Scott H Young

How to Use Feedback


If you want to improve your skills, products or performance, you need feedback. Without feedback, you’re limited to only your perspective, and that’s rarely the one that counts.

The tricky part is that feedback can be misleading. Henry Ford famously remarked that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses, not the automobile. What people say they want and what they actually respond to can be quite different things.

Navigating this puzzle, that you require feedback but the feedback you get may be systematically biased and misleading, has lead me to hunt for methods that can make feedback more reliable.

Method One: Do What They Do, Not What They Say

The first heuristic for getting more reliable feedback is to study people’s actions, not their advice. This tip is broad ranging and I’ve found it generally provides better feedback, or at the very least, complimentary feedback to the advice you’ll receive.

Some examples:

  • Selling a product? Watch someone using the product, don’t just ask them what features they want.
  • Learning a language? Notice how people speak—not just the explanation they give. For example, most English speakers pronounce ‘water’ with a ‘d’ sound not a ‘t’ sound (but most would deny that).
  • Want more dates? Look at how women or men respond to your actions, not the reasoning they give. Both men and women are notorious for having a disconnect between what they claim to want and how they respond.
  • Improve your career? Look at what career moves people actually made, not just the retrospective lessons they shared after. (Hint: Steve Jobs didn’t actually follow the advice he gave in his famous Stanford commencement address.)

This doesn’t mean all advice is bad, but simply that it’s dangerous to rely on exclusively. Because advice, as opposed to observable actions, is the easiest feedback to receive, many people stop there and fail to consider that it may be wrong.

Why This Works

When you ask someone for advice a couple things happen which potentially taint the advice. First is that, even if we’re not proselytizing, we’re always trying to maintain a coherent narrative and identity. When the facts don’t add up to the story we need, we ignore them.

The second reason is that we think in terms of principles and ideas, but operate in more pragmatic terms. When someone says “follow your passion” but spent most of their life following cost-benefit calculations, you can see the disconnect. One story is what we choose to believe, one is of reality.

Method Two: Decide What Feedback You Can’t Get

Another mistake is failing to realize that feedback might only be possible at certain levels of your performance. By pretending that all feedback you receive is all that needs improvement, you may end up tweaking details when more fundamental problems need addressing.

Some examples:

  • Improving your resume? Friends and family will tell you to change the font or word order. They won’t tell you what experiences you need to stand out.
  • Writing a book? People will point out the typo on page 124, but won’t tell you the writing is dull.
  • Building a product? Your customers will tell you a small feature is broken, but they can’t tell you that the product is unremarkable.

I spent last month offering a pilot version of a new course for deliberate practice in a career context with Cal Newport. The course went well and we gathered thousands of data point in feedback. Despite this volume, it was important to keep this rule in mind because most of the feedback would have had us make small tweaks to improve the course rather that deeper changes which will ultimately have a bigger impact.

Why This Works

With creative endeavors, nobody has your vision of a product but you. All people can see is what you’ve placed before them, not what it has the potential of becoming.

Method Three: Learn Which Haters to Ignore (and Which to Listen To)

Popular wisdom says to ignore the haters. Focus your product on people who love you instead of trying to please the people who don’t. This is the most dangerous advice I’ve encountered because it’s a plausible half-truth.

Yes, finding a niche and picking a particular audience is important. Justin Bieber is far from universally loved, but he’s selling albums to teenage girls, not thirtysomething music critics. The fact that I don’t enjoy his music doesn’t mean he should change it to appeal to me (which likely wouldn’t work anyhow).

But completely ignoring your critics isn’t wise either. Sometimes a critic is really someone who has the potential to love what you do, but is holding you to a higher standard than you’re currently able to meet. Many of the improvements I made in my business came from outsiders pointing out the real flaws in the way I do things.

Some examples:

  • Want to write better? Ignore the person who writes a poorly worded hate letter. Listen to the person who thoughtfully criticizes your research or arguments.
  • Grow your company? Ignore the complaints from the free-trial freeloader. Listen to the complaints from the person who spends money on products like yours, but opted for a competitor.
  • Improve your communication skills? Ignore the negative comments from people on the sidelines. Listen to the critiques from the people you’re trying to reach.

Why This Works

There’s some proportion of the world who is the intended audience for your products, services or message. Then there’s a much smaller segment who is your current audience. The first mistake is to pay too much attention to people who are not inside any of the audiences you need to reach or care about. The second mistake is to ignore people who are inside your intended audience but haven’t been won over into your actual audience yet.

