I don’t know if you’ve heard the story. Even if you have, I think it bares retelling because of a few lessons therein. Sometime in the 1840s, gold was discovered in the western part of the United States. Everyone who was within shouting distance of California just started heading in that general direction. Many people left their homes and livelihoods and headed west. This resulted in something we now refer to as the “gold rush.” San Francisco went from being a tiny village of a few hundred people to the 12th largest city in North America. Everyone came. They might have been doctors, but they quit being doctors and started panning for gold.
Of course, this almost always never works. I mean going with the “fashion and money-making machine” of the day… Even if it does work according to some external metric say financial success or fame, I suspect it leaves you ultimately dissatisfied. It’s better to do something that you care deeply about instead of trying to chase (not the bank) what seems to be the hot passion of the day. So you need to be very clear with yourself what it is you want. And then choose something that has the right intersection of interests. One of the ways I’ve found very useful and effective in doing this is the idea of “reverse engineering.” The notion of projecting forward to age 80 or so and looking back on your life and trying to make sure that you’ve minimized the number of regrets you have. This regret minimization framework works for career decisions, works for relationship decisions, works for family decisions and even the micro decisions we make every day. But of course, you need foresight and vision to do this.
Anyway, one of the many stories that emerged from the gold rush era is the story of a group of settlers who had journeyed for several days looking to settle in this town near the gold mine. They saw an elderly man sitting at the gate of the town, they greeted him and wanted to know whether it was good to settle in that town or not. They said, “We just want to ask, ‘Are the people in this town nice? Are they good people? Are they friendly? Are they courteous? Are they hospitable?’” The elderly man answered them, “Where you’re coming from, were the people there nice? Were they hospitable? Were they friendly? Were they kind?”
They said “Sir, don’t even go there at all. Those people were mean people. Very mean and wicked.” The elderly man said, “Well, the people here are exactly the same.” The people said “We better move on to the next town.” The elderly man bid them farewell.
Another group of people came by. And interestingly, they asked the elderly man the same question. “Are the people of this town kind? Are they hospitable? Are they compassionate?” The elderly man asked them, “Where you’re coming from, were the people there kind to you? Were they hospitable and generous?” They said “Oh, they were so lovely. So kind, so generous, so hospitable. Good people.” The elderly man said “the people here are exactly the same.” They said, “Well, we are going to settle here.”
There are a few things to note in this story. The first morale is that a lot of the time we think its people that are bad, we think there’s something wrong with people, we don’t realize a whole lot of the time it’s us. How we have been treated in the past almost always influences how we relate with people in our present. We carry emotional baggage with us. The elderly man asked them about their perception of the people they had related with in the past, because he knew that they were going to project exactly that very same experience on their new neighbors.
That said, the issue of real practical significance about the story is the principle embedded in it. Which in my opinion is multi-applicable. And it is the fact that feedback tell us more about the individual reporting than it does about the individual or event being reported. In my last year in college, I took a course in remote sensing. The whole idea of remote sensing is that you can get a lot of information about an object by simply shooting some kind of radiation at the object and processing the reflected radiation or energy. You can by this simple process get information about the composition, age, thickness, temperature, topography and the like without being in physical contact with it. All these data is imbedded in the reflected energy — the feedback, and after a little processing and peeling back the noise, you can get to the clean stuff.
So how do we deal with feedback? How do we process feedback? How do we get to the clean stuff?
The truth is — many feedback are only a reflection of the insecurities of the bearer.
If you think otherwise, it means you don’t yet understand the nature of life and the nature and condition of this wonderful creation of God called human. A feedback is not necessarily a thought out position neither is it a product of deliberate cogitations. There are people who talk just to talk. Most times (99.1% of the time actually) feedback are expressions of prejudice and hidden and not so hidden agenda.
In this clime, the man who gives you a feedback about something you’ve done (or are doing), a product or service you’re rendering is seeking to exercise indirect influence over your life. He’s trying to influence others to have the same biases and views he has about an event or a person and create social pressure. He seeks to shape people’s lives, determine courses of action and associations and mold outcomes. He wants to become the solutions architect of their lives. He wants to assume the role of Alpha and Omega. It’s an indirect governmental control. If you don’t understand this you’ll be inadvertently teleguided via a remote control unit. So am I saying don’t listen to anybody? No. But if you’re going to amount to anything in life, if you’re going to make progress you must learn to exercise casual indifference to certain feedback. There are certain feedback you just don’t pay attention to. You must learn to recognize motivations, biases and agenda. I guess what I’m saying in shorthand is that you’ll need a bullshit filter, otherwise…
How do we deal with people who enjoy creating uncertainty? Or the person who carries around a bagful of pain from unpleasant experiences that he needs to share? How do we differentiate between the person who has the good interest of the organization at heart from the person who has a grudge? How do you distinguish between the person who’s goal is revenge and personal vendetta from the person who wants the system to collapse? How do you process feedback laced with jealousy and envy? How do you process feedback contaminated with bigotry because he thinks a woman shouldn’t be the #POTUS? Go Hillary!!! Now you know my political affiliations. How do you deal with feedback marinated in flattery too? How do you deal with feedback coming from a theoretician, someone who has never gotten out of the stands and stepped onto the main stage? How do you deal with feedback from people who have never gotten their hands dirty in the arena of dreams?
I really don’t know. But I know you’ll need a good dose of wisdom and discernment. And you can ask God for wisdom. The reason you’ll need God is because He knows the heart. God knows the heart of men relative to the slices of time and space. He knows men in the past reverse-continuous, present continuous and future continuous. Even knows us before we were. He has this curious ability to see motives through and through.
While you’re on your knees asking God to refill your wisdom tank, here’s my submission.
I think there are only two possible dispositions to feedback. There is the category of, “I am going to actively seek this sort of feedback out and listen to it and act on it.” And then, there is the category of, “I am not interested in hearing that.” Period. There is no room for a third category. Life is binary. You’re either in or out. Any attempt to sit on the fence in your treatment of feedback puts you in a vulnerable place.
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If you would like to know the God that can help you process all those conflicting feedback messing with your mind, please say this prayer with me “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Savior. I am now born again. Amen.”