“I have no confidence, what should I do?” he asks.
“Can you give me a specific example of when you feel this way?”
“I freeze up when I speak in front of large groups of people” the young professional replies.
“You mean you cannot finish? You walk away?”
“No, no, I do finish. But I hate how I feel throughout. My stomach’s in knots and I worry about all the mistakes I’m making. I worry about the words coming out of my mouth and I never do as well as I know I should! I hate that I feel this way despite having done this sort of thing for some years now. Shouldn’t I be better, more confident by now? ”
In an attempt to ease his mind, I share my perspective about how even the all-time-great public speakers tend to be nervous wrecks before going on stage. Many great speakers I know have all shared stories of how they prepare the content and delivery of their speeches, days in advance. It is this intentional preparation that kicks in and delivers after the first few moments of stage fright. I say this and watch closely for his reaction. He doesn’t look too convinced. So I move on and tell another tale.
An old tale of an ancient warrior. His skills as an archer were unparalleled and he was the undisputed champion with his bow and arrow. But his journey did not begin that way. When he was a young boy, studying archery at school, he struggled with his craft. He was plenty talented. And as keen as the others in his group. And yet, at every test their tutor set them, he failed. This made him frustrated, so he practised longer and harder. And yet, when it was time to test his skills, he would fail.
One day, his tutor, who had been observing all this, called out to him. He pointed a long finger at the boy and told him :”You! Your need to win is so excessive that it is causing you to fail“. The young archer was perplexed and requested the tutor to explain further. “You pay too much attention to what others are doing, more than you do to your own posture, focus and speed. You let every mistake derail you because you care too much about winning. That’s a lot of attention in a lot of wrong places. Pay attention to the task at hand and let the winning and losing come as it will”. The young archer understood. He went on and did just that.
I don’t know how much this young professional I am speaking with takes away from this ancient story. After all it is just a story and I don’t know if I’ve told it well enough. Still, when I heard this story years ago, I remember feeling stunned. I remember thinking – “That’s it. My excessive need to succeed is making me fail at everything I do!”. Ever since, this story has helped me manage my own old (and very ineffective) trait of perfectionism. It has helped me understand that perfectionism has very little to do with becoming better at anything.
I still don’t win prizes or succeed at most things. But I always finish. And I tend to learn a lot more from finished tasks. Especially from the mistakes and missteps. Over time, most tasks have begun to feel lighter. And it’s becoming easier to have fun with what I do. I now think of the ability to recover and redirect attention to the right things as confidence.
Confidence has almost nothing to do with the ability to avoid mistakes and missteps. It has almost everything to do with the ability to pay more attention to the task at hand without constantly looking over your shoulder. Making mistakes and recovering quickly from them become a part of the process instead of show stoppers.
When I’m trying to get back to riding a bicycle in my forties, just so I can go sit in that quiet, green spot in the outskirts of the city, my attention should and will be on that task. The more fully absorbed in it, the harder it will be to get distracted or embarrassed (for too long) by every wobble, misstep and eye-roll on the way.
And when I finally reach that place, spread a mat, open a book under the cool shade of that massive tree, it won’t matter much how wobbly or breathless I got, getting there. I now know how to get here in one piece. That’s the beginning of confidence.
The effectiveness of feedback depends partly on the one who receives it – how open and willing you are to participate in the process. As a feedback seeker you can do your bit to make the process useful and effective for yourself. Here are some thoughts and tips to help you get the best out of your feedback sessions.
Right here means right foryou. And that is not necessarily the most popular or the most successful person. Feedback is an important interpersonal process. It requires you to be vulnerable and share your work as well as parts of yourself with another person. Do the due diligence and find the right fit so you can get the best out of the interaction.
How to find the right feedback provider
You probably already have an inkling about who you want to approach for feedback. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to find the best match for you.
Who are they? You probably already know them because of their creative work/profession. Are you able to gauge their skill level from that? Make sure they are competent in the craft so you can benefit from their skills and experience.
