One of the greatest gifts that my family gave me is the gift of the best education they could afford. And one of the greatest gifts that my education has given me is the gift of observation, understanding, and responding to feedback.
Today, I wish to share what I’ve learned about feedback from practice. But before that, I would like to share a story from my childhood that I hope will both illuminate how to identify feedback, how we learn to tune out feedback, and hopefully point the way forward.
My earliest memory of receiving formal feedback is from primary school. I recall that I borrowed books from the library but I tended not to return them. I must have been careless with my studies in the earlier years too because my teachers recorded that I was a diligent but careless student. This feedback was reported consistently on my report cards. As is obvious, this was feedback that was equal parts positive and negative.
What to do about this feedback? No one in my world seemed to know the cure for carelessness. Nor what to do with a diligent child. My mother bought me some story books from the University of Ghana bookstore. But I don't think she understood my real appetite for books. A diligent person has great energy. You can channel great energy in a myriad positive ways and reap amazing outcomes. And a few books every few months wasn't going to do it.
My diligence meant I worked harder than average at everything. Including reading. I basically read more. Which meant I got exposed to more ideas. Exposure to more ideas meant I could recognise a unique idea from the also rans. When I would borrow the books from the library, I usually finished them quickly because they were so interesting! Reading so much had many positives. It moved me from being a decent student to being one of the best. When I finished sixth in a class of more than two hundred students, I was so proud because I also recognised that my progress was mostly all my own. No one had helped me prepare for exams, except once when my aunt happened to visit and helped me prepare for social studies. That term I have first in social studies. Amazing! This achievement made me realise that sometimes, positions don't reflect accurately the students own work. No one had helped me with homework and so on. And so it bolstered my confidence.
But when I failed, there was no one to help me get back up. No one to encourage me to persevere. With no guidance, I missed some of the lessons along the way. I didn't realise until much later that failure is part of the process for example. So for many years, I allowed failures to hold me back. When I failed at things, I gave up on them. I believed that things that are difficult aren't meant to be. My family certainly did their best. What they didn't give me, they didn't have. But thanks to the education they gave me, I am able to have what they did not. Hopefully you do too. Which means we can do even better.
Failing to correct negatives
Not knowing how to pick myself up after failure and get back in the game was not the only drawback of studying without guidance. Even with my studies. I read not carefully, but quickly. I was always eager to know how the story ended. As a child reading alone, it seemed that the only interesting thing was the story. I didn’t know that it was important to pause to look up the meaning of words I didn’t understand. As a result, I didn’t comprehend as well as I could have. With poor comprehension, I could not see how the ideas I was encountering in the book related to my own life. So I became a passive reader.
That I was careless was the truth at one level. What I now believe is the deeper truth is that I was a child who hadn’t yet learned how to say no to sharing what was in my possession. It was a case of poor boundary-setting. The books didn’t actually get missing whilst they were in my care. Not in the sense that I lost them. What was actually happening is that my small initial advantage at selecting interesting books made it such that other kids would in turn ask me to lend the books to them. And because I had not yet learned how to say “no, this is a library book, and if I lend it to you, I will get in trouble, how about I tell you when I have returned it to the library and you can also go borrow it. Afterall we were in the same school”. Any adult could have taught me this. But no one went beyond the feedback to investigate the problem further. Perhaps no one knew how to. I believe they would have if they had.
Missed teachable moments
What happened instead was: I would lend out the book, not really realising what had just happened. I would promptly forget who had even borrowed it. And the library would charge me for the missing book. And my parents would see that their careless child had done it again. But a world that doesn’t know the cure for carelessness isn’t able to respond to feedback telling it that a case of carelessness has occurred.
Nobody ever asked me how the books got missing or told me how to prevent it next time. I just got blamed all the time. The times when the feedback came constituted teachable moments. I could have learnt how to solve my carelessness problem. Instead I learned that nothing can be done about feedback. I didn't know what to do. And I didn't know how to find out. So I started to tune it out. Problem solved right? Wrong. Feedback doesn't go away because you tune it out. The problems deepen and the feedback gets louder.
Not only that, listening and responding to feedback is the most powerful way I have now learned to improve my life.
One pernicious aspect about tuning out feedback is that the mind tunes out both the negative as well as the positive.
How some tune out negative feedback
One never just wakes up at 100 kilograms in weight. It creeps up on you gradually, because you tune out feedback. One never just wakes up stupider. It creeps up on your gradually because you’ve tuned out feedback. One never just wakes up poorer. It creeps up on you gradually because you’ve tuned out feedback. One never just wakes up a drunkard. It creeps up on you gradually, because you’ve tuned out feedback. One never just wakes up addicted to porn. It creeps up on you gradually because you tune out feedback. One never wakes up surrounded by aimless friends. It creeps up on you gradually as you’re left one by one by your more ambitious friends. One never just wakes up an adulterer, it creeps up on you gradually as you make small compromises that don’t seem to change anything. One never just wakes up and kills someone. It creeps up on you gradually as your supposedly small anger problem is not dealt with.
How some pursue positive feedback
One never just wakes up wealthy. It happens day by day. One never just wakes up a successful entrepreneur. It is the result of years of movement to that destination. One never just wakes up a force for good in society. It is the result of small daily actions done over years. At Wesley Girls High School, I heard the great quote by Henry Longfellow that says “ The heights that great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night”.
The people who win get there gradually just as those who lose do so gradually. Both are responding to feedback. Just differently. The winners respond to both positive and negative feedback. The losers discount the positive feedback and tune out negative feedback too.
One way losers do this is by changing circles. When they hear feedback they don’t like, instead of changing their behaviour to deserve more honest positive feedback, they change their friends. Crazy. I did this myself. Because the library was giving me negative feedback and I didn't know how to solve the problem, I changed my source of books rather than changing my behaviour. And the effects of this decision took me in a certain reading direction that I only started to correct about five years ago.
There is no middle ground. So in which direction is your life moving? Are you sleeping or toiling upward in the night?
Why we tune out feedback
One reason for tuning out feedback is, I suspect, not knowing how to move the feedback in the opposite direction. That was certainly the case for me. The people who are “sleep-walking” through life, to borrow an expression from Oprah Winfrey, are not sleep-walking because they are stupid;
They are genuinely ignorant of how to solve their problems. Perhaps because they come from cultures that don’t solve problems which is also typically poor cultures. When problems don’t get solved, they don’t go away. They get worse and require even more energy to solve them. A stitch in time as we know saves nine.
Which is why reading is so critical. See my post on how to read more if you need tips to get started.
I’m inspired by kasahorow’s motto which says in akan, nea onnim sua, ohu. Which kasahorow has succinctly phrased: 'learning cures ignorance". There are books written about every problem under the sun. And reading allows you to meet people who have studied your problem and have solutions to it. But it gets even better than that. If you read /learn for long enough (years), you develop the ability to solve your own problems by paying attention, observing, and responding to feedback.
Don’t tune out feedback. Feedback is meant to be acted on so do something about it. Pay attention to it. Learn about it. Understand the source of it. Get help. And take action to keep it coming if it’s helping you, and to eliminate it if it’s hurting you.
So which feedback will you act on in 2023, and which books are you going to read to help you? Share with us in the comments?