It’s not real feedback until it hurts

If you want to learn, you need feedback. There’s a reason that Marshall Goldsmith’s method involves interviewing the people around his clients; because he interviews them and takes in their feedback about his client.

Without someone like Marshall, it’s a bit more difficult to take in real feedback from people. Cate Hall suggests one way, which is to take in feedback anonymously (although she also took feedback from YouTube comments).

Moreover, you have to actually want to take in the feedback. For the first decade of my career, I thought I took in a lot of feedback. Now, looking back, I realized I didn’t take in as much as I could have—and I noticed this because not much of the feedback really hurt my feelings. 

There’s feedback that hurts because it’s presented in a mean, insensitive, or derogatory way. That’s not the feedback I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the feedback that hurts because it’s so real. You know in your heart that it’s true:

  • You feel embarrassed and that you made a mistake, and defensive about someone calling you out on it. 
  • There’s feedback that calls you out on something you feel sensitive or insecure about; in fact, you may seek extra validation in order to compensate for that, and the absence of positive affirmation also hurts. 
  • There’s also feedback that you saw coming, and you’re upset with yourself for not correcting sooner; but you weren’t motivated or didn’t prioritize the right things. 

Real feedback isn’t supposed to be fun; there’s a reason that feedback is often called a shit sandwich. In Eat a Peach, David Chang recalls Marshall Goldsmith telling him, “You have to eat the shit!” and “Shit tastes good!” and “I am going to watch you eat as many bowls of shit as our time will allow.”

When people give you this feedback, they’re not nice; they’re kind. The feedback is also expensive; Marshall charges clients heavily for this type of feedback.

When I was an entrepreneur, I had behaved my way into a place where I could easily avoid real feedback when it presented itself, and I didn’t hold myself accountable to it. Imagine this. You’re running a studio, and you are either:

  • Your team’s boss, so they won’t give you real feedback—and if they do it’s usually positive and very soft
  • Your client’s vendor, so they won’t hold you accountable to real feedback—they’ll just make soft suggestions, and if you don’t take them they will stop doing business with you

When you’re in a situation like this, as I was, you can largely avoid (or turn the volume down on) the feedback that hurts your feelings, and you can easily respond to feedback that you’re well-positioned to improve on. 

In The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins describes an example of a woman who was promoted and had to a leadership role, and eventually had to join a different team while someone else took over a leader. Michael writes, “She kept doing what she knew how to do, making her feel confident and in control. The result, of course, was the opposite. By not letting go of the past and not fully embracing her new role, she squandered a big opportunity to rise in the organization.” 

That sounds familiar to me; I developed a really great combination of skills for clients, but there were still other skills that kept me from reaching the next level of business and creativity. 

For me, writing a book and working full-time roles at different companies—like Intuit, WorkOS, and Figma—have both been great ways to expose myself to more real feedback. When you read critical reviews about your book, or you hear your boss’s and team’s feedback on your work (especially on an editorial team), you’re going to see a lot of where your skills or performance fall short. 

Not all of this feedback makes me happy to hear; in fact, most of it is quite unpleasant. There’s never a convenient time to hear it. But all of it is very valuable and the people who deliver it are kind, in their own sort of way (I must remind myself of this very often). 

The reality of the matter is, other people see, and say, things that I had no idea I was doing. They also hold me accountable for changing my behavior, to practice what I learn. It’s not pleasant, but it’s effective. 

There’s a paper that is related to this idea; while respondents preferred podcasts, reading the text was more effective for retaining what they learned. As Adam Grant writes in Hidden Potential, “Learning is not always about finding the right method for you. It’s often about finding the right method for the task.” 

If you have a hunch that you’re not learning enough, that’s as good a place to start as any: take an inventory of the real feedback that you’ve gotten from people. It might not be as loud, but it’s there. 

If you can’t find it, then you need to put yourself in a position to receive much louder, unavoidable, forms of real feedback (like seeking reviews on your work or performance).

Or, if you’re in a pattern where you’re not accountable to adapting to it, then you need to similarly find someone—a partner, a team, a co-founder, etc.—to help hold you to your own improvement.

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