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The positive impact of negative feedback

You are probably a creative.

If your principle source of income is the result of stuff that comes out of your brain more than work that you do with your body, you’re a creative.

I work with a lot of creatives. Designers, writers, speakers, filmmakers, marketing geeks, thinkers, tinkerers, teachers, pastors… and everything in between. These are people who depend on what comes out of their brain on a daily basis.

Likewise, I spend a lot of my time needing to not only understand how I think but also those who think mostly with the right hemisphere of their brain.

In short, I want to know how to get the best creative output from my creative efforts. And, tactically, I need to know how to get the very best out of my creative friends.

The Lie about Negativity

Our society has bought into positivism. I think of it as the Oprah-fication of America.

I recently saw an appeal from a dad looking for a basketball league for his son which actually kept score. In lots of children’s sports leagues every child is told they are a winner just for trying and every kid is a given a trophy at the end of the year. They are fed a lie that it’s OK to be mediocre, that everyone is a winner, that keeping score isn’t helpful, and that the point of sports is exercise and not the pursuit of victory.

What a load of crap. That’s not how life works and that’s not what makes sports great. We are flat out lying to those children in a false belief that we need to positively reaffirm every effort. Some kids should quit basketball at a young age because they suck at it. They should move on to something else instead of being handed a trophy simply for trying. It’s actually cruel to reward someone for doing poorly because you are telling them they are better than they are.

Adults do the same thing. Millions of people believe that if they just looked at the positive side of things and denied the impact of incompetence or incapability or just a flat out lack of talent, that they should always go for what they are dreaming about and it will come true.

The education bubble is built on this lie. Every student should not go to college. But there is an entire industry of people lying to students and telling them that every child should go to college. Universities rake in billions of dollars in student loans every year as a direct result of this lie.

The truth about negative feedback

I’ve been reflecting on the research of Nancy Andreasen, a University of Iowa neuroscientist, who has researched the role of negativity in creatives. One powerful insight, and one that really helped me, was an experiment conducted to show the positive impact on the output of creatives given negative feedback. (Discovered this in this book by Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer.)

In one experiment a group of subjects was asked to first make a presentation about their career ambitions and then, after receiving feedback from a group of students, create a collage about their career choice. The students were asked to give some subjects positive feedback and others were told to seem disinterested, display negative body language, and verbally give negative feedback.

Interestingly, those subjects given negative feedback in the first step created much better collages in the second step than those who got positive feedback initially. The negative feedback made some subjects work far harder to produce a far better end product.

That’s exactly true in my work as and with creatives. This is why we consistently seek out peer review of our work. That’s why we suffer through a self-editorial and formal editorial process. And that’s why I rarely accept a first effort.

Again, lets give up being nice for the sake of being kind.

What do you think? Is receiving negative feedback making you better?

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3 Responses to The positive impact of negative feedback

  1. Julie August 30, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Thoughtful critique is not a bad thing, nor is praise. False praise is not good for anyone.

  2. Brandon Pachey August 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    All negative feedback is honesty! Generally speaking, lying ti kids especally will make them see right thru you and make them distrust adults! My kids arent all too athletic, but they are musicians so were cultivating that! This isnt rocket science! Often people are trying to love vicariously thru their kids! Sad!

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