Easing The Pain Of Receiving Feedback

Figuring out the “when”, “who”, and “what” of receiving feedback

I have found difficulty receiving feedback for large, creative projects that are hard to iterate quickly. Some examples would be a book or screenplay, where it’s hard to rework or rewrite after you reach a certain threshold. Compare this to a website, a design, or an essay, where you can make quick iterations based on frequent feedback.

This has been a long learning process for me, and I have yet to figure everything out. Here’s my thoughts on the subject thus far.

Rules of Thumb

No matter when you are asking for feedback, these points usually apply:

  1. Only ask feedback from people whose opinion you respect. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
  2. Know what you’re looking for before you ask for feedback. This usually means asking specific questions. Similar to above, this will save everyone time: the person giving feedback will know exactly what to look for, you will get all your questions answered, and you won’t get any feedback that you don’t want to hear.
  3. If someone sees a problem, they’re usually right that there’s a problem. But they’re usually not right about the solution. People are usually good at spotting things that are weird or uncomfortable to them. You are usually not good at that because you’re so close to the work. What you are good at (and what other people are bad at) is finding solutions to problems in your work.
  4. Don’t take things personally. Otherwise, you’re going to feel crappy and be less likely to receive constructive feedback.

0% Feedback

This is getting feedback for an idea you have yet to pursue. This is my favorite kind of feedback because ideas are a dime a dozen, and there’s very little loss if you change or toss an idea.

  1. Ask someone who would love it, someone who might love it, and someone who would hate it. The first group is to boost your confidence (and acts as a sanity check), the second group will allow you to tweak the idea, and if the last group likes your idea, then you know you have something special (or you’re not being opinionated enough—it depends on your goals).
  2. Look for visceral responses. They usually don’t lie. Do their eyes light up? Or do they simply nod their head and say, “Cool idea, bro.” Body language is hard to fake.
  3. Do they get it immediately? Or do you find yourself going on tangents and explaining a lot of things? Then your idea is probably too complex, or you need to talk about it in a simpler way. They should get your idea after the first sentence.
  4. Are they asking the right questions? The wrong questions would be ones relating to understanding the core idea. The right questions would be ones about implementation or where the idea can go (i.e. the “what if” questions.) This not only means that they get the idea, but they are hungry to know more.

20% Feedback

At this point, you have a “proof of concept” or the minimum work necessary to see and understand the final vision. At this point, you have room for major rewrites.

  1. Ask someone smarter than you. Or someone in your profession who is further along in their career. The idea is that this is a person who is usually more difficult to get a hold of, but they are super smart and insightful. This is someone you can’t casually bother with random ideas, but is willing to give feedback on projects that are further along.
  2. Ask someone familiar with your work, a mentor. This is someone who can see your current work in context of your past work and can be brutally honest. Does your unique voice come through? Are you growing? Are you challenging yourself?
  3. Does the implementation meet your vision? Often times your original vision gets lost or twisted during the execution. The goal after this round of feedback is to align them. Afterwards, it’s all about executing using that framework.
  4. Don’t worry about details. You can ignore things like grammar, sentence structure, or other technical details during 20% feedback. Be clear about that to the person you’re asking feedback from. Right now you’re looking for big picture problems.

90% Feedback

You have exhausted all your personal resources, and you can’t make your work any better on your own. You no longer have room for major revisions.

Ask a professional. And be clear that you are 90% done. No major rewrites, just polishing. The reason for waiting this long to see a professional is cost. If you go as far as you can with making your work as good as possible, it will be less work for a professional, and thus cheaper. Paying for a professional in earlier stages can be useful if you have the capital to do so.

In conclusion, the goal here is to make your work as good as possible while respecting other people’s time and your own. It’s mostly a human resources problem. It begins with finding the right people to ask feedback from and properly managing those relationships. Lastly, it’s about making sure you’re in a position to receive feedback properly: your mind is open, you don’t take things personally, and you’re willing to listen.