because no one really knows what they’re talking about.
So while there’s no shortage of available feedback, little of it translates into valuable help.
Feedback: The More the Better?
Who’s made the mistake of telling a risky joke in front of mixed company? Or been a little too honest about your (my) political views within a crowd of conservative business contacts?
Those incredulous faces staring back are all sources of feedback.
There’s no denying that it’s useful. It helps us compare our behavior’s intended result (making everyone laugh) to the actual result (attending a future meeting with HR).
That’s how we learn. Feedback’s great.
So one might assume that top performers are zealous about soliciting feedback. That they’d be on a constant hunt for more feedback from more sources in order to give them more opportunities to develop.
But the more I’ve looked into it, the more I see that this isn’t the case. Top performers are very selective about their sources of feedback. Both in who they ask and who they listen to.
Elite athletes get feedback from select coaches. They’re probably not interested in my opinion on their performance.
They understand that not all feedback is helpful. Often it’s a distraction. Or worse, a complete wrong turn.
So how do we decide which feedback is helpful and which is simply the noise that’s best ignored?
It really just comes down to science.
We’re All Scientists
It’s a happy day for an engineer when his kids are old enough to perform science experiments. I’ve stocked chemistry sets and physics experiments all in preparation for this moment. Yeah, I know, I’m not exactly setting my kids up to be popular in high school.
Between leaving a non-Newtonian fluid mess on the kitchen table and cleaning up our homemade volcano, I tried to teach my kids the scientific process. Best summed up with a sentence from one of Richard Feynman’s lectures,
“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.”
Make a prediction. Do something aligned with that prediction. Watch what happens. Hopefully learn and change for next time based on those results. Science 101.
But this practice isn’t restricted to the lab. Or a (now) slightly stained kitchen table. We all perform science every day.
We change our behavior and watch how people respond.
We invest in a new leather one-piece jumpsuit and gain the feedback that most people feel this is inappropriate dress for a funeral.
We have too much to drink at a party and gain the feedback that communion wine is supposed to be shared with the whole congregation.
Each and every day, we’re performing countless experiments. The only difference between us and those people in white lab coats is that we’re stuck doing our experiments in the real world. With all the additional complications that brings.
One Change at a Time!
A surefire way to enrage a gaggle of scientists is to run an experiment while changing TWO variables at once. You may hear “This whole trial is ruined!” or “How can we trust anything!”
Rarely will you see such indignation from a group of white lab coats who’ve decided to spend their day measuring flight attendants’ (ahem) measurements or determining what makes sunfish more aggressive, tequila or gin. (It’s gotta be tequila, right?)
So it’s a fixed rule that if we’re running an experiment, we should only change one variable. Then our results are indicative of that specific change.
But in life, that just isn’t feasible. There are too many complications. And while everyone loves to say, “correlation is not causation,” (yeah, thanks people, we all get it) people’s behaviors and responses are too complex to be related to one direct cause. They can swing dramatically with any number of changes, including what they had for breakfast that morning or what color shirt we happen to be wearing.
When we can understand this, we’re better able to account for it. Then we can focus on the feedback that will be actually helpful. And filter out all of the unrelated, non-causal, confounded noise.
Filter Out the Noise: Is This Person Looking to Help?
“The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do.” – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
I was presenting my first design. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say it wasn’t great work. It was a brute force approach to engineering, reliability through robustness. That being said, it wasn’t bad. I’d worked hard on it. And I was proud of it. Being young and naive comes with many advantages.
At the end of the design review, a senior engineer gave the feedback, “Well, this clearly still needs some work.”
He didn’t bother to say what work. Or how it needed it. Just that there was some work to be done and if something needed it, it was my design. Clearly.
Or anything but. I agreed to take things back to the drawing board and start over. But I had no idea what I was supposed to change. So I procrastinated on it, never really progressing. Afraid that the second I put forward a new product, I’d be up for more criticism.
This kind of criticism is worthless. It’s put forward by those who aren’t interested in helping us improve. They only want to bring us down to their level.
Which is all the more obvious when we realize that their criticism doesn’t include any method to improve.
When middle school bullies made fun of my braces, I don’t think they intended it as helpful advice that I should call the orthodontist and have them removed early.
It seems obvious in hindsight. Why would I care what someone thinks if they don’t have my best interest at heart? But that’s easier said than done. It doesn’t always stop me from recoiling at a critical comment. Or getting angry when the guy in the next lane tries to tell me how to drive.
