Self Enacting Feedback Loops

Any meaningful progress requires the processing of (and response to) feedback.

An archer practicing her shots on a target nocks an arrow, aims, draws, then releases.

(Tan Ya-Ting, world class archer representing Chinese Taipei)

One of three things will happen;

  • She hits the bullseye;
  • She hits the target imperfectly;
  • Or she misses all together

The beauty of pursuits like archery is that the feedback involved in its practice is unambiguous, immediate, and self-enacting; it’s clear whether-or-not you’ve succeeded, and every possible outcome inspires the same response; nock another arrow, and try again.

If the archer misses, she picks up her bow and tries again until she hits.

When she hits the target imperfectly, she tries yet again, aiming for dead centre.

When she strikes dead centre, she tries again, and again, until she can strike dead centre one hundred times in a row.

Even when she has accomplished this, her mastery is not complete.

She takes a step back, increasing her range. Then once again, she tries again.

The process of improving at archery is ingrained in its practice. You hit, or you miss until you only hit.

You can’t pretend to be good at archery. Not to others, but more importantly, not to yourself. You are, or you aren’t. You hit, or you miss.

Similar loops can be found in pursuits like Jiu Jitsu, pottery, or lifting weights; You can defend yourself, or you can’t. You can throw a set of identical bowls, or you can’t. You can deadlift 80kg, or you can’t.

Want to get better at any of these things? Then do them.

Show up. Try. Process feedback. Repeat.

It sounds simple, because it is.

What most people fail to realise is that this type of progress is not exclusive to pursuits with self enacting feedback loops inbuilt.

Feedback loops can be designed and implemented into any pursuit.

It’s not always easy. But if progressing in your pursuit means something to you, designing and implementing feedback loops is essential.

Some artists do a particularly poor job of this. An artist’s failure to develop usually has to do with the ambiguity of their feedback, and their failure to reframe it into something actionable.

When the feedback generated by an activity is ambiguous, responding productively is a challenge.

Unlike arrows in targets, the effective success of artistic practice is often hard to measure.

What’s worse is when that ambiguous feedback gets further distorted and filtered by the artist’s ego.

What happens when ambiguous feedback gets passed through an ego filter?

Not a lot of growth.

When pursuits don’t have clear feedback cycles, we have to build our own. We owe it to ourselves.

If you want to get better at whatever it is you’re pursuing, you must be able to point at the bullseye, and describe what sending an arrow crashing into it looks like. Not the field it’s in, not the target itself, but the actual image of an arrow lodging itself cleanly in the centre ring.

For the artist, their bullseye might be the approval of a trusted mentor, or to their second timing on a monologue or poem.

A bullseye could look like one interesting blog post published every day, without typos, at 6am.

A detailed understanding of what perfect execution looks like is essential if you intend to trend towards it.

Fail to do so, and you’ll dabble in mediocrity for however long it takes you to quit.

Incredible things are difficult to do.

You shouldn’t feel horrible every time your arrow flies wayward. You shouldn’t expecting perfect results every time you loose an arrow – It’s about giving yourself the best opportunity to grow towards perfect results.

When designing your own loops, consider three things;

What does perfect execution look like?

What opportunities do I have to practice my own execution?

When I fail, how will I know what needs to change?

The more you try, the more you grow, the closer you get, the more you try.

Get trying.

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