This past weekend was APEX 2014, and most people reading my blog will know what that is already. If you don’t know, it was a massive Super Smash Brothers tournament, featuring more than ten different tournament events for a variety of games, mostly focusing on the Smash franchise.
I attended, not as a competitor but as a spectator and commentator. I had an amazing time watching matches, meeting old friends and making new ones, and just talking about Smash and mindsets and moods and competition and all kinds of stuff. Three days and four nights of talking about and witnessing some of my favorite things in the world made it pretty impossible to have a bad time.
I was also extremely gratified that roughly half the people I met told me they like my blog, read it, like talking about it, and that it’s helped them in some way. Just sitting behind my computer, writing it, and shipping it off to Internet-land--and getting a few Likes and the occasional comment--means it’s hard for me to know what effect it’s having. My daily reader-count has gone up over time, and I occasionally get some new twitter followers, who presumably see the blog as well. But all told, I can’t really tell until somebody (or a large number of somebodies) tells me what they think.
Apparently some of the things I write are helpful. That’s really good to know. Sometimes I wonder if people aren’t just clicking the page because it shows up in their Twitter or FB newsfeed, saying “meh,” and going away, hoping for something better next time. When people tell me what helps them and what doesn’t, what seems completely true and what seems confusing, that helps me make a better blog. It also helps me know that I’m creating some kind of value by writing it, and that I should continue.
This all brings me to today’s topic, which is feedback.
Feedback is essential to doing anything better; it is what allows us to consciously create outcomes we prefer. You do something, the environment shows you how your action affected it, and you store that information for the future. If you liked the outcome, you may repeat the action. If you hated the outcome, you avoid the action. If you realize your actions don’t affect the outcome at all, you save your energy. This is pretty simple stuff.
What is less obvious--though no less important--is this: any time you prepare to do something, and you have any interest in doing it better, you need to create criteria to measure your feedback. If you consciously act, interpret the data, and tweak things to collect more information and serve your goals better, you will probably improve at a faster rate than people who don’t do these things.
Likewise, interpreting the feedback from the environment is a skill all its own, which is why it’s possible to be an amazing coach and mediocre player, or vice versa. If you are poor at interpreting feedback, you end up with superstitions and bad habits. You will believe you can control the arbitrary or believe the manageable is beyond your control. You will completely ignore how one action affects outcomes, overvalue certain skills, and so on. We have tremendous capacity for poorly interpreting feedback, especially if we refuse to listen to others, or we only search for positive feedback and ignore negatives. If we over-emphasize the wrong outcomes, we will obsess on the unnecessary. There are many ways our hunt for feedback and our use of it can go wrong.
Feedback is especially challenging to analyze when it comes to physical activities. Sometimes you make the same mistake as before, so you receive the same feedback twice; of course you know what needs to change, but good luck telling that to your body. Coaches and analysts can be extremely useful, because they can tell you why a specific part of your body is messing you up, and how you can focus on it to change the outcome. They are masters of the feedback you may receive as you train, and they know how to shift your focus onto actions that yield better feedback. That is, of course, assuming that your coach is a good one. Your body also acts as your coach because it gives you feedback in response to your actions as well. Learning to listen to it, to really delve into how it feels and responds to your commands, that’s another form of feedback important to learning.
With all that in mind, when does feedback help us the most?
One way feedback will assist us more is its specificity. Over time, you want feedback to move from being general to being specific; as you initially learn skills, you don’t want to focus on highly specific outcomes because amateurs don’t have enough information or control. Hence, initial feedback will typically be general and uncomplicated. If it is specific, it should focus on something very basic. As you train more and more, the feedback must become more specific and controlled. The differences between “good” and “incredible” become smaller and more subtle as you improve. Not only do we steadily reach points of diminishing returns for our efforts, but the distinction between the best and the next best become finer as well.
Feedback also helps the most when it’s based on things you actually control. So when learning, you want to constantly ask yourself two questions: is there any conceivable way I could adjust around this situation? If so, how? A golfer can’t control the wind, but can adjust the shot around it. A golfer that stubbornly takes the same shot into a heavy wind, then complains about the outcome (the feedback) would be considered ridiculous. But we do this surprisingly often in all kinds of situations. It’s far more helpful to say “can I do something to tilt this more in my favor? If I can, what is it?”
I’m not very religious, but there is an extremely useful, widespread prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that comes to mind: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” As you try to improve, you want to focus your energy only on what you actually control and affect. Many people will set goals that require the assistance of variables beyond their control, and not on maximizing their input. Doing that not only creates frustration, but it doesn’t even help. When studying your feedback, it helps to assume that you can do something to improve your situation, and focus on discovering what that is. If you assume that you got screwed by circumstance, or you try and forcibly influence things truly beyond your control, you waste energy that could be used to improve.
The last thing that makes feedback most useful is when all feedback is treated as valuable. We want to be excited about feedback even if doesn’t tell us what we want, even when we might consider it a failure, because it’s a window to more understanding. Of course, if the feedback comes from other people you need to be more careful about how you interpret it, and you must be willing to let go of older interpretations if new feedback says you’ve been wrong. In the long run, however, it all comes in handy, because the way the world responds to your actions always tells you something about the world you live in.
In short, emphasize your choices and activity rather than randomness, and as you learn more, become more and more specific. Finally, treat every piece of feedback as insight into understanding the entire game or skill or endeavor, and you will find your knowledge and ability growing more quickly than those who discard information they don’t like.
Thanks for reading.