1. Advice, feedback and how we’re doing it wrong

I’m in a creative industry, and I also spend a ton of volunteer hours on creative pursuits. A lot of my work consists of designing and organising events. Some are small and simple. Some are big and very, very complex. I’m also a business owner, leader of a non-profit organisation and own a publishing house. And while I have a pretty good idea of what I’m doing most of the time, it’s quite often that I could use someone else’s help. Here’s why I don’t always ask for it.

Everyone thinks they know best — even those who haven’t got a clue

One thing that all creators have in common is that people have opinions about their work. Whether you write dark, soulful poems, create music videos for boybands or make larp events for an international audience, there will be a lot of people who have thoughts on what you do. Some will applaud you for doing things, some will hate your work (and maybe even your guts) and some will say ”So, I like the idea, but here’s how you should do it differently.”

When you create something, people will respond. That’s how the world is. The first tricky obstacle to get over as a creator, is that a lot of those people will have no idea of what it’s like to be in your shoes. They’ll have a skewed idea about what you actually do, how hard/easy it is, and how things go from ideas to events/products/experiences. But while it can be quite motivating hearing someone praise your work for its awesomeness even when you know that you really just put in minimal effort, it’s often rather annoying having someone look at your 1000-hour project and go ”Anyone could do that. This sucks.”

How to take in unwanted feedback

Luckily, experience teaches us that we need to learn how to ignore some people, and not let them get us down. There will always be people who want to tell us how (and sometimes why!) we’re doing things wrong. Sometimes they’ll be worth listening to. Often times not so much. A good place to start when sorting the shit from the gold is to ask yourself the question:

”Does this person know anything about this or is it just unqualified opinion?”

Sometimes, even people with no particular expertise stumble on insightful truths, but usually it takes some form of skill/expertise/experience to be able to spot sloppy design, bad ideas, shoddy craftmanship, etc. It doesn’t mean that you should ignore people who are new or inexperienced, but it means that you should take their criticism with the proverbial grain of salt.

Of course, if you’re trying to sell them something, that’s different, but let’s leave that for now.

When it comes to people with so-called ”expert opinions”, it’s another story. Even if you haven’t asked for their feedback, it may still be valuable. Still, it may also be just noise, and you should remember that while you haven’t asked them for their opinion, you also haven’t promised that you’d listen to them. It can be hard to learn how to ignore experts, but if you want to create anything meaningful, sometimes you will have to. Especially since creatives have a way of disagreeing a lot more than engineers and physicists. Producing interesting fiction isn’t exactly an exact science!

Feedback that’s asked for: isn’t that a good thing?

But the real issue isn’t the unwanted feedback. We each have ways of dealing with that in our own way, but if you don’t get to the point where you can shut it out to some extent, you won’t last long in any kind of creative field. No, the interesting (and problematic) thing is when it comes to feedback that you’ve asked for, from people who know what they’re doing and who you respect.

Picture a well-known situation. You have a friend who’s an expert at something that’s related to what you’re doing. Member it’s a hotshot web designer who’s offered to give you feedback on your new web page, an award-winning author who has agreed to look through your novel-to-be or a communications specialist who gives your press release a lookover.

What usually happens is that you get pointed, concrete, useful feedback. Maybe you’ve overlooked something obvious to veterans in the field. Maybe you’ve been unclear about your idea. Maybe you’ve just chosen some ugly colours for your web site. In this case, you usually thank the friend/colleague/lover/etc. for the advice and make the appropriate changes. Everything is exactly as it should be.

The harsh reality of a lot of expert feedback

Sadly, this is an idealised case. Often, you’ll get some good advice, some shitty advice and some advice that might be good in a slightly different context, but seems not to work in yours. Just because people are experts doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always right, and if you’re a high-level creative yourself, there’s a good chance that it won’t be the basics you fail at. But so what? After all, no one says you need to implement their ideas, right? You asked for help or feedback or ideas. You didn’t ask for them to take over the decision making process. Right?

Well…

The truth is that some people are experts in seeing their suggestions ignored without feeling bad about it, while there are those who see it as an attack on their personal integrity if you don’t immediately conform to their glorious vision. The first group of people are the unicorns of feedback, and should be cherished. As the name suggests, they’re not that common, though. The second group is all too common, in comparison.

And it’s not that I don’t get it. If I’ve given someone my highly valuable time, my highly skilled expertise and my highly context-specific feedback, the least they can do is at least respect me enough to make use of it. If not, they’re just wasting my time. Right?

Well…

I’m guilty of this myself, but I try to not think like that. Instead I try to be inspired by the words of Swedish game designer Staffan Rosenberg, who gave me this little gem on feedback he was giving.

”And if you think my suggestions are unfitting / wrong / annoying just say so, I’m just trying to help out. I have no personal pride invested just a love for the production and a passion to see it succeeded. Especially since I have no insight in your current processes and the actual design, only the perceived design.”

Perceived design and the acknowledgement that we don’t have all the facts

The words ”perceived design” are what really stuck with me. In them lies something magical and humble. It’s the difference between thinking that you know what’s going on (and being annoyed when your advice isn’t followed) and realising that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you don’t know, and that also might be relevant. According to the late Lemmy of Motörhead, who is credited with the ö, he ”only put it there to look mean.”, but I’m quite sure that before that explanation came out, there was a lot of speculation (and certainty!) about what it meant.

Sadly, Staffan Rosenberg’s words are not exactly commonly accepted, and until they are, we’ll continue not asking for feedback in situations where it could be useful. Because if feedback comes with a (spoken or unspoken) assumption that we’ll change things because of said feedback, then sometimes it’s safer not to ask for it. And that’s a damn shame, because it also cuts us off from the possible brilliant insights that we shield ourselves from.

I say we should do something to change that.

Don’t expect your advice to change anything — and say it out loud

Of course we need to get (even) better at sorting the useless feedback from the useful. We need to get better at separating ourselves from our ideas, and constantly remind ourselves that an attack on a creative product we’ve created isn’t necessarily an attack on us as people.

But I believe we should also become better at giving feedback and accepting that feedback doesn’t automatically mean change. We should give the feedback in the hope that it’ll make a difference, and we should also acknowledge the fact that this may not be visible in the way we’d like. Sometimes the best way to find out that you’re on the right course is to have the right people tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

Sometimes an idea sparks a new idea, and even though the person giving the feedback doesn’t realise it, the help you got was invaluable. And sometimes it’s just nice to be able to smile and nod when someone suggests that you do something you’re never in your life going to do, because the person understands the difference between a suggestion and a hidden demand.

In the words of Finnish games researcher Jaakko Stenros:

”Criticism is a gift. You give it away. They do what they want with it. If you expect them to put it on display when you visit, you are no better than the relative who expects to see that horrible candlestick displayed when they visit.”

Stenros follows up with:

“Criticism is a gift. When you receive it, treat it as something someone put time and effort into. Still,you must decide if it is useful to you.”

So to round off, what will we gain from this?

I believe that by making it less ”costly” to ask for feedback, we’ll do it more. And more feedback means more sharing of ideas, expertise and experiences. Which — in the end — means better creative work.

* A small note at the end: A friend who was giving feedback on this text mentioned that it doesn’t address moral critique. That’s true. While moral critique of something is definitely also a thing, I don’t feel it ties in with my points here, so I’ve decided to not try to tack it on.

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