When people are huddled at a conference or professional event, the subject often turns to the value of failure and embracing feedback. “It is the key to self improvement!”, many chant, channeling their inner self-help gurus, Sadly, many don’t quite practice what they preach.

Seeing the value in critical feedback and the lessons that failure can offer is a tough pill to swallow. For those confident in their capabilities, their social standing (in their companies/communities etc), and their abilities, the pill goes down a little easier. For those who experience imposter syndrome, feel insecure about their work, or are new in their careers, it is more difficult.

Here’s the thing: these are not binary personalities. While some people are overly confident about themselves, and some people are overly insecure about themselves, most people have a blend of both. As such, even the most confident people can feel the sting when they get critical feedback or screw something up. This is a guide with some things I have learned over the years about how to turn feedback and failure to your advantage.

The Ideal Blend

In my not-so-humble opinion, the perfect blend of a human being is confidence in their ability to execute and accomplish their goals, but with a healthy dose of awareness of their current limitations. Let’s face it, overly confident people are often not just at risk of being swallowed up by ego, but can also lack the empathy to understand other folks they need to work with who don’t share the same confidence.

An understanding of our current limitations is healthy. When we understand we are not great at something, but we are eager to learn and improve, it opens us up to counsel and tuition. The confidence piece plays an important role in helping us to remember: “I might suck now, but I am going to learn and get better”. When we have this in our heads it makes the journey more palatable: we know that our failure to succeed right now is temporary and it will improve.

Pictured: me in a kitchen.

As an example, historically I was an awful cook. When I moved to the US I barely knew how to cook an egg. I was just never interested to learn. Then, I decided to learn to BBQ (after eating some mind-blowing brisket and deciding I needed to make that in my back yard). I started smoking brisket, then pork, and then ribs. Of course, it was all awful and my family suffered through painful bite after painful bite with a lego-like fixed grin on their faces to offer their (at times quite reasonably muted) encouragement.

When I started BBQing though I knew I was at the start of my journey. My previous experiences learning new things (e.g. community strategy, programming in Python, playing the guitar/drums) taught me that we all suck at first. While it was awful, and the failure of making terrible food at family gatherings stung, I knew this was just part of the journey. It would not suck forever, and that focus on the journey helped to seal my confidence to keep succeeding. Importantly, the failure shone a light on where I need to look to improve.

Failure

So, let’s first dig into failure.

When we think of “failing” we typically think of screwing something up. We didn’t deliver a great talk, we didn’t handle a conversation with a peer/boss/customer very well, we didn’t deliver a project on time, the thing we did deliver didn’t work, etc.

Like many things, failure has two pieces to it: a logical and emotional component.

The emotional piece is the thing we feel. It is the embarrassment of getting it wrong, the fear of leaving a bad impression, that we wasted an opportunity, or that we may be on the chopping block at work for getting it wrong. While feelings are important and we should care about them, feelings are also ludicrously inaccurate in many cases, and particularly when we fail. That knot in our stomach makes it difficult to shake the emotional hold failure can have and this is why so many people get so stuck in the mud with failure: they spend too much time feeling it rather than thinking about it.

This is where the logical component comes in. Every failure involves a flow chart of what happened and what led to that failure. This is often a set of connected individual pieces, each with an in-point (what information did I have?) and an out-point (what did I need to deliver?). When we construct this flow-chart and try to assess where things went awry, this is where we find our learning moment.

That learning moment is the key to harnessing failure. Here is the key thing to remember: the emotional bit (e.g. the embarrassment) in almost all situations will pass. Remember what I said earlier about sucking at the beginning of learning something? That is because learning is a journey. So too is failure: failure has a beginning, middle, and end. As such, when you get the knot in your stomach after a failure, just tell yourself that (a) this knot will pass soon, and (b) focus your mind on constructing the flow-chart and finding your learning moment.

Pictured: Not a great talk.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Years ago I was offered a keynote at OSCON (a large tech conference). It was a huge opportunity in my career, and I was informed the keynote was to be ten minutes long. I had another full talk (45 mins) at OSCON to prepare too and I put that together and then focused on the keynote.

I struggled: I kept questioning what value, if any, I could reasonable deliver in 10 minutes. I like to make my talks flow like a story and I was worried it would all be a bit forced and rushed in 10 mins. I was over-thinking it, but I tried to put together something decent and see how it went.

While the audience seemed happy, I was the opposite. I was mortified. I felt it didn’t represent my standards of content or delivery, and my confidence took a jolt. I asked a close friend for his review and he said “you have done better”, which was his polite way of putting it. It put a cloud around the rest of the day (the emotional bit). I felt embarrassed and that my career took a hit.

Then, while discussing it with the same friend, he said:

“Look, some people are good at writing novels and some people are good at writing short stories. You are good at novels, but your short stories need work”.

This was transformative feedback. I now knew I was on day one of a new journey, and the failure shone the light on where I needed to go. I went home, I watched countless short keynotes on YouTube, asked friends for guidance, and I learned just what is possible in ten minutes. I practiced, delivered some more presentations, and not only did I learn the “short story” skill, but it helped my other presentations to be more concise and focused too.

Feedback

A key piece of that story about OSCON was the provision of feedback from my friend, Stephen Walli. He didn’t sugar-coat it, but he delivered it constructively and it helped to track down where the missing piece was. This was like finding the clue in a crime scene that helps the investigation go in the right direction.

Soliciting feedback is essential in growing and building capabilities. It is also a little nerve-wracking: by opening yourself up to feedback you are also at risk of hearing some feedback that may bring on that knot in your stomach. The same applies here: train yourself to focus on the logical component as opposed to the emotional component.

Soliciting constructive feedback has two key parts:

  1. When you get feedback, you need to always be receptive and never defensive or frustrated.
  2. To receive great feedback, you have to build a permissive relationship with others that means they can share it without worrying about you being…well…defensive or frustrated.

For (1), this takes practice. When you get some critical feedback always do the following:

  • Thank the person for their candor.
  • Ask them questions to ensure you fully understand the feedback being provided (always try to reduce making assumptions, they are often wrong).
  • Make it clear that you would also welcome additional feedback in the future for ways to improve.
  • Thank them again.

You want to engineer a situation here where while they may be a bit nervous about sharing some feedback, they will feel thanked and rewarded for doing so. This will not only make them feel good, but it will also give them a wonderful impression of you and your maturity in accepting feedback and input.

The next piece to to build a permissive relationship with others around feedback. This is something you should do with everyone. Here are some recommendations:

  • Regularly tell people that you want to have a full-disclosure relationship and while you love hearing the praise, you also want to hear when you can improve.
  • Share stories about how critical feedback has helped you to improve and be better.
  • When others provide critical feedback in a group setting (e.g. a team meeting), follow the bullet points above about thanking them, asking questions, and being receptive. Showcasing this in front of a group is a great opportunity.
  • Write on your blog, social media, and elsewhere that you value constructive feedback and provide examples.

Now, it is important to clarify: this is all about constructive feedback. It is important to remember that you have a choice in whether you accept or reject feedback. If someone is clearly being an asshole, just ignore it. Don’t give them your attention.

A Final Note

Much of what I am talking about here is a philosophy known as stoicism. In recent years I have become an ardent fan of learning how to approach problems in a stoic way. It provides a plate of armor for handling many tough situations. Here are a few books I recommend on the topic:

So there we have it. Not sure if any of this is helpful, but it struck me that it might be worth sharing.

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