Finish and Feedback
People often talk about what is the best way to improve at something, and for me, it comes down to two practices: actually finishing instance of what you want to improve on, and then getting and applying feedback for the next time.
Don’t leave things hanging! Think about how many side projects, or pieces of writing, or ideas that you started, have some parts finished, but never the whole thing. If you’re anything like the stereotype of people who read articles like this, I’m guessing that number is more than a few. Finish to completion. I know starting new projects is the most fun, and that the wrapping up can be a slog, but don’t leave stuff in limbo. If that means not starting as many projects as you have been, so be it.
And then for everything you finish, you need to get feedback from people who know what’s good in the realm of what you’re working on. Finding someone to help with feedback is one part, but the other is actually using that feedback the next time you work on something. It does you no good what the people tell you goes in one ear and right out the other. Put that feedback to work if you want to actually improve.
I’m not saying doing both of those is easy — being able to accept feedback can be very humbling — but this is definitely the gateway to getting better. There are plenty of self help / motivation articles that already exist on the internet about how to be productive, which is ironic because pretty much none of that advice should involve being sidetracked by reading random articles online. So I won’t give tips or anything on how to actually finish, and I also won’t talk about what it means to accept feedback either. Instead, I’ll give some examples from my experiences when I’ve been able to do both.
Programming — Be this at a job, or just on your own, code feedback is important. If you’re learning on your own, a great way to do this is to do various projects and take them to completion. Whether websites, or web scraping projects, getting the code out there, .
I used this when I was learning web development out of college. I had the whole CS background, but I had to learn practical web development on my own. Instead of endlessly reading tutorials online and thinking that would count as learning, I went the other route and made a few simple sites, wrote about them online, and linked them in various places. The key here is that I actually finished the sites, from initial commit to deployment, so I learned the whole process. And each time, I learned from the comments online and from my own experience of what worked and what didn’t. It took about four months and a few different cycles before I finally was competent enough to get a job with Rails development. I used the same process of completing projects, and writing about them for data analysis.
Once I was working with other developers, I had the same attitude. For every feature I built, I made sure to absorb whatever feedback the more senior developers had for me and put that into practice for the future. I didn’t just ignore what they would tell me.
Learning a Language — With all the resources online, such as Duolingo, getting a basic grasp of a language is fairly simple. A few weeks of practice typing and listening to the computerized voice can get you going with basic phrases and vocabulary. But really, in order to improve to a level of competence, you’re going to need feedback from someone who knows the language. They’ll be able to tell you right away if you’re using the wrong word or mispronouncing a word. So in this case, finishing involves overcoming the barriers to talking with someone, and feedback is putting what that person says into action.
Golf — In very simplified terms, there are two parts to golf, the full swing, and short game (with variations in between), and I’ll talk about both of them here quickly because improving at both requires feedback.
For a full swing, feel and real are very different. And in order to really know what your swing looks like, you gotta get it on video. For the most part, this means finding a PGA Professional who will put your swing on tape and tell you how to change. Having the recording is very important here because it allows you to track your progress over time, as well as actually getting a sense of what your swing looks like when you have a certain feeling. Feel and real in the golf swing are very different. Note that if your teacher doesn’t video your swing and show it to you, you should probably go see someone else.
Earlier this year, Jim Furyk, a guy with probably the funkiest swing on Tour, had his father watch his swing on video after he had a few weeks of mediocre play. His father noticed that his arms and body weren’t exactly working together, and after Furyk the son adjusted, he shot the lowest score in PGA Tour history, a 58.
Now for short game, I’ll focus on pitch shots here, which are commonly defined to as shots where the ball is in the air more than on the green rolling. Though, really, that definition is definitely up for debate. For a competitive golfer, getting the ball up and down from a range of 50–100 yards is really important since it’s an easy way to gain shots on the field. That being said, practicing those shots the correct way is very tough to do.
A good drill I like doing. from a distance of say 60 yards, take three balls, and try to get them up and down. That means pretending you’re actually playing, and for each ball, you need to take at most 2 shots to get the ball in the hole. To do that, you need to take into account the wind, how much green you have to between the edge and the hole, how firm the greens are, and how slanted the greens are around the hole (break for those who know golf terminology). Odds are you won’t succeed at your first attempt at this, because it’s decently difficult to get three balls up and down from 60 yards if you can’t practice like you’re on tour. The key here is to watch what the ball is doing, whether you accounted for the wind, the firmness of the green, etc. so next time you can adjust for the conditions and improve. Way too often in golf practice people just whack golf balls around. You’re not going to get better if you don’t adjust to the feedback your practice gives you. Shameless plug again, for more drills, check out the practice series section on my golf blog, Golf on the Mind.
Canning — If you’re looking to start a business, a canning company for example, without having much canning or food preparation experience in the past, actually making and asking friends for feedback is vital. Don’t just sit there and imagine all the success that you could have with a canning business, you gotta actually make the product, get feedback on whether or not it tastes good, and adjust accordingly. This requires logging the process, ingredient, and other variables.
This applies to tech startups as well. People always talk about getting an MVP out there and getting feedback from users. Common mistakes here involve not launching early enough (not finishing) and then ignoring user feedback.
Writing — If you’re looking to be a better writer, as I am, don’t just imagine how great it’d be to write pieces people read. Write the damn things, get feedback, and write better next time.
For example, if you have an idea about what it takes to improve and something, instead of just sitting around thinking about how profound that idea is, go to a coffee shop, actually write the damn thing, have your sister look it over and use her feedback to improve what you wrote, post it on Medium or some other blogging platform, submit the link to HN or Reddit, and use the probably rude comments to see what else you can improve with your writing. Don’t leave thoughts hanging; write them to completion, get feedback, and write again.