Whether you’re playing the guitar, giving a speech, or skiing down a mountain, it’s through feedback that you find out what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong, and what needs fine-tuning.
To continually improve your skills, you need to gather feedback at every step of the learning process, from study to practice to performance. However, while feedback is the ultimate improvement tool, not all feedback is created equally.
What makes good feedback?
The qualities that make feedback most effective—timely, well-received, specific, and action-oriented—are what we’ll explore in this article. With better feedback, you’ll be able to reflect more clearly on your strengths and weaknesses and quickly make changes that level up your skills instead of aimlessly struggling to improve.
Feedback Needs to Be Timely
Hearing that you had perfect form when you made a three-point basketball shot two weeks ago might boost your confidence, but as far as feedback goes, it’s close to useless. That’s because the most important condition for good feedback is that you need to get it fast.
Imagine learning to sing but being unable to hear what you’re singing until minutes later. Or imagine trying to paint, but you can’t see the lines on the canvas until hours or days after you paint them. Such a delay would make it extremely difficult to get better at those skills because you can’t compare the feedback to your immediate performance.
Seeking feedback and insisting on getting it soon is how great performers speed up their progress. They want to know what they need to improve, and they want to know it fast. The sooner you can get feedback on your craft, the better.
Feedback Needs to Be Taken Seriously, but Not Personally
Unlike the previous point, this factor depends on you, not the person giving the feedback. For feedback to be most effective, you need to take it seriously without letting it bother you personally.
For most of us, it’s easy to get fixated on “negative” feedback—the mistakes we make, the times we fail—and take them as a reflection of who we are. But this obsession can start a cycle of self-defeat, doubt, and negativity if you let it. To stay objective, you must avoid those mental states by learning to separate the performance from the performer and be critical about the former but sympathetic for the latter.
Use feedback to make improvements, not to judge your worth. Beating yourself up about mistakes doesn’t make you any better; taking corrective action does.
Feedback Needs to Be Concrete
For feedback to be useful, you also need to translate it into concrete action. Great teachers and coaches follow this principle. They move away from giving general feedback like “You’re doing it wrong” to actionable advice like “Bend your knees more,” “Rotate your body,” or “Hold the paintbrush lower.”
Vague feedback can only get you so far—you need to either figure out exactly where the problem is or risk focusing on the wrong areas of improvement. Therefore, specificity should be your guideline for all feedback: to move past a simple judgment of right or wrong, working or not working, and find the specific adjustments you need to make.
The more concrete and specific a piece of feedback is, the sooner you can put the solution into effect.
Feedback Needs to Be Followed by Action
Lastly, feedback could be timely, objective, and even concrete, but it’s still useless if you don’t act on it. This point can’t be stressed enough: you need to take action on the feedback you get, and you need to do it soon after getting it.
Two good examples from the world of sports come from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Jordan used to stay after games to practice on things he felt didn’t go well. Similarly, Woods would often replay a move after making a bad swing. They both wanted to correct their mistakes, and they wanted to do it right away, while everything was still fresh.
Keep in mind that you can’t fix everything all at once, especially when you’re just starting out with a new skill, so you should prioritize where you want to make improvements first and focus there.
Put It All Together
Feedback is both a gift and an invaluable tool in your journey toward mastery—don’t let it go to waste. Remember, great feedback is timely and specific. It tells you, “Your finger isn’t fully pressing down the E guitar string,” or “you’re turning too sharply when skiing across the mountain.”
Effective feedback shows you exactly where you need to improve so you can quickly make changes without wasting time. Make the most of the feedback you receive by not taking it personally and following it with immediate action.
Criticism is never easy to hear, but if you can listen and learn from it, it will show you exactly where you should direct your efforts.