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Art of Failure Part 2: 3 Ways to Learn from Negative Feedback November 10, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in anger, Coaching, Discipline, Education, Exercise, Family, Football, Learning, Love, Management, Parenting/Children, Self-Worth, Sports, Success, Workplace.

In the first half of this essay, I talked about ways to give effective negative feedback. This is difficult, because we’re conditioned to be negative in unhealthy and destructive ways, which encourages some to abandon negative communication altogether.


I’m convinced that negative feedback has been given a bad rap. Regardless of whether it’s in connection with correcting the behavior of children, players, or subordinates, I’ve seen evidence that some of the greatest in any particular field seem to draw inspiration and strength from past failures. Ultimately, where’s the balance? Why is it that negative feedback has such a positive effect on some, but such a negative effect on others? How much is it dependent on the recipient?

Shorting the Circuit
In electronics, the circuit designer has complete control of the input and the output and the feedback loop. In social situations, you can only control the output if you’re the coach/parent/instructor (the person in charge of applying the feedback). In contrast, if you’re the person receiving correction, you have absolute control over the input.

No, that’s not a typo. I meant exactly what I said. You have absolute control over the input. I can hear you saying, “Tim, I can’t control what someone else says or does to me.”

That’s true. You can’t (easily) control these things, but you can control your reaction to them. Ultimately, you do this by filtering what you hear. We do this all the time. We can hear the exact same thing from two people, one we respect, and one we don’t. We will give credibility to the one we respect, and take the words (praise or criticism) seriously.

So before you even hear negative feedback from someone else, take a look at what “lines of circuitry” you’ve established. Have you put resistors in the line between yourself and someone you dislike (discounting their opinion)? Have you put superconductors in the path between you and a trusted friend? Both of these conditions are common, and both can be flat-out wrong. Sometimes the people we love say things (in kindness) that are wildly inaccurate. Likewise, our enemies may have insight into subjects that we don’t, and can sometimes be brutally honest in a way that is very helpful.

So now you’re ready to hear the worst that someone else can offer up. Now you’ve prepped yourself for verbal assaults and verbose condemnation. What now? Here are three more things you need to do to be truly ready to hear negative feedback, and learn the most from it.

1. Be Your Own Worst Critic (But Be Fair)
In today’s “feel good” society, it’s common to hear people say “don’t beat yourself up,” or “give yourself a break.” While the people offering such advice generally mean well (I’ve caught myself saying things like this too), the words are dangerous, because they are an invitation to mediocrity.

The key here is to regularly examine the metrics you use to assess your own performance. Are you measuring yourself against an impossible standard? As a Christian, it’s easy to find myself saying “What would Jesus do?,” and thinking “He would have never gotten Himself into this mess!” The right metrics are ones that we can assess somewhat objectively. The “S.M.A.R.T.” acronym from goal-setting workshops applies here: Specific, Measurable, Aligned (to my goals), Realistic, and Time-bound.

At work, I don’t have to wait for my boss to assess my performance. I know what business we’re in. If I’m paying attention, I can figure out how my input affects the bottom line. Accordingly, when review time comes around, I should already know where I’ve succeeded and where I’ve fallen short. I should know what things I need to work on, and where I deserve a pat on the back.

Most importantly, I might be able to fool my boss or even my co-workers, but I can’t fool myself about whether or not I’ve really put forth my best effort. This is the reason being your own worst critic is the key to being ready to hear what others have to say.

2. Let Anger Drive (But Not Control) You
Anger is a terrific motivator. In his autobiography titled “So Good, So Far,” humorist Grady Nutt said that anger is “hurt [the emotion], looking for a way to get even.” This seems pretty accurate. Most of the time when we’re angry, what’s really happened is that something hurt us, and we want to find a way to “get even.” Consider how powerful an emotion revenge can be. Mountains have been moved, wars have been fought, and (possibly) millions of lives have been lost, all from someone motivated to seek revenge.

