Founder Diary

May 17, 2022

Feedback is no holy cow

Feedback is no holy cow

Feedback is super important. As long as you can tell what it actually means.

A duck and a chick looking at each other, puzzled. A hamster is seen in the background peeking out of a window
A duck and a chick looking at each other, puzzled. A hamster is seen in the background peeking out of a window
A duck and a chick looking at each other, puzzled. A hamster is seen in the background peeking out of a window
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck, right? Don’t be so sure. It could still be a chick. Or a red-throated loon (that one can quack, too!)

That’s one example how relying on seemingly obvious feedback can be misleading.

Why is it worth talking about?

Here’s the dilemma: we make the most consequential decisions when we have the least information.

Unfair, huh?

It is. But to me, the bigger problem is that we’ve come to believe that it’s okay to heavily rely on feedback to course-correct after we’ve committed to a goal.

When it comes to personal goals, there’s a lot of uncertainty and misjudgment for the simple reason that we never have complete or fully accurate information. Not even to mention the added complexities when other people become involved. If we were able to have full advance knowledge of what it will actually take to reach the destination, we’d always be perfectly positioned to make a single definitive decision whether a goal is worth a shot.

But that… that’s not possible.

In reality, before we start taking action toward a goal, all we have is limited information that we build assumptions around that are then placed under various degrees of stress. Then, in theory, as we progress we update these assumptions to make better decisions, perhaps even to the point where we abandon a goal based on new data.

But is feedback (in a broad sense of the word) up to the task?

Can it be a reliable guide and help us solve the whole “quit or not” conundrum when it comes to personal goals?

You wish

We are pretty terrible at quitting when it comes to big bets. One of the major reasons is that feedback often isn’t helpful.


In short — interpretation. Objective feedback and our reaction to it are two very different things.

To illustrate the absurdity of this gap, I’ll deconstruct a fairly straightforward activity I’m engaged in right now: writing this blog.

Let’s say I’m working on an article. It all goes extremely smoothly (barely ever is this true, but let’s imagine). A half hour has passed and most of the post is already there.

What feedback do I get from this? What does it mean? And where’s the gap?

The Expectation

It may look like the feedback is unambiguous. I’m making progress, which means I’m getting closer to the goal — i.e., a published post. On the face of it, this is an undoubtedly positive turn of events. It should increase my resolve, because the task turned out easier than I anticipated. From this I might conclude, that I don’t need that many resources (time and attention) and that the obstacles aren’t significant at all. I might decide that if I keep going for another half-hour, I’ll likely hit the “done and done!” point, and I’ll have both a beautiful new post and plenty of time left to work on my other to-dos. It’s a win-win.

The Reality

My confused brain isn’t nearly so convinced. Sometimes it comes up with a much better plan: “What I wrote in half an hour is more than what I hoped for in the whole writing session — I over delivered! So... why don’t I just stop working altogether?!”

Wait, what?!

It turns out that when we consider progress toward a goal sufficient it often sends a signal against persistence. We feel liberated, the pressure to get moving is gone. We’ve done more than we expected, isn’t it reason enough to celebrate, or at least switch tasks?

Either way, that’s how successful efforts toward a goal can also encourage actions that prevent forward movement. It’s really hard to resist the dopamine hit that comes from unexpected progress, but here’s to hoping awareness of this trap might help you avoid it — at least, sometimes.

What about negative feedback?

Unfortunately, not much better.

Common wisdom tells us resistance must be met with persistence if our plans are to reach fulfillment.

This sounds logical, but let’s unpack it a bit further.

One day, struggling to produce a single paragraph of text for an hour means I realize the goal proved to be harder than I thought. Because of this I redouble my efforts and stay on the task longer to get it done.

Another day, that same feedback might give me a signal to call it quits because I feel tired, annoyed, and disenchanted. On top of that, my PlayStation keeps sending unambiguous signals of its own. (It has a tendency to do that.) You know, the typical procrastination stuff.

So, negative feedback is nasty, too, but there’s something worse.

Unclear feedback

In my situation, feedback about blog post length may be straightforward — the text is either there or it isn’t. My reaction to that information may vary, sure, but at least I know if I’m generally succeeding or not.

