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1. Advice, feedback and how we’re doing it wrong

I’m in a creative industry, and I also spend a ton of volunteer hours on creative pursuits. A lot of my work consists of designing and organising events. Some are small and simple. Some are big and very, very complex. I’m also a business owner, leader of a non-profit organisation and own a publishing house. And while I have a pretty good idea of what I’m doing most of the time, it’s quite often that I could use someone else’s help. Here’s why I don’t always ask for it.

Everyone thinks they know best — even those who haven’t got a clue

One thing that all creators have in common is that people have opinions about their work. Whether you write dark, soulful poems, create music videos for boybands or make larp events for an international audience, there will be a lot of people who have thoughts on what you do. Some will applaud you for doing things, some will hate your work (and maybe even your guts) and some will say ”So, I like the idea, but here’s how you should do it differently.”

How to take in unwanted feedback

Luckily, experience teaches us that we need to learn how to ignore some people, and not let them get us down. There will always be people who want to tell us how (and sometimes why!) we’re doing things wrong. Sometimes they’ll be worth listening to. Often times not so much. A good place to start when sorting the shit from the gold is to ask yourself the question:

”Does this person know anything about this or is it just unqualified opinion?”

Sometimes, even people with no particular expertise stumble on insightful truths, but usually it takes some form of skill/expertise/experience to be able to spot sloppy design, bad ideas, shoddy craftmanship, etc. It doesn’t mean that you should ignore people who are new or inexperienced, but it means that you should take their criticism with the proverbial grain of salt.

Feedback that’s asked for: isn’t that a good thing?

But the real issue isn’t the unwanted feedback. We each have ways of dealing with that in our own way, but if you don’t get to the point where you can shut it out to some extent, you won’t last long in any kind of creative field. No, the interesting (and problematic) thing is when it comes to feedback that you’ve asked for, from people who know what they’re doing and who you respect.

The harsh reality of a lot of expert feedback

Sadly, this is an idealised case. Often, you’ll get some good advice, some shitty advice and some advice that might be good in a slightly different context, but seems not to work in yours. Just because people are experts doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always right, and if you’re a high-level creative yourself, there’s a good chance that it won’t be the basics you fail at. But so what? After all, no one says you need to implement their ideas, right? You asked for help or feedback or ideas. You didn’t ask for them to take over the decision making process. Right?

”And if you think my suggestions are unfitting / wrong / annoying just say so, I’m just trying to help out. I have no personal pride invested just a love for the production and a passion to see it succeeded. Especially since I have no insight in your current processes and the actual design, only the perceived design.”

Perceived design and the acknowledgement that we don’t have all the facts

The words ”perceived design” are what really stuck with me. In them lies something magical and humble. It’s the difference between thinking that you know what’s going on (and being annoyed when your advice isn’t followed) and realising that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you don’t know, and that also might be relevant. According to the late Lemmy of Motörhead, who is credited with the ö, he ”only put it there to look mean.”, but I’m quite sure that before that explanation came out, there was a lot of speculation (and certainty!) about what it meant.

Don’t expect your advice to change anything — and say it out loud

Of course we need to get (even) better at sorting the useless feedback from the useful. We need to get better at separating ourselves from our ideas, and constantly remind ourselves that an attack on a creative product we’ve created isn’t necessarily an attack on us as people.

So to round off, what will we gain from this?

I believe that by making it less ”costly” to ask for feedback, we’ll do it more. And more feedback means more sharing of ideas, expertise and experiences. Which — in the end — means better creative work.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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