Feedback… It’s Food (for Thought)


Grab a hot drink, put on your beanie and scarf, and come for a metaphorical walk with me so we can chat about feedback.

If you’re worried that I'm going to tell you that feedback is important, then you’re right to be worried, because it is important; but also: don’t worry. I know we’re beyond such banal concepts as “it’s important to get feedback” and “cold things are cold”. Instead I want to explore the idea of what feedback you should be rejecting.


Because… I have noticed that some people speak about feedback as if it were sacred. As if the cursory remarks scrawled by workshop participants require us to question our fundamental principles. As if comments like “I don’t like role-plays” and “Can we finish at 4pm as I have a train to catch?” were brilliant insights into a cosmic truth. And this infuriates me because feedback is too important to be followed blindly.

Feedback is important.

Important things demand scrutiny.

You are what you eat

Feedback is just like food: what you put into yourself affects what you become. If you simply swallow whatever feedback you’re offered, without checking to see if it’s a sensible thing to eat, then you can end up poisoning yourself on toxic remarks, or becoming addicted to a diet of sweet, sugary flattery.

Comparing good feedback to good food is useful because we already have such a clear approach to eating well (whether we follow it or not). Let’s explore the similarities.

You need food to live / you need feedback to grow

In some medical careers, feedback is rapid and unambiguous, while in others, feedback is both cryptic and delayed.  A study comparing the performance of doctors in these two career pathways showed that the first group tended to get better and better with time, while the performance of the second group of doctors peaked early in their careers, then gradually tapered.

If you care at all about what you do, you want to be in that first group. Two main things drive improvement: pushing yourself out of your comfort zone (ie do stuff which is hard but not impossible); and getting useful feedback from someone who understands what you’re doing.

Not everything is food / not everything is feedback

Look around you. Lots of things are not edible. Similarly, a lot of the comments that come your way are not feedback… but to a person starved for food, even inedible things begin to look appetizing. In the absence of real feedback, we start to read meaning into random events, which is exhausting.

The awesomeness of healthy food / The brilliance of high quality feedback

Lots has been written about how to make feedback high quality: how to give it, how to receive it, frameworks such as the “positive critique” or the “sandwich” model, the necessity of making feedback SMART, FIT and ABLE, and so forth.

My quick check before I take in a piece of feedback is that it has to be constructive (good) and insightful (wise)*, in other words “does this person have my best interest at heart?" and "does this person know what they’re talking about?”

Unfortunately, there are a few people who simply enjoy dispensing advice in order to feel important, and there are even some people who like to deliver cruel jibes in the guise of feedback. **

* I realise that this is the “Glinda the Good Witch of the North” model, but even she made some pretty sarcastic remarks.

** If you have lived only amongst kindness and charity and it seems unbelievable that anyone would deliver nasty feedback, you can find examples of eye-openingly unhelpful behaviour in the comments section of any website, usually starting from about the fifth comment down. Google “rainbow cake comment apocalypse” to see this in action.

You need a variety of food / you need different types of feedback

Here are some of the types of feedback you should be receiving:

Short and long-term positive affirmation feedback (you’re doing the right thing right now / you’re doing the right thing with your life) are useful so you can keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.
Perspective from an outside observer, and the insights that you couldn't have come up with by yourself, are building blocks for growth.
You need a little bit of praise now and again – it’s very motivating (just don’t let it make you complacent).
Unpleasant truths and criticisms are very useful, as long as they are both good and wise.

(It would be stretching an analogy to say that these are your carbs, proteins, fats and vitamins, so I won’t.)

A healthy diet for the mind

Feedback shapes what we do, and what we become. The process of building a healthy feedback diet involves seeking out regular, varied and high quality feedback, and rejecting the dross. This doesn't mean you can happily absorb the positive feedback and ignore the negative – far from it! – but it does mean you should ignore the careless, caustic or uninformed remarks.

An analogy is just a tool that lets us re-examine something in a new light, hopefully this analogy gives you some ideas for your intake of feedback.

You may think of other ways that good feedback is like a healthy diet, but I'm also interested in how the analogy fails to hold up. It’s something to muse on, and of course… your thoughts help me refine my thoughts.