Criticism is hard to accept—a truth Leonardo da Vinci understood well when he wrote, “Often, while finding fault with the minor errors of others, you will ignore your own great ones.”
But if we all share this common blind spot when it comes to our own performance, how can we identify the faults in our skills and improve on them?
The answer is by using feedback tools to gather and process criticism. Feedback can show us where our weaknesses are so we can focus our efforts in the right direction. It’s the compass that points us toward mastery.
Feedback can come from many sources, but here are six of the most useful for measuring and growing our skills.
Tool #1: Tests
We’re all familiar with tests, and they’re an objective way to gather feedback on our skills and knowledge. While they may lack in personalization, one benefit of tests is that there’s a clear right and wrong answer, giving us unambiguous feedback.
As a tool to refresh our memory as we learn a new skill, testing can come in the form of quizzes, self-testing, drills, or anything that forces us to retrieve our knowledge from memory. Tests not only confirm whether we know the right answer, but they also show us where we can improve.
In other words, through testing, we find out what we know, what we don’t, and what needs fine-tuning. It’s how we get a real assessment of our abilities so we can continue to improve them.
Tool #2: Mirrors
Certain skills can’t be studied in a mirror, like writing or cooking, but using mirrors to assess performance is a common practice in many others. Boxing, weight training, magic, public speaking, and dancing are a few examples.
The mirror shows us what’s right and what needs adjusting, but most valuable, it gives us this feedback instantly, allowing us to act upon it as we go. Without a mirror, we could do hours of practice only to find out later that our technique was wrong.
Where applicable, the mirror serves as one of the best feedback tools available, so we should use it whenever possible to assess and refine our technique.
Tool #3: Recordings
Similar to using a mirror, we can record ourselves performing. The mirror’s advantage is that it offers immediate feedback; we can see what we are doing as we are doing it. Recordings, however, have a longer feedback loop.
With a recording, we see what we’re doing and how we are doing it only when we go back to check the video. But what we lose in immediacy, we gain in perspective. Recordings give us a third-person point of view, which is often more objective. What’s more, we can review recordings as much as we want and refer back to them when we need to.
In working with recordings, aim to follow the principles of good feedback: study the recordings soon after finishing them (to keep the feedback loop short), don’t take mistakes personally, emphasize concrete pieces to work on, and take corrective action as soon as possible.
Tool #4: Fresh Perspectives
Remember the blind spot da Vinci pointed out when it comes to errors in our own work? To overcome it and gain a more objective view of our skills, he recommended that we look at our performance from a fresh perspective.
His approach was to put a mirror next to the painting he was working on to see it reversed. Leonardo also advises painters to step away temporarily from their work and “take a little recreation elsewhere,” such as going for a walk, because once they come back to it, they will have better judgement.
Another way to gain a fresh perspective is through other people. We should have a third party give us feedback on our work because we need quality opinions, and they shouldn’t come solely from our own judgment, regardless of how good we are.
Tool #5: Guidance
Related to gathering feedback from other people, we can all benefit from hearing the opinions of experts at our craft. Mentors—coaches, teachers, instructors—play a major role in how we use feedback to improve. While mirrors, recordings, or fresh perspectives are great ways to collect feedback, the information we gather is only useful if we know how to interpret it.
Here’s where mentors become essential. They have the experience to notice what we can’t, the knowledge to teach us what we need, and the wisdom to guide us through the process.
Mentors help us push our abilities by not only pointing out what needs to be corrected but also giving us insight into how to do it. If we want to make the best out of the feedback we gather, we need a mentor on our side.
Tool #6: Analysis
Our last feedback tool is structured analysis. Whenever we perform, we should debrief, analyze, and document our work.
Debriefing is about reflecting on our practice or performance after the fact. The idea is to analyze what happened, how it happened, and get as much feedback as we can. We can debrief by talking to our coaches or training partners, or even just reviewing everything in our mind. But if we want to get the most benefit out of debriefing, we must do it in writing—using a journal to document our work and our progress.
The more linear and organized nature of writing (as compared to talking) provides structure to our thoughts and helps us remember more details, promoting further insight in turn. Aside from documenting the details of our practice or performance, we should also keep track of our results. Keeping good records of our progress not only serves as feedback but also as proof of how far we’ve come, a valuable motivation aid during times of challenge and self-doubt.
Feedback Is the Ultimate Improvement Aid
As da Vinci pointed out, it’s hard to see our own faults without help, but feedback shows us the way. By using the tools of tests, mirrors, recordings, fresh perspectives, guidance, and analysis, we expose our weak points and are able to better process the feedback we receive.
Whether we are studying, practicing, memorizing, or performing, we rely on this feedback to know what’s working and what needs to be fine-tuned or changed—both in what we do and how we do it. It is through this constant loop of taking action, analyzing the results, and making adjustments over time that we can ultimately reach higher levels in our craft.