What is their general outlookand ethos? You can easily get a general sense of this from your prior interactions with them (in person/online). Look out for how they describe themselves and their approach to the craft. What do your interactions with them tell you about them?
What are their special skills and strengths?Make sure that those areas dovetail with your own gap areas. That way, they can help you where you need help.
What is your optimal setting for learning and can they provide it? For example, can you learn better if you can see them? If you communicate better online, are they able to provide you the right tools and platform for the best possible interaction? Are they able to provide sessions at a time and schedule conducive to your own learning? (and so on…)
Are your personalities well matched to take this journey together? For example, if you are an introvert and they have a big bold personality, would that intimidate you? If you are the kind that needs a cheerleader but they happen to be a quieter person, would you be open to learning from them?
Commit to the feedback process.
Since you are doing this for your own benefit, it makes sense to be open and willing to go the entire distance. Know that you are going to be okay, even if someone shows you your limitations. In fact, that would help you grow, so stay open to constructive comments. Don’t take things too personally. If you are too touchy about your work, it may block the easy flow of your interaction and you may not be able to absorb new & useful ideas or find new possibilities.
Do your homework well in advance.
Share your portfolio, profile and any other general information that might help the feedback provider understand you and your work better. You don’t need to become best friends or share personal details for this process to be effective. But if you do think that your life situation has any bearing on your work or your limitations, convey a few useful bits of information to the feedback provider so they can better understand the context. Remember that they are creatives like you and in all likelihood already know how to work with limitations and may be happy to share their tips and tricks with you.
Feedback is not a performance test
Don’t feel pressured to show only your best work. That would be counterproductive. Present a balanced assortment of your work to help broader and deeper understanding.
Be clear about the scope of the feedback.
Your feedback provider will be able to best describe the scope of their interaction with you, so just ask them for details on what to expect. In most contexts, feedback is not the same as mentorship or a workshop – they each have a different set of goals. Make sure you know what to expect so you can avoid disappointment and mismatched expectations.
Openness and trust
Be yourself and bring your work willingly. You are not required to accept or agree with any comment or suggestion offered to you during feedback – so there is no need to feel pressured. In the end, you are the captain of your own ship. So relax. That way, you can participate more fully in the process.
Be open to new thoughts and possibilities for your work. Also be open to the interaction. It is best not to have rigid ideas on how the feedback process must be conducted. Staying flexible and open creates a pleasant experience and usually gives the best possible outcome.
Sometimes these interactions with your fellow-creatives have long lasting benefits. Treat Feedback like an opportunity for growth.
A while ago, at a challenging point in my creative journey, I approached a handful of food photographers for feedback on my work. I knew them from social media and admired their work as well their general approach to creativity and work. I figured they’d be able to give me some useful insights on my own work. I wrote to them with my request and while each of them was generous enough to respond, I noticed that each of the responses fell within the framework of social media success and visibility. While this would have been useful if I was looking for that sort of thing, the fact was, I wasn’t. I was looking for a purely objective, technical feedback so that I could chalk out my own route from that point onwards, armed with grounding awareness about my craft.
Even though I was unable to apply much of the well-meaning feedback to my own work, there was an intangible benefit to the whole experience. It made me think about the way we understand the process of feedback on creative work. It also gave me valuable insights into the various ways in which people approach (or avoid) the process. I became aware of the unconscious assumptions and attitudes of feedback providers as well as seekers.
Over time, I’ve come to conclude that Feedback, to be really effective, must be a very conscious and objective process. Feedback must be mindful of individual goals and context of the feedback seeker. And to be really useful, feedback must be grounded in empathy on the part of the feedback provider, and willingness on the part of the feedback seeker.
My own observations as a feedback provider as well as experience as a feedback seeker, have together led to some interesting insights about this process and how it could be made more effective and beneficial to all of us who do creative work in isolated freelance mode. In this post, I’ve attempted to share a few of my insights as a feedback provider. I’ve also shared some tips for feedback seekers in another post – here.
