A few weeks ago, my friend posted on social media to ask for feedback on a creative project.
Now, I know plenty of people whose statuses fall to the bottom of the feed, never to be seen again. But in this case, my friend’s post was getting a lot of attention. And shockingly, it wasn’t a bunch of trolls taking potshots — he was getting real, honest, genuine feedback from people who cared about him and the work, which is really more than you could expect or even ask for.
Sadly, my friend didn’t see it that way.
As I started lurking in the comments thread, I saw that he had crashed his own feedback party. He was taking people on. Defending his work. Justifying his choices. Explaining why the commenters—who had generously given their time and thoughtful opinions — were wrong.
If I had to give feedback on my friend’s ability to receive feedback…well, he probably wouldn’t care for my comments either.
As creative people, there comes a time when we all must set aside our egos and submit our work for feedback.
If we keep to ourselves and spend too long inside our own little “project bubbles,” we’ll start to believe our work is “the sh*t” or just plain sh*t. We need a few unbiased, outside opinions to let us know we’re on the right track or provide some hints as to how we can course correct.
The problem, of course, is that feedback can sting. Sometimes (who are we kidding — always), you just don’t want to hear that the book you’ve been working on for five months needs another total rewrite (trust me, I’ve been there).
On the one hand, we need feedback to improve, and on the other, we just want someone to say “wow, this is perfect.”
Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this paradox.
So the question becomes — how can we get better at getting feedback?
Step 1: Listen to the Right People
Once you share your work with the world, everyone and their grandma will feel compelled to share their personal opinion — even if they don’t know anything about you, your past work, or your super sensitive nature. But just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean that their opinion actually matters.
When you receive negative feedback that falls into one of the top two quadrants — from experts or people who care about you who are engaging with and rationally critiquing your work — you should probably take their comments to heart. When you receive negative feedback that falls into the bottom two quadrants, you should just let it roll off your back and just keep doin’ you.
— Ann Friedman
Some people care about you and your work. Some don’t. Listen to the people who fall into that first category and ignore everyone else.
Rule 2: Don’t Take it Personally
It hurts when someone says “this isn’t good enough. But if the person saying that falls on the upper half of the Disapproval Matrix, then know that you both have the same goals at heart — to make the work the best it can be.
You have to take the feedback as constructive criticism, not as a personal attack. You are not your work.
When you take feedback personally, you’re far less likely to actually consider it. Because considering (or god forbid, implementing it) would be an admission of defeat, a negative reflection on you as a person and an artist.
To actually use constructive feedback to improve your work, you have to be willing to take the criticism while divorcing yourself from the sting.
Rule 3: Shut Up and Take the F**king Note
As an improviser, I know a thing or two about imperfection. When you’re inventing a 30 minute play on the spot with nine other people, perfection isn’t even a goal. There’s always going to be something you could have done better.
That’s why, after each show, the team’s director will give notes. And during this time we live by the maxim “shut up and take the f**king note.”
It’s just common decency.
Because here’s the thing — the director took time out of his or her schedule to watch the show and write notes. And presumably, they’re the director because they’re more experienced.
Debating, arguing, or defending yourself is just plain disrespectful. It’s like saying, “I know more than you” or “you just wasted your time with these notes because I’m not going to listen.” And if you’re not going to at least consider what they have to say, then why study under their direction?
Of course, this maxim doesn’t mean that you are obligated to apply the note (although you should probably at least try it), it just means that when someone’s giving you feedback, you shut up, take the note, and say thank you.
Don’t try to debate. Don’t try to argue. Just be grateful.
How to Stop Sucking at Feedback
If enough people say your website is too confusing, then your website is too confusing. If enough people think your writing is too dense, then your writing is too dense. If no one liked your show, then your show wasn’t very good.
In a subjective field like art, if enough people think something is true, then it’s true. It doesn’t really matter why you made certain decisions or what your goals were.
And at the end of the day, you need to decide who your project is for.
If it’s for you, then you don’t need to change a damn thing. But if it’s for some other group of people — like a group of people who you’re hoping will give you money or likes or shares— and they’re telling you something is broken, then you need to do everything in your power to fix it.
And that can only happen when you zip your lips and listen.