Honest feedback

I'm continuing to write a set of Sunday posts that revisit in turn the ideas Tony Schwartz offered in "Turning 60: The twelve most important lessons I've learned so far". This week, I'm considering the sixth of Schwartz's observations:

"It's possible to be excellent at anything, but nothing valuable comes easy and discomfort is part of growth. Getting better at something depends far less on inborn talent than it does the willingness to practice the activity over and over, and to seek out regular feedback, the more precise the better."

As was the case with last week's idea, Schwartz's advice has a second layer that deepens its value.

Almost everyone is familar with the adage that "practice makes perfect". A subset knows the ideas behind Malcolm Gladwell's claim (in Outliers) that it takes 10,000 hours of invested time to develop true expertise.

What distinguished Schwartz's advice for me comes in his call "to seek out regular feedback, the more precise the better." Some settings provide a lot of feedback naturally: learning a sport, for example, or trying to master a musical instrument. But even in those settings, measurements collectively tell you "what" more than they explain "why".

To understand why we aren't quite there yet (or to confirm that we are), we need feedback that is both "regular" (timely relative to the actions that led to the feedback) and "precise" (specific enough to be actionable and applicable to the activity at hand). That's the key to understanding "why", then improving.

Soliciting and providing effective feedback can be hard to maintain (this explains in part why the two sets of metadata recommendations I provided to BISG included such a strong call for collaboration). No matter how constructive, listening to criticism leads most of us (me included) to shut down sooner or later.

Absent engagement and a sign that the feedback was useful, those giving direction also begin to pull away. The result is either silence – no dialogue at all – or an echo chamber that reinforces what we want to think at the expense of what we need to know.

It's hard to plow ahead and ask for direction when all you want (and maybe need) is a pat on the back. It's uncomfortable, and at the same time it is essential if we want to continue to improve, personally and professionally.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.