Firstly, as a feedback provider, acknowledge the fact that the effectiveness of any kind of feedback partly depends on those who receive it. Of course you must do your best to create a conducive and useful interaction, but how much weightage a feedback seeker attaches to your comments and how much they are willing to or able to apply them is up to them.
Remembering this keeps you grounded, and in turn helps avoid heavy-handedness in your feedback methods. Feedback, especially on creative work, is most effective when approached in an empathetic, non-hierarchical and non-authoritative manner. There are many ways to reach creative fulfilment and there isn’t one single formula that works for everyone. By staying flexible and open, you might even find new ways of looking at things. And that’s always useful.
Are you the right person to give feedback?
Before you even start, make sure that you are the right person for the task at hand. If you don’t know the feedback seeker or their work already, ask for preliminary information about them and their work, before you even begin. Get a sense of their skill level and expectations. You can then evaluate if you are up for the task of providing feedback to them. It is okay to gently say No, if you find that you are not the right fit. It would save time and effort to both of you. Being clear and honest in your interaction builds credibility and trust.
Prepare in advance to ensure that your feedback is effective
Study their work well in advance. Look for patterns if any. Gauge strengths and weaknesses in the work and ask for more details and samples if necessary. It is important to justify the trust that the feedback seeker places in you.
Feedback is not just a feel-good or validation session
Even though it might actually end up being that, in many cases, it can never be the primary purpose of the interaction. It is important to keep growth as the primary purpose.
Feedback is not criticism.
Even when you analyse the limitations in someone’s craft, do it from a place of empathy and understanding. It is never useful to sound patronising.
Be specific in your feedback comments
Vague and overly generic comments will not be useful to anyone. Provide examples and actionable tips where possible. Most people (including me) find actionable advice more useful.
Follow-up on feedback
Consider offering to follow-up via formal sessions and/or informal chats, depending on your own mindset and convenience. In-depth evaluation and effective assistance require continuity. Creativity and mindset are complex and interdependent subjects and most of us benefit from longer collaborations.
A well-rounded feedback session should neither leave the individual dispirited, nor completely content. It should set them up for a period of analysis and action. It should open the person’s mind to “possibilities” and connections they hadn’t been able to see previously.
The goal of every feedback must be growth. The tone of every feedback must be empathy.
When I look up the images and graphics that represent the word “feedback” here is what comes up, typically.
Look closely. What does this tell us about our mental associations of the word “feedback”? (Scrutiny? Evaluation? Judgement? Rating? Negative remarks? Praise? Advice? Conversation? Review? Validation? Or something else?). Do they represent subjective evaluation or objective assessment?
In my own creative journey as a food photographer, I have felt, from time to time, a strong need for in-depth, objective feedback on my work. Since my educational background is purely technology-related, I did not have the opportunity to go through the rigorous feedback processes that are a part of arts-related curricula. So from time to time, I felt a keen gap in my understanding of my own craft, its strengths and weaknesses. I needed a fresh pair of eyes to look at my images and tell me what they saw – where was I, in the context of my work? Were there skill gaps? Did they detect any patterns? Were there technical strengths? Did my work have emotional impact? What about the technical aspects? I figured the answers to these questions would help me chalk out a roadmap for my creative practice and progress. So I asked a few people I knew from social media for feedback on my work.
The responses I received were eye-opening. I had not clearly “defined” the parameters of my requirement, I had simply asked for feedback, expecting my fellow-creatives to know and resonate with what I needed. But perhaps because our connection was via social media, they seemingly made (incorrect) assumptions about my motivations and framed their feedback responses in that context. As a result, all of the feedback I received was in the context of social media (for example how my feed lacked cohesiveness, or how important it was to choose a niche so that I could garner more followers and so on) and none in the absolute context of my skill or craft. Because the feedback was so subjective, and based on their idea of success (which was different from mine), I felt unable to apply any of it to my own work or process, even though they may have worked brilliantly for someone else with different goals.
