Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

The Art of Hearing Feedback

Taking the best advice is a key to success.

When it works, feedback is a grand gift. A person gives you the benefit of her life experience and personality, applying it directly to your task. 

Good feedback will offer you solutions, or prompt you to see a problem differently so you can find your own.

It's a sign of maturity when we can accept feedback. That may require separating it from the style in which it is given. Sometimes people aren't precise or articulate or tactful--but they may still be telling you what you need to hear.

Sometimes feedback comes at the wrong time. The most successful people learn to store it up to use later.

Because our culture emphasizes individuality and self-reliance so highly, however, we sometimes regard "advice" as an implication that the recipient is failing is some way. The asumption is that we'd all ideally do things without help.

The truth is that there are helpers behind every individual achievement and our culture thrives on collaboration and contact.    

We tend to think of art especially as the product of one personality. But in the history of visual art, you'll read about studios where great artists trained other people to work in their style and collectives of artists who spurred each other on, creating schools like the Impressionists. Folk music didn't always come with names of singer-songwriters attached. Jazz is famously improvisational 

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When it comes to writing, as well, feedback can be essential. Many of the greatest works of literature exist in their current form only because of an editor. The Great Gatsby is a famous example. F. Scott Fitzgerald decided that he would write it more carefully than he had written his previous books, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, which were both commercial successes. He ended up discarding most of his early drafts. When he did send a manuscript to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Perkins told him that the novel was vague, and Fitzgerald spent the next winter revising it.

Editing is no guarantee of commercial success. The Great Gatsby sold many fewer copies than Fitzgerald’s earlier books after it appeared in 1925. Two decades later, during World War II, the Army gave away copies of the novel to US soldiers, and Gatsby began to take its place as one of the greatest American books.

Scott Fitzgerald had huge talent. But he knew that to produce lasting work, he needed to revise more and to heed his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Maybe advice-givers remind you of a pushy parent, sibling or spouse who doesn't respect you. You are losing too much if that history deprives you of other people's insights.   

Part of the job of developing as a person is to learn the art of taking useful feedback and discarding comments that lead you away from your goal. Writing is famously one area of life that pushes everyone up against their capacity to seek and use feedback. 

So if you're a writer--or any kind of striver--go ahead and invest in yourself and seek the editing, copy-editing, critique, second reading, thought jam session, or whatever you need that could move you forward.

 We all need mentors, teachers, and friends who tell us their truth.     

 Temma Ehrenfeld expertediting.org

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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