Whenever I’m having difficulties in this situation, I remember advice that Kevin Rose provided to Tim Ferriss:
“Do people you respect or care about leave hateful comments on the Internet?”
“Do you really want to engage with people who have infinite time on their hands?”
With any experiment, our focus should be to learn and refine our methods. To test our hypothesis and improve going forward. Feedback that doesn’t help us learn is of little use. It’s not worth our time and energy to stew over it. Mainly because if all someone can provide is a single, unhelpful comment, they likely didn’t understand it well enough in the first place.
Calibrate Your Instruments: Is This Person Credible?
“I only accept and pay attention to feedback from people who are also in the arena. If you’re occasionally getting your butt kicked as you respond, and if you’re also figuring out how to stay open to feedback without getting pummeled by insults, I’m more likely to pay attention to your thoughts about my work. If, on the other hand, you’re not helping, contributing, or wrestling with your own gremlins, I’m not at all interested in your commentary.”- Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
I spent an afternoon reading to my daughter’s class. The Book With No Pictures is always a crowd favorite if you’re looking to rile up a bunch of six year-olds.
I had a blast. But it was exhausting. The task of keeping twenty-two kids focused stretched beyond the limit of my abilities. And all I needed to do was read them some books and give them a snack.
I came away with a newfound respect for teachers. The patience and commitment needed is extraordinary. And I now know that I couldn’t do a better job of it.
It’s easy to trivialize what we don’t understand. When we don’t see the full picture, it’s easy to take a simplistic view of someone’s contributions. And consider the issue is a lack of commitment or that they’re just unintelligent.
Next time you see someone struggling at work, walk up to them and suggest that they, “just be better at their job.” If you’re not soon wearing their coffee, let me know if they appreciated the advice.
People are rarely stupid. They usually don’t try to do poor work.
The truth is that life’s hard. And anything worth doing is going to be a challenge.
So when others aren’t willing to put themselves out there and experience the challenges that we’re facing first-hand, their feedback will always be limited. Until someone understands the struggle of connecting with a room full of rambunctious six year-olds, they can’t be expected to give realistic suggestions on how to more effectively teach first-grade.
As Clay Shirky discussed in his TED talk on cognitive surplus,
“There’s a spectrum between mediocre work and good work. And as anybody who’s worked as an artist or creator knows, it’s a spectrum you’re constantly struggling to get on top of. The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.”
Once we take on that first challenge, we’ve crossed this gap. And we can continue to work on getting better. When others are still sitting comfortably on the side of doing nothing, they haven’t yet earned the right to have an opinion that we should value.
Recognize Your Correlations: Can I Own This?
“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
People love to tell us what we should do. But what they really mean is here’s what they would do. Which is quite different.
In both his recent TED talk and his interview with Tim Ferriss, Ray Dalio discussed how he’s developed a set of core principles to guide his life. As he encountered failures and made mistakes, he reflected on them and learned how he could improve. These lessons and the commonalities between them gave rise to the principles that he now uses to guide his decisions.
We all have a set of values and principles that drive our daily actions. Whether we’ve consciously defined them through our own self-reflection or they’re the product of our experience to date, we all have them. And most of us recognize that when we consider them and make principle-guided decisions, we’re proud of our actions.
So why would we ever want to accept advice from someone who’s operating with a different set of values?
I once had a manager whose methods I disagreed with. They worked for him. But he was unburdened by the weights of ethical standards.
He legitimately wanted me to succeed. And he provided advice that had helped him overcome similar challenges. In all likelihood, following his advice would have earned a similar level of success that he achieved. But his version of success wouldn’t be mine. So heeding his feedback had little value.
Excellence comes from self-expression. We shouldn’t be interested in doing something for the sole reason that it worked for someone else. If it doesn’t align with our principles, we won’t be able to own the decision. And we won’t have the conviction to carry it through.
We Get What We Recognize
In today’s world, our sources of feedback are both instantaneous and all-consuming. It’s enough to overwhelm anyone.
I’m not suggesting we put our heads in the sand and shut out all suggestions. On the contrary, as the world allows more people to expand outside their current comfort zone, feedback becomes paramount to both our growth and our success.
But unless we can apply some filter, we’ll struggle to see our real opportunities for growth. Unless we can filter out the noise, we risk missing useful results.
As Dean Kamen put it, “In a free society, you get what you celebrate.” We need to recognize and celebrate the useful feedback. Because that’s the only way we’ll keep getting it. And that’s the only way we’ll grow.