The whole experience led to some powerful insights on how feedback could be tailored into a more useful and powerful process for myself and others. Since then, I have been able to effectively apply these insights and fine-tune my own process as a feedback provider for fellow photographers and creatives.
Types of feedback: Subjective Vs Objective Feedback
In my experience, Feedback can be of two kinds. The first is related to the “market appeal” and includes aspects like trends, demands, niche, market gaps, social media algorithms, promotions, visibility, personal relatability and so forth. This kind of feedback is subjective and depends on individual worldview and definition of “success”. The feedback usually falls within the framework of “right” and “wrong” ways to achieve this definition of success.
Take the example of a “dark and moody” image. You may not “like” a dark and moody style of photography so you may never like or “follow” that kind of work or artist. To that extent it would stay subjective. But the fact that it is a dark and moody photograph is not ambiguous or dependent on individual preference. It’s a fact. A category. And that can stay totally objective.
The second kind of Feedback is related to the technicality of the craft itself. It is objective in nature. For example, in my case as a food photographer, it would include topics like lighting, composition, subject, storytelling, emotional impact, styling and post processing. These topics can soon become subjective as well, but only if imposed with personal preference of the feedback provider. Otherwise, in general, these topics can easily be discussed, assessed and categorised objectively. They do not label any approach as right or wrong and take a more balanced approach to the parameters of the craft.
If a fellow photographer asked you for feedback on their work, you might recognize that their work is mostly dark and moody and see it as a pattern, without having to tell them your own personal preference. You are simply validating a pattern and so all your feedback can remain within the realm of that pattern. You could help them see the gaps as related to dark photography and how to make it more effective technically. You would never need to impose your own preference on them. This is “objective” feedback.
How is objective feedback beneficial for creative work?
So what is the problem with the first kind of feedback, you might ask. Isn’t it useful to know what might work better for us in the practical world? Of course. But here is the problem. Subjective feedback is only useful when it comes from people whose worldview matches ours. It needs to come from people who are ahead of us in our journey, but towards the “same” destination. Otherwise, it’s like finding the shortest, most optimal route, to get to a place we never even intended to go.
Most people are happy to provide subjective feedback – based on their own experience and worldview. But not all of us can receive that and filter out the bits that can be effectively applied to our own context. So it can get very confusing. Especially when feedback comes from someone that you see as a “success” out in the world. Such mismatched inputs can very easily trigger unhealthy negativity and much self-doubt.
On the other hand, objective feedback is always useful. Since it stays clear of labels like “right and wrong” it works well within the framework of the craft. It simply looks for gaps in what you are aiming for and what you are actually producing and then provides helpful insights on how to close the gap. That’s the power of objective feedback in creative work. It’s like the little red pin on the map. Before you find your route, you must locate your current position. It’s where you must begin, at every stage of your creative journey.
Both kinds of feedback have their own value and purpose of course. But I find that we usually ignore the importance and power of objective feedback. We become increasingly dependent on subjective opinions for our success, even when these opinions don’t work for us.
The importance of objective Feedback in a noisy world
Creativity is a facet of self expression. But this self expression does not happen in vacuum. It happens in a world which accepts or rejects our expression via words or subtle actions. And we end up absorbing all these micro-signals, frequently altering our course to match the world’s expectations. This approach is necessary at times to stay connected to the world we live in, but most times, it does more harm than good. It drags us away from our real selves, and leaves us senselessly exerting brute force against our own grain. In the long run, this confused behaviour affects our wellbeing and creativity.
Objective feedback lets you find your own voice and choose your choir before drowning you out in an orchestra of subjective voices and opinions. Those can come later, when you know how to use it to your advantage.
How does social media affect objectivity?