But it’s not always the case if we look at other criteria of progress.

What if I write a page of text (which is in itself great, I guess?) but when I reread it, I’m not sure if it’s any good.

What if I just produced a ton of garbage that no one in their right mind wants to read? Or, sometimes, I think the copy is just fine one day, but the day after I’m convinced it’s nothing else but concentrated brain dung.

In other words, the feedback is inconclusive.

And that’s not even the end of it. How about some severely delayed feedback?

I might think this post is cool and to the point, but what actually determines my goal’s success is whether you, the reader, agree. If you think this is a little bit better than robot vomit, then I only get to know about it way after I actually do the work. Before I publish, I have no idea if I’m succeeding at all. And what if half the readers say it’s fine and the other half say it isn’t? How am I supposed to draw any meaningful conclusions then?

I can’t. And neither can you. And if you can predict the future, please do reach out and let me know.

And there isn’t lack of professions that involve this kind of uncertainty daily! More on that in a minute.

This is similar to how if you’re an employee, you often don’t know what your boss will think about your work until it’s finished. Yes, well-set expectations and clear success criteria can help, but that can only go so far. First, good communication is never a given, and, second, even then, your feedback remains delayed and, at least partly, unpredictable. And I’m not even getting into the whole “is feedback at work about the giver or the receiver“ argument.


Another not-so-obvious aspect of unclear feedback is (mis)attribution, or misunderstanding why you’re getting the feedback. For example, I might be convinced I finished my post in an hour instead of three because I’m a genius. However, it’s pretty likely I simply stumbled onto the needed material at exactly the right time and place.

Similarly, it’s often unclear why we’re “underperforming.” Maybe we haven’t done enough preparation. Maybe the task turned out more complex than we anticipated. Maybe we’re just beginners and haven’t grasped the basics yet. Maybe we’re just tired or hungry.

So what?

One conclusion is obvious. Feedback is useful, but it’s no holy cow. It might not always help us make course corrections or “quit or not” decisions about our goals. Signals we get from our work can clear things up as well as complicate them. Feedback can be unclear, unreliable or straight misleading, and our reaction to it, at times, can be mind-blowingly irrational.

Cultivating awareness of cognitive errors and attribution issues can  save us a lot of pain. However, in this case a much more important finding to me is that...

Flying blind is a feature as well as a bug

In a lot of pursuits there’s little hope of clear feedback until some point after the work is done. Just look at:

  • Science. You have a hypothesis, but there might not be any meaningful feedback until you conduct an experiment or extensive research, which can take tons of time, effort, and money to set up. But if you don’t set it up, you won’t learn anything new.

  • Education. It’s not uncommon to waste years studying something the market won’t need when you come to graduate. It may look like petroleum engineering is in demand when you start, but then it’s electrical or quantum engineering everyone’s obsessed when you’re done. You can only make an educated guess about whether you’ll be able to find a decent job, let alone one you’re passionate about. As often as not, you realize in the middle of a course that the area you picked looks nothing like you imagined when you enrolled.

  • Entrepreneurship. You can spend months building an “incredible” product or feature only to realize that no one even wants it. You’re free to run surveys or do all the testing you like. Your friends, their moms, and their cats might be super excited, but that doesn’t guarantee the result won’t be meh’ed by users when it goes live.

  • Art. You might work on a book for years and never know if the readers are going to like it one bit. What if you spend ages creating something no one needs or wants? This happens all the time. The same goes for many forms of art, like painting, movie making, or video games. But if that stopped artists from creating, no masterpieces would ever be born.

These examples demonstrate that the skill of tolerating this kind of uncertainty and maybe even outright disregarding feedback is a big part of the persistence equation.

Consequently, the ability to constantly deal with inconsistent, delayed, or otherwise unhelpful feedback (or none whatsoever!) is often a prerequisite of success. It’s an underrated skill required to get to many goals we may set.

So the next time you consider a big bet and hope some kind of feedback will clear things up on the way, ask “What if there’s none?”, “What if it’s unreliable?” and, more importantly, “If that’s the case, can I live with that?

Thanks for reading!

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