Method Four: Get Feedback from the Absence of Feedback

Silence can also be feedback, just ask a stand-up comedian. In my writing, I know an article failed not because it generated a lot of negative comments, but because it generated few comments at all. There are exceptions to that rule, but it’s a good proxy to live by—the worst comments to get are no comments.

When I was building my blog, I would look at bloggers who had enormous growth, and examine their early days. Where did they get their traffic? Which articles built their reputation? What was their style?

The negative space here was seeing the feedback they generated with similar resources, at similar points in time, and compared it to my own. Comparing their abundant feedback to my lack of feedback helped me isolate which characteristics my blog lacked.

Some Examples:

  • Giving a speech? Does your test audience get excited at the points you want them to? Do they laugh at your jokes?
  • Writing an article? If they want to talk about it after with you that’s a good sign. If they say “good article” and move to talk about other things, that’s bad.
  • Telling people what you do for a living? Do they say, “that’s nice”, or do they immediately want to ask you questions about what you do?

Why This Works

Sometimes feedback isn’t available. Especially in the beginning phases of a business or project, you might not have access to the people whose opinion matters to you. Negative feedback, or looking at what feedback you’re not getting, can help you make hard decisions instead of coasting blind until real feedback comes.

Should You Use Feedback at All?

Feedback is important, but it isn’t a panacea. In creative fields, having tons of feedback can’t make up from a lack of vision. Nobody can tell you anything about the book you could potentially write, only the one you did.

Sometimes I’ve found it beneficial to ignore feedback entirely. This applies when the feedback is distracting, or I know (from method #2) that the area it applies to isn’t what I’m trying to work on.

Most of the time, however, intelligent feedback beats ignoring feedback. By filtering the feedback you don’t need and constraining the feedback you do, you can get a lot more out of the responses you get without succumbing to their inherent biases.


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13 Responses to “How to Use Feedback”

  1. Vic says:

    great post with some great practical tips – some of which i use already and some of which i’ll start to. Thanks!

  2. Matt says:

    Very insightful. I especially love Method One. People don’t always know how to explain what they want, or what they notice. Sometimes, even brilliant people can miss some essential element behind what they’re talking about.

    Steve Jobs, for example. I think it’s not possible for him to articulate all the secrets to his success, because some of them can’t be spoken. How do you explain how to have the right personality for driving a company’s innovation? Is it possible to verbalize his leadership-style?

    So you listen to his Stanford Speech, and you hear “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”, and you think “Maybe I should drop out of college.” Not necessarily a recipe for success.

    Great job fleshing out that essential point.

  3. Daniel says:

    I often forget what I actually did to achieve some goal (e.g. ace an exam) so I’ve had to resort to making up things impromptu. I’d probably make the same mistake even if this were in writing ….

  4. Willien says:

    Scott,
    What about the scenario of having a product (my book in progress), of which the content is totally controversial and falls downright out of the paradigm of virtually the whole world (I’m sure you are no exception here either)?
    I can tell you…the opposition I get towards my views has become a given. Getting feedback? Its always the same…fear…irrespective of race, religious- or socioeconomic background, etc.
    Meanwhile it’s supposed to be THE most positive news on the face of the planet! Sigh. This book will rock the world…but somehow boulders keep piling up in the way leading to the shelves.
    How do you sell a product (concept) nobody is brave enough to buy? Tricky eh? I guess masterful reasoning is the key..or?
    Come hell or high water…I just HAVE to have this book published.
    I’m SO blessed to have found your website Scott.