Imagine this scenario. You’ve just posted an image on your favourite social media platform. And before you did, you thought you did a good job, and were fairly satisfied with your image. And now you wait. The likes and the comments aren’t coming fast enough. The day drags on and you are refreshing your feed repeatedly and your spirits are flagging. What happens next? Your “satisfaction” which was alive and well, suddenly drops dead. Your work comes under the painful scrutiny of your own negative gaze. You second guess every single technical choice you made that caused this “catastrophe”. How did the image miss the mark? Was it the lighting? Subject?? Ah, the composition! It’s no good. Am I cut out for this at all? Sound familiar? 🙂
Now imagine this scenario! You’ve just posted an image. You didn’t think it was your best work. But this time, you are pleasantly surprised. The likes and comments come pouring in…perhaps even within the “golden hour” of the algorithm! The god of algorithm has injected you with the miracle drug of traction and suddenly, you’re experiencing “confidence“. You’re now making wild connections between the technical aspects of the image and the audience response. Nice. But what happens to your understanding of your own image this upswing?
And between these two equally and wildly opposite states of mind, what happens to your sense of wellbeing?
It is very hard to maintain a clear mental separation between popularity and creative skill/choices. This is why we need objective feedback to help us stay grounded, no matter what the social media response is.
How online communities affect objectivity: the down side of generic positivity
We live in a world where most of our business and work is conducted online. Since negativity from strangers invokes mind-numbing terror in most of us, we have now evolved into a more mindful and conscious community where we try our best to be mutually supportive. But somewhere in the process, we are beginning to lose “real and objective” responses which are grounded in reality and meritocracy.
The problem with creating and belonging to communities that provide us generically positive and comforting response is this. It gets increasingly hard to tell apart really positive responses from the encouraging responses. While such communities help us manage ourselves in an increasingly negative and isolating world, we cannot depend on them for an objective evaluation of our craft. We need a different and more personalised process to keep us grounded. Otherwise our need for validation can drag us down a bottomless pit. The more we get, the more we seek.
Feedback for creative work: Why or how is it different from feedback in conventional full-time jobs?
Prior to my current life as a food photographer/writer/mentor, I had a corporate career in Technology. Through those years, my role required me to provide and/or receive feedback countless times, as a part of the employee performance review process. The process there however, was directly connected to performance rating, which in turn was directly connected to salary revisions. So although they were called “feedback” sessions, they were really more of a “rating“.
In creative work however, feedback is not a mandatory process. It is a conscious choice. And because creative work is so closely tied to our identity and sense of self, most of us don’t seem to wield this choice effectively, if at all we do. Seeking 1-on-1 feedback becomes a difficult and avoidable chore for most of us. The process requires us to be open and willing to grow. While most creatives understand this, we are to reluctant to put our work up for formal review. Why does this happen?
Why are we so scared of feedback?
As I see it, there are two possible reasons:
It is so hard to be objective. We bruise easy! We are so closely identified with our creative work that we tend to take feedback on our work as feedback on ourselves.
Someone hurt us in the pastwith their ill-considered feedback. In the past, we may have been victims of insensitive feedback from people who inadvertently clipped our wings before we could learn to fly. So, we wrongly associate the problem of the person with the whole process. And so instead of finding better and helpful feedback providers we avoid the whole process.
If we understand this and find the right feedback providers, we could grow our wings back and learn to fly.
What is feedback?
Feedback is a mirror.
In an ideal case, it is a distortion-free mirror that can show you exactly where you are in your journey(craft). It does not label or judge anything as good or bad. It only sees where you are, and maybe point out the possible pitfalls in your journey. It might also offer a reality-check on what you are doing and what you “think” you are doing. In competent hands, this process can be extremely helpful. It helps you get fresh new ideas. It helps you grow.
Every now and then, as creatives, we must learn the skill of standing back and looking at our own work without the emotional baggage. It’s the way to growth. Periodically putting ourselves in front of an empathetic and informed audience of one person (feedback provider) can be very helpful in developing this sense of objectivity towards our creative output.
Over time, if we are able to use this process well, we might even develop a solid sense of our own work – the strong as well the weak areas. We could become self sufficient and objective and even develop a robust confidence which does not shake in its boots every time someone thinks our work missed its mark.
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