Sunday, December 18, 2022

What to do with the feedback that your life is giving you

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.

Failing to capitalise on positives

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.

Investigating what lies at the root of negative feedback

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.

How to intelligently respond to negative feedback

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?

Friday, December 09, 2022

5 tips from a year of reading 30 books

A few years ago, I set a goal to read 50 books a year because I was inspired by Bill Gates who is reported to read that much every year. I aspire to become a billionaire so I thought I should start doing some of what billionaires do which is read.  Those of you who already know that I aspired to become a millionaire several years ago will notice that I've upgraded my ambitions. That's because even though the cash is not on hand yet, I have no doubt that it will be within 5 years. So think of the million as the short term goal and the billion as the 20-year goal. 

In 2020, I read 16 books. In 2021, that number declined to 12 books. Noting the dip in performance and being dissatisfied with it, about this time last year, I set a goal to read 24 books in 2022  and supported it with a plan which was that I would read 2 books every month. I am happy to report that I am on my 27th book, and on course to finish 30 books by end of this month. I am happy about this because not only am I now smarter than I was when this year begun, I am also happier thanks to some of the new ideas my reading brought into my life this year. I have experienced achievements which did not satisfy so I am enjoying being in a place where my achievements fill me up. 

My reading goal for 2023 is 50 books, of course. 

So how did I do it? And how can you do it too?

1. Set a goal that is realistic for you

People I know who have failed at this set unrealistic goals. If you read five books this year, you are not likely to suddenly be able to jump to fifty. Sorry. It's just not going to happen. And the reason is that your life is not currently set up to allow you to read that much. And changing your life enough for that outcome to happen will be too drastic a change for you to sustain. It takes time to implement sustainable change. It will be 4 years before I'd have achieved my original goal of 50 books. Do as I do and think of your 50 books as your 5-year goal. But in year one, if you read 0-5 books this year, setting a goal to read 10 books and actually achieving it will be a worthwhile achievement. That's about 1 book a month. Doable wouldn't you say? 

2. Set aside a reading time

One of the epiphanies that helped me improve my reading outcomes was that I was reading when I had time to read. If you operate that way, you will never have enough time. I realised that for my outcomes to change, I needed to create time in my life to read. I gave myself 1 hour to read daily on weekdays and I fixed a particular time. The time I fixed was 4-5 pm daily after I  had picked up the kids from school. I then needed to explain to my kids that 4-5 pm is Mummy's reading time and they weren't allowed to interrupt me for any reason. I was actually happy to be teaching them to respect my boundary and also happy that they were learning to patiently wait for the hour to pass before coming to ask me anything. As one of my Bible Study Fellowship friends also brought to my attention, I was also teaching them by example that learning is important, and that making people you love wait is not a bad thing if you get back to them in a reasonable amount of time. And I am always ready to welcome them at 5 pm with a smile so they learned to trust that Mummy really only needs an hour and it goes by quicker than you think.

3. Make a reading plan 

Before I started to consciously read, I was a by-chance-reader. If I came to visit you and you had an interesting book, I might ask to borrow it. But I was not consciously improving my mind. I never asked myself: what do I want to learn more about? What do I need to know more about? What knowledge would improve my life if I acquired it? Once I started to ask myself such questions, I was able to develop reading plans categorised by life dimension. A plan is a list of books you want to read organised by when you will read them.  In January, I read spiritual books. In February, I read marriage books, In March, I read parenting books, In August, I read career-related books, In November, I read for intellectual advancement etc. I will blog later to share some of my breakthrough insights from this year.

4. Listen to audiobooks

A realistic goal, reading time, and a plan is what helped me achieve my goal of reading 24 books this year. But something else happened towards the end of this year. Because my ultimate reading goal is to read 50 books a year, I started to worry about how I would achieve that next year if my current system only got me to 24 books/year. I did a quick google search to see how others had done it. And I found one gem of an advice. Audiobooks! Audiobooks are great because you can listen to them whilst going for a walk or whilst cooking or when you're in the shower. Once I started listening to audiobooks, I was able to exceed this year's goal by 6 books and see that if I had been including audiobooks from the beginning, I would have read even more this year and therefore if I do that next year, I will achieve and sustain my ultimate goal. 

5. Improve your reading/learning skills 

Your reading process can actually be improved to allow you to comprehend the key takeaways without reading every book from cover to cover. That can reduce your reading time, and allow you to get through more books. With this ability improved, suddenly you're reading 50 books a year. Magic! 

Pretty darn exciting!