However, anger doesn’t have to be a destructive thing. We can harness the energy of our anger and focus it toward a goal. This is a bit of Eastern philosophy coming out here, but focused energy is almost always effective at accomplishing things. At times, I should be angry, and sometimes, I should be angry at my own performance. Here’s an example.

Several years ago I was performing some comedy for an audience, and I had not done the right preparation. I had the wrong material for the wrong audience, and made things worse by giving the wrong delivery! It was the ultimate in bad triple-plays. I walked away from that night angry. I was angry at the audience at first, because they had failed to appreciate my sterling performance. But with time, I realized that the audience is never “at fault” for not enjoying something. It is up to me, the performer, to make sure that I have the right material to perform (or recognize that I don’t have it, and save everyone the pain and suffering).

Those dreadful moments on stage are burned deep into my consciousness some twenty years later. I can remember vividly the horror of joke after joke bombing, and the stone-faced response from the crowd. I can see faces of the members of the audience, and the look of horror on my wife’s face in the back of the crowd as she stood there, helpless to save me.

Since that day, I have never approached a performance the same way. Now, I do more research on who will be in the audience, what some “hot button” topics are for them, and prepare accordingly. Instead of throwing something together at the last minute (see my “hero syndrome” comment from 11/8/06), I now go into every performance with 2-3 times the material that I’m likely to need. I always prepare at least one “backup plan” of material that is more generic (though less funny/entertaining), and hone my delivery for better effect.

At no point in time did anyone in that audience give me a nasty assessment of my performance, or a critical review in the newspaper. If they had, after I cooled off, I would have agreed with them wholeheartedly. The point is, my anger wasn’t directed at the audience, who were innocently showing up, hoping to be entertained. Nor was my anger directed at an external critic, even though you could argue that the audience had “voiced” its opinion by its silence.

Instead, my anger was totally focused on my role: material selection, audience research, and performance preparation. (Watch for a future blog entry about performances that have the “right stuff.”) The end result is that I am a much better performer now than I was then, and audiences reap the benefit. (There is a train of thought here that I want to explore in a post in the future, revolving around the requirement that good writers, speakers, and performers love their audiences.)

The takeaway from this horrible memory is to be angry about your performance before you get the feedback from someone else (see “Be Your Own Worst Critic,” above). Then, when you hear others’ comments, instead of getting angry at them, you’ll simply add more fuel to the fire you already started.

3. Set Unreasonable Goals (And Then Meet or Beat Them)
An interesting psychological tactic that some coaches use is to set expectations for players that are (apparently) impossible to reach. Other coaches simplify this by appearing to be impossible to please or satisfy.

The response from some players is to give up or quit, but others will become determined to not only meet the coach’s unreasonable expectations, but to absolutely destroy them with superb performance. When you hear a player say “I’ll show him… I’ll score the 14 points he’s asking me for… and TWENTY MORE!,” then you know that this player has caught a powerful emotion.

At first blush, this may seem to run counter to what I said earlier about S.M.A.R.T. goals, given that the “A” represents “Attainable.” Of the five words in the acronym, this is the one I feel is most abused and misrepresented, because we so frequently underestimate what is truly possible and what isn’t.

What would have happened if Roger Bannister had believed that the four-minute mile was not humanly possible? What about men walking on the Moon? What would be of any of the records of human achievement? What if Al Gore had not believed that one man could create the Internet, all by himself?

OK… the last example may have stretched the point a bit.

Regardless of Mr. Gore’s involvement (or lack thereof) in giving birth to the Internet, we underestimate not only what human beings (as a race) are capable of, we notoriously underestimate what we (personally) can do. This tendency toward underestimation is, like many things, a habit. We get in the habit of “going easy” on ourselves or others, thinking that we are somehow doing someone a favor. This brings me to:

Tolerance of mediocrity is a favor to nobody except the competition.