  5. MILESC says:

    What should be noted about Henry Ford, Ted Turner, and Steve Jobs is NOT their ideas, but their sheer audacity…To wit, coming up with an idea is one thing, but getting the big shots to sign on is separates us …Take Steve Jobs, for example. Imagine a down and out guy going into record big shots and convincing them to break up the paradigm of forcing people to buy an entire album for one or two songs! Sell more by selling the parts at $0.99! Makes perfect sense–now. Ted Turner was down and out when he started his empire. At the time, I had the same ideas–but it was he who boldly went to the big shots and got it done. I can well remember how alien the thought was to program 24/7 news. Turner before this boldly used microwave substations to jump his signal of WTBS, Channel 17, across the country (this was before satellite space for anybody was available). It took Steve Job’s Gonad Power to go into the bastions of power and as a nobody, get your product manufactured as well as used. In sum, good ideas abound, but Gonad Power is what gets us $0.99 music or “iPods.”
    By the way, the opposite to Gonad Power is the power generated from Garage U. For example, Google and Facebook are the prime example. Here, the idea starts out as code written usually by techies in their garage or dorm room. Use forms and spreads from the ground up, such as with kudzu. Audacity is NOT the key, but rather the sheer fun of coding that non-techies like the result. I can remember how I was scoffed at when I told others about Google, then they went there, and thought it was a joke! Yea, a joke. The paradigm at the time for a web site was the Yahoo cluttered look. Google was too simple and had a cartoon look. I can remember when the paradigm for social media was the gawd awful noisy, cluttered look of MySpace–a total rape of the senses. I thought why not go with the “Google” look? Thought, NOT do. Out of Garage U came Facebook.

  6. Eric-Wubbo says:

    To give some feedback: I like this post, gave me some good reminders for asking feedback to one book that I’m writing.

    On the subject of feedback: while I find a certain percentage of your posts interesting and informative (in the 20-25% ratio), I occasionally fear reading them since many (like this one) feel unnecessarily long-winded. Perhaps split up, or be more aggressive in cutting side thoughts?

  7. Adam says:

    Good article, slightly ironic you only have 2 comments so far, probably because it’s a new post I guess.

  8. Rick says:

    This is somewhat orthogonal to your main point, but I found one paragraph in the email linking to this post interesting:

    “Instead, I got back a few half-hearted compliments and a list of
    typos.”

    I think that’s actually a common occurrence, and I think people asking for feedback often get a bit annoyed at that kind of feedback. But I’d turn it around: I think that if people want substantive (and free) feedback, they owe it to the people they’re asking to deliver a typo-free manuscript. If you’re not able to create such a thing yourself, you could ask one or two people to do a preliminary round of typo-only feedback before requesting comments on the substance.

  9. John says:

    Scott,

    I loved this post. It seems like your ideas about creating a remarkable career and studying are getting more and more refined.

    Like you mentioned, I think it is very important to realize there is a discrepancy between people’s advice and actions.

    Consider this, who would you want to give you golf lessons Tiger Wood’s or his coach?
    Definitely his coach, because the coach knows how to train someone to expert level.

    This distinction is especially valuable when trying to learn complicated skills such as writing and public speaking. Most great writer and public speakers have no idea how to produce great writers and public speakers. The greats simply “do it”. For them their craft is like reading. As adults, when we read we no longer think about the letters and the sounds we simply “do it”.

  10. Lester says:

    Hey Scott,

    Awesome post by the way. This confirms my study habits for math classes. I never do math problems I don’t have the answer to, else it will just be a waste of my time.

    What is a good feedback for starting bloggers? Since early in blogging there is very little views to really know what is going on.

  11. Scott Young says:

    Rick,

    True–but it was just an example of a larger phenomenon. Software designers often get critiques on a small visual part of the layout when that isn’t the stuff that needs fixing. Also, final editing and polishing should usually be done after substantive rewrites so spending a few weeks fixing typos when you’re not sure whether the chapters are going to be completely redone isn’t necessarily wise.

    Matt,

    Also that we don’t always know what caused our success. An expert can reach a high degree of performance without always being able to articulate the details of how the skill is performed.

    -Scott

  12. [...] a slice of the potential future we can create. Hearing it can be hard. I found this article over on Scott H Young’s blog and he has some great [...]

  13. Keri Peardon says:

    I think one of the hardest things for a writer to find are people who give good feedback. I’ve been very lucky that I have two people whom I can always count on: my husband and a good friend. My husband doesn’t pull any punches; he’ll tell me that he doesn’t like something, or that my prologue was weak and irrelevant, and that he wants to see more of this, but I spent too much time on that. My friend Carla is usually not quite as specific, but she will definitely tell me she does or doesn’t like certain parts, and if I ask her questions–specifically on points my husband raised or things I personally questioned–she’ll give good feedback. I like having both a man and a woman’s point of view, because they expect different things out of the characters and plot, so I can take my pick as to which lead I want to follow.

    Contrast that with two other people who read my first book and said, “I really liked it!” When I asked them what parts they liked, I got, “All of it.” Not the least bit helpful. Good for the ego, but not helpful.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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