Life is Too Short to Wait on Feedback

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When is a virtue not a virtue? When persistence and “staying the course” keeps you on the wrong course.

Words with a Friend

One of the joys of nearing middle age is having extended friendships with years of shared history. Recently I was having a talk with just such a friend and the topic turned, as it often does, to career and success and how achievement actually works. I had recently been struggling to make a year-long endeavor bear fruit. He reminded me of several areas of his life where he was succeeding, but that success took years of grinding with no visible results. Years later, someone, somewhere, recognized his work and opened doors for him. Yet at the time he had no idea who that person was, what opportunity would be presented, or in what time frame this recognition would emerge.

Our shared experience taught us that karma does seem to be real: that putting out ‘good vibes’ in the form of good work, even when the payoff is hard to see, does pay dividends — sometimes. The spiritual concept of karma also includes the idea that this connection between deeds and consequences can run slowly, even beyond the span of an individual lifetime. As much as I like the concept of karma, I’m becoming increasingly unwilling to wait for all that ‘good energy’ to come back to me in its own time and in its own way.

Paths with Dead Ends

“Just try hard, keep going, and you’ll succeed,” stands high on my list of the worst advice ever given. In my 20s, I became interested in Artificial Intelligence and entered a PhD program to study the topic in depth. A good PhD program, like any quality educational environment, includes copious feedback. This feedback comes in the form of grades, discussions with faculty and collaboration with peers. For the first four years of my studies, the feedback was almost all positive. I passed my classes, completed research projects, and passed my comprehensive exam. I had no indication anything was amiss until my thesis proposal stalled for a full year and then was rejected without opportunity to revise. I was dumbfounded. I searched for a credible explanation of what happened, but no explanation ever arrived. For five years I was getting feedback and responding to it. The trouble was that some or all of that feedback wasn’t accurate.

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After my PhD attempt, I went to work as a software developer. All the feedback to date said I should succeed. I had a bachelors and masters degree, both related to computer technology, and I had taken dozens of programming classes. Sometimes I struggled, but I always got through in the end. In the business world, the feedback was more rapid. I quickly learned that programming in industry isn’t like programming in research or academics. It required a different mindset, and I quickly recognized I didn’t have it. There’s a fine line between “push through temporary adversity” and “grind against an insoluble problem.” I pushed against this problem for years and it never yielded. At the end of this struggle, more than ever before, I learned that perseverance can be a vice if it means ignoring feedback that reveals whether a problem is temporary or permanent.

What College Dropouts Know

The much-beloved and recently-departed Steve Jobs is famous not only for co-founding and shaping Apple Computer into the technology titan it is today, but for dropping out of college to do it. What Jobs lacked in college credits, he made up for in feedback. He was still auditing classes while at the same time associating with the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of amateur computer builders that counted Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as a member. While academics were busy writing papers, Wozniak and Jobs were building the first truly personal computer from the ground up. The meteoric success of Apple Computer gave them unambiguous feedback that they were on the right track.

Build Your Own Fast Feedback System

I’m convinced that success all but demands rapid, accurate feedback rather than putting forth effort and waiting years for karma or serendipity to pay off. And for the most part, rapid, accurate feedback does not come automatically, even in academic work which is designed for feedback. If you want to benefit from a quality feedback system, you’ll most likely have to build it yourself.

Some of the best feedback comes from trusted friends, but only those friends who are honest and brave enough to say things you won’t want to hear. For nearly any goal, there is someone who has already achieved what you aspire to. Find that person and see if you can bring them into your inner circle. Before I decided to become a therapist, I made sure I had long talks with lots of working therapists lest I repeat my prior cycle of poor feedback. By the time I enrolled in my masters program for counselling, I was a hair’s breadth from certainty that I was on the right track.

The best feedback in the world is useless if you don’t take time to hear and understand it. Journalling is a great way to collect and process all the input you’re receiving.

Blogging has also become a way to mine for feedback. If you start a blog and share your ideas or creations online, you will get feedback. Not all of it will be quality feedback, but blogging can be one of the best ways to present yourself to the world, especially experts in your field.

It is cheap to lie with words, but expensive to lie with your wallet. If you wish to have tangible feedback on the quality of your work, go into business for yourself. Your customers or clients will let you know right away how much they value what you do. Most likely they’ll also have plenty of suggestions on how to make your business serve them better. And when you listen to enough feedback and use it to improve incrementally, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy success on the scale of Jobs and Wozniak.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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