Taking Feedback Impersonally

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Garry Knight

What are some things that help you not take feedback on your work personally?

I recently had a situation where my team was re-doing something I had worked on for a couple weeks at the last minute because they thought it was not making sense. At that point we were all working on it together and I could tell that everyone had mutual respect and just wanted to end up with the best product possible, but some part of me couldn’t help but take it personally and feel completely incompetent. I was disappointed at my inability to detach my work from myself, and I wonder if this is even possible when it comes to a creative profession.

I’ve never met a designer who hasn’t struggled with this at some in their career. Never. For myself, I still vividly remember a particular critique where I was showing off some work for a notifications feature. I had come into the critique thinking I had a pretty clever solution, but instead of the rest of the room agreeing, my design proposal was eviscerated. I can still see the way one colleague shook his head and said, “it needs to be simple,” as if I had missed that memo and was instead trying to design it to be complex.

That particular critique is burned into my memory because, of course, I felt horrible afterwards. Was I cut out to be a designer? Could I ever be good at this? I questioned every life decision I had ever made that had gotten me to this point, certain I had missed an important turn somewhere.

Happily, over the years I’ve learned that it *is* possible to take critical feedback (and, more broadly, failure) less personally. Of course I still feel disappointed when I fail, or when someone I respect tells me that what I’m doing feels off-track or isn’t going well. We all want to succeed and we all want the people we like to think well of us. But disappointment is different than self-doubt. It’s the difference between thinking: I could have done better and I’m incompetent so I’m not cut out for this. The former is about judging your performance on a particular task, and the latter is about judging your character. If you can stop doing the second thing, then critical feedback will not feel so personal.

So what are the best ways to do that? I have two suggestions:

Look at feedback with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.

I feel like I mention mindset pretty much every week, but I’ve found it to be completely transformative in my thinking. Really, go and read Mindset by Carol Dweck if you haven’t already. A fixed mindset presumes that what you are capable of today is how capable you really are, which means every time you get critical feedback, you read it as a judgement on your person. Hey, this thing you did isn’t great gets translated to *I’m* not great. A growth mindset presumes that no matter where you are now, you can improve. If you believe that, then whenever someone tells you, Hey, this thing you did isn’t great, you think, Okay, that feedback was useful and it’ll help me do better next time. With a growth mindset, you start to crave feedback from as many people as possible, even critical feedback, because you realize it’s the fastest way for you to learn and improve.

Focus on your purpose and the work at hand.

There is a quote by Barack Obama from an interview with Humans of New York that I think about at least once a week, especially when I feel discouraged and frustrated. It’s one of the most powerful and comforting things to me:

“When is the time you felt most broken?” 
“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working. But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself — if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.”

Can you imagine Barack Obama going through that kind of failure? Can you imagine how that must have felt? Worse than that bad critique I went through, that’s for sure.

If I look beyond the critiques and product debates and the ups and downs of my day-to-day, what I am trying to do is build meaningful products that make the world more open and connected. So if I focus on that, and what it takes to get there, then that helps me get over myself and whatever’s going on in my head.

Barack Obama is right. There is always something to be done.