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Feedback fuels progress

Have you wondered how some people expand their skills seemingly without bounds, and do it faster than others? They’ve already got a solid grasp, yet tomorrow they’ll be even better. Maybe you’ve seen a company have one success after another, or a dog learn tricks that you wouldn’t have thought possible.

These things don’t happen without effort. What seems easy from the outside might be incredibly difficult on the inside. However, the one thing these people, companies, and even dogs have in common is that they receive feedback fast, they’re open to the feedback, and they make use of that feedback to improve their next move. That’s what makes the difference.

If you’re serious about improving, you need to get feedback. You need to get it fast, you need to be receptive to it, and you need to take action based on that feedback.

Let’s look at an example.

If you’re learning how to start a fire while camping in the woods, you could go by yourself and try different things until a fire starts. If you are a complete beginner, you’ll probably try a lot of things before you make any progress. It might be frustrating depending on your attitude, and it will certainly be slow.

On the other hand, you could go there with a friend who already knows how to make a campfire. The goal is still for you to learn, so your friend won’t tell you step-by-step how to do it. Otherwise, you won’t build up the memory for it. But your friend will tell you when your approach is wrong. Perhaps you’re arranging the firewood in a way that’s not optimal, so your friend will suggest to do it another way.

At this point, you have a choice, a choice that most people struggle with. You could admit that your approach is wrong and try your friend’s method, or you could ignore the advice, thinking that your way is still the best. Most people are stubborn—they resist change and will persist in their way. They don’t want to be seen as incompetent and would rather continue doing it their way than admit their effort was misguided. Even worse, the longer they’ve been doing something in a wrong or ineffective way, the harder it is to admit that it was wrong, because they would rather believe the time was not wasted. That’s why it’s important to seek feedback as early as possible, so that you have less to lose. In any case, without admitting that you were wrong, the feedback you receive is essentially thrown away.

Lastly, you need to put in effort, sometimes a significant amount, based on that feedback. You might have cut down an entire tree, cut up logs from it, and are trying to use those big logs as firewood. Your friend tells you that the logs are too big, and that you need to chop them into smaller pieces so there’s more surface area to burn. It’s going to be a lot of work to correct your course in some situations, but if you do it, you’ll be heading in the right direction.

Of course, if your friend told you earlier about the big logs, you could have scrapped that approach right away and collected some twigs instead. The shorter the feedback loop, the less wasted time and the faster the improvement. Places with fast feedback loops are excellent learning environments.

Multiple, small projects in quick succession also create this environment of fast feedback. You could spend time making the largest campfire in the world, but you won’t have time to experience the whole cycle of making a campfire more than once. If you go through the whole cycle many times, you can apply what you learned in the previous one to the next one. You don’t have that environment if you only have one cycle.

Another source of fast feedback can be your tools. If you choose, or make, your tools wisely, they’ll give as much feedback as a person guiding you along. This is easily seen when creating software. The longer you have to wait to see the results of your code, the slower your progress will be. Obvious, but it’s surprising the delays that most people have in their workflow.

In science, a hypothesis is “an idea that proposes a tentative explanation about a phenomenon or a narrow set of phenomena observed in the natural world”. When you test a hypothesis, which would be better? To know the results of the experiment in two minutes, or two years? Some experiments do require years of waiting, but in any scenario, it’s ideally the shortest wait possible, so that you can reject the hypothesis and move on to the next.

Take feedback openly and put in effort, and it will be no surprise what fuels progress.