This applies to mediocrity in all areas of life. If I allow myself the “luxury” of a half-… baked performance, then it will only be a matter of time before it will come back to haunt me. If I allow an employee (or employer) to give me less than the best they can deliver, I am reinforcing (by my lack of response) that behavior, which leads to the maxim of “What you tolerate, you encourage.”

In contrast, if I am constantly in search of ways to squeeze that last bit of excellence, that burst of energy that drains me dry as I cross the finish line, I will be able to look back on a lifetime of ever-greater accomplishments. My successes may not be found in the Guinness Book of World Records, but they will be remembered by those who were touched by my life, big or small.

It is possible for negative feedback to be truly beneficial, and a learning experience. However, true growth accelerates even more when we search out the unvarnished truth, and actively seek the opinions of knowledgeable and worthwhile “feedback sources.” Whether this comes in the form of constantly searching for informed, dissenting opinions–things that challenge my current thoughts and beliefs–to a training partner in a sport or other competitive activity that will objectively assess and evaluate my (hopefully) improving skills, to a peer at the office who “cuts you no slack,” positive sources of negative feedback are something to be treasured, not spurned.

First, prepare your inputs for corrective action, as I’ve discussed here. Then, find those feedback circuits, and make those connections.


1. litlove - November 11, 2006

Tim, I agree a lot with what you’re saying. However, I am the first person to be my own harshest critic, and I’ve made a lifetime’s work out of striving for the unattainable. As a result I’ve now got chronic fatigue. All I want to add to your excellent explanation is: pick your battles. I’ve learnt the hard way that you can’t do this all the time. It’s a good approach for the things you feel most passionate about in life, but it doesn’t work as a life style.

2. Tim - November 11, 2006

Interesting. “Pick your battles” was a phrase my Mom used more than any other when giving me parenting advice. I think you’re on-target in applying it here too.

Please note the emphasis on “(But Be Fair)” in the heading. It’s one thing to set a goal that is just beyond the edge of your last big accomplishment. It’s another to be completely unreasonable. For example, regardless of how much I may want to play in the NBA, I do not possess the natural ability (or height), and am way past the age at which even superstars were able to play at that level.

This is the dilemma for most Christians. How do we strive to be “Christ-like” in our behavior, when it’s clear that it’s beyond the realm of any human being, and not get endlessly discouraged? Striving to be better than I was yesterday, in some regard, is a healthy compromise.

As always, thanks for your insight and comments! – Tim

3. seandbe - November 12, 2006

Good message,and thought. I loved the dig at Gore. LOL!
Every day you learn, from the good the bad and the Ugly. Take the leson’s that are given to us every day.

4. Jeff Fuson - November 16, 2006

Good stuff here. Litlove said that she’d spent a lifetime trying to do the unattainable and suggested that we choose our battles. More and more we’re finding this to be true. Marcus Buckingham has done some great work centered on discovering your strengths and aiming most of your efforts there. I couldn’t agree more with his approach to life and zeroing down to where we can make the highest contribution for the highest good.

5. Rod E. Smith, MSMFT - November 17, 2006

Dear Tim:

FYI – Richard McChurch has posted again after quite a long silence…..

Thanks for the steady stream oif persons who come from your blog to mine – I hope it is reciprocal……

Rod Smith

6. The Art of Failure Part 1: 3 Ways to Make Negative Feedback Effective « A Fool and his Words are Soon Parted - April 18, 2008

[…] Three Rights Make it Right There are probably lots of parents, coaches, and bosses who use different strategies than the three I’ve mentioned here. Even so, the strategies I’ve shared here seem to be common to a vast majority of highly intense, frequently negative coaches, parents, and bosses. There’s obviously no guarantee that if you say negative things, the recipient will respond with increased focus/effort. In the follow-up to this entry, I’ll talk about the other side of the equation: How to Accept Critical/Negative Feedback. […]

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