The Critical Life Skill They Never Taught You In College

You don’t need talent to master it

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Your teachers and bosses expect you to be good at it. Perhaps that’s why nobody teaches it. Anyone can excel at it with the right attitude.

Several buzz words probably come to mind: critical thinking, decision making, design, creativity, business acumen. Those skills are important. But there is one meta-skill that accelerates your growth in any profession or area of focus. And the best part? No talent required. In my experience, the more talented you are, the less likely you are to embrace it.

The coachability quotient

In my early twenties, I took a job as a stockbroker trainee. It was the thing to do back in the 1990s.

It was the first day of our orientation. The trainer walked into the conference room and gave us a short motivational speech after his introduction.

“Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t care how smart you are or what your background is. I only care that you’re hungry and coachable. Damn it; you better be coachable.”

I hated that job, but the guy was right about the importance of being coachable. The guys who succeeded in that job took instructions without complaint. They never reinterpreted feedback to suit their liking. They never rejected criticism when it hurt their feelings.

Coachability Quotient — Your willingness to take instruction, feedback and criticism, and act on it the way your coach or mentor intends.

I knew better than my coaches, so I rejected their criticism when it clashed with my beliefs. I modified their suggestions to improve on them. Why? Because at the ripe old age of twenty-four, I knew better. The ones with the high coachability quotient won, even though some of them couldn’t tell the difference between an income statement and a muffin recipe.

The ability to ask, receive and accept critical feedback is an underappreciated skill that nobody teaches

Why is it so hard to improve your coachability quotient?

Criticism can damage our ego. It hurts our feelings. It feels like a personal attack — even well-meaning, positive criticism stings.

Last year, I hired an editor to review a fictional work of mine. He littered the manuscript with notes, tagging every plot hole, every ambiguous sentence, and every bungled transition. I yelled and screamed at the document as if it would magically apologize and admit it was all a bad joke. I let a few days pass, and soon came to appreciate the criticism. It helped me improve the next version.

How do we become better at asking, receiving and evaluating feedback?

Stay away from the echo chamber

Anyone with the necessary qualifications can be a coach: an editor, manager, mentor, consultant. That doesn’t mean someone with qualifications should be a coach. There needs to be a chemistry between coach and coachee.

Your coach must be a disinterested professional or in complete alignment with your goals

Your dear uncle may be the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, but he’s biased. It’s hard for him to give unfiltered professional advice. A disinterested professional would prefer if you succeed, but she has no emotional or financial interest in your success or failure. She won’t tell you what you want to here. She’ll tell you what you need to hear. Consultants and independent editors are examples of this role.

Sometimes we find ourselves with coaches aligned with our goals. If you succeed, your coach succeeds. If you fail, your coach fails. An example might be a working relationship where a manager earns part of his income based on the success of his subordinates. It’s in his best interest to make sure you do your best work because his compensation depends on it. Your goals are aligned.

Evaluate your dependency

How attached are you to the outcome? We all feel an attachment to our work. I might only spend an hour on a presentation, but I still want accolades for my work. For the most part, we get over the failure of small projects quickly.

What if it’s a book you’ve labored over for the last three years? What if it’s a business idea you’ve invested your life savings? It’s much harder to accept feedback when we tie our financial worth or self-worth to the outcome. We’re more likely to become defensive in the face of such criticism.

When I received feedback from the editor, I had to remind myself that I asked for it. It’s natural to feel angry and defensive after investing so much of my time. That recognition put me in a frame of mind to accept and evaluate it with a clear head. In hindsight, I should have gone through this exercise before looking at the notes.

Give yourself distance

Consume the criticism and let it marinate. Don’t react. Avoid attacking the coach or mentor. If you feel angry, hurt or blindsided, do what you need to do to cool off. I find a thirty-minute walk does the job for me.

You’ve put your soul, your money, and your life into your work. It hurts when someone picks it apart, even if the critique is valid (especially when it’s valid). Getting emotional is okay. Work it off and give yourself time. Allow your mind time to process the feedback.

Evaluate

Let’s pretend it’s twenty-four or forty-eight hours later. You’ve calmed down. You understand the critic you hired did not mean to attack you personally. You hired her to do a job for you and she did it. It’s now up to you to digest the results and take action.

Revisit the criticism. You don’t have to agree with all of it, but you should have a good reason for dismissing it. The burden of proof is on you. When I read over my manuscript evaluation, there were several notes to the effect of “this explanation makes no sense.” My internal voice shouted, “what is he an idiot?”

After my cooling off period, I reviewed it again. The burden of proof was on me to prove he was wrong. I realized the setup was ambiguous and it threw off everything that came afterward. In the end, I was grateful for the honest critique.

A high coachability quotient can help you level the playing field against those of greater natural talent who feel they’re too good to accept coaching.