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.