I’ve spoken at length about feedback loops and the benefits of processing it productively.
But sometimes, you just can’t.
Like too much of anything, feedback can become a burden if our focus is on generating lots of it rather than specific feedback of high quality.
An embroider might glance over thousands of lines in the making of a piece, search for the slightest of imperfections to be mend. When he spots one, he examines the line thread by thread, learning what he did wrong, fixing his mistakes and making adjustments for the next time he picks up the needle.
Another embroider of similar skill makes the same piece. But instead of glancing line by line, he examines each stich closely and carefully, immediately after making it.
Both fix their mistakes, both are better embroiders by the end of the piece, but the first finishes his piece in one sixteenth the time.
Even if he misses a mistake which the meticulous second embroider notices, the first embroider gives themselves sixteen more projects to learn it.
Too much feedback is poisonous. We can’t let ourselves get caught up in the illusion of perfect improvement.
There’s no doubt that making ends meet, taking what you can get and doing what’s in front are all worthwhile and necessary things to be able to do.
However, we’re good at tricking ourselves into thinking that just because we did something yesterday, we should, or must, do it again today.
Which isn’t true.
If you can do the kind of work you want to be doing and still generate enough to survive, even if it means having less toys than your neighbour, why shouldn’t you?
The only way anyone makes a living from writing, music, surfing or Jiu-Jitsu is by showing up constantly, even though to begin with, the time they spend isn’t earning them a dime (and usually, costs them a lot).
After some time, they become good enough to earn a little, then those who continue to turn up and are adept at processing feedback get good enough to earn a lot.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s still hard work.
In his worthwhile book, The Hapiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt argues that the advantage optomists have over pessimists naturally compounds.
It’s true that the world is structured such that the rich tend to get richer as the poor get poorer, but it’s also true that the happy are likely to grow further happier than the sad.
When it comes to dealing with circumstances which are making them unhappy, “optimists expect their efforts to pay off, [so] they go right to work fixing the problem.”
Even when things fail, they have an inherent understanding that things tend to work out for the best.
When things go wrong, optimists naturally seek out the potential benefits buried within misfortune.
The narrative optimists write for themselves then, is one of constantly overcoming adversity.
Pessimists, on the other hand, live in a world with more apparent risk and less confidence to deal with it.
From the pessimist perspective it’s natural to feel trapped within a narrative wrought with hopelessness; one where bearing the consequences of injust circumstances seems more natural than attempting to change them.
Optimists and pessimists can be dealt the exact same adversity and each write opposing translations.
What’s frightening is that the way each retells the events in their own internal narrative has ripple effects on the remainder of their narrative.
Optimists are more likely to grow from adversity because they can antipate rewards for their efforts.
Pessimists are more likely to be enslaved by adversity because they spend more time managing their pain than resolving their adversity.
This doesn’t mean pessimists can’t grow from adversity. It just means they find it more difficult to do so on average.
“The key to growth is not optimism per se, it is the sense making which optimists find easy.”
Optimist, pessimist or anything inbetween, find a way to make sense of adversity. Come to terms with it. Relish it. Grow.
They tend to be fun, nieche activities involving some form of social element. Our hobbies recharge us – in part because it doesn’t matter if we’re bad at them.
Pursuits are like hobbies, except for the fact that gradual improvement is at the core of our enjoyment of them.
Going bowling with your friends for a laugh once a fortnight is a hobby. After a few months, perhaps you’re a better bowler than average. Some nights you might even get lucky and put together an impressive score. But the vast majority of your time bowling would still be considered leisure time.
If you were treating bowling as a pursuit, while you might still have the same fun fortnightly game with your friends, the majority of the time you spent thinking about bowling would revolve around the question;
How can I be better?
You’d find time to practice on your technique, you’d probably invest in your own ball and shoes and you’d study footage of professional bowlers with awe.
You’d be obsessed with progressing and improving, because becoming a better bowler is the fun part of pursuing bowling.
All pursuits require the processing of feedback in order to innovate our approach to the activity.
In bowling, the feedback is clear; you either knocked the pins over or you didn’t.
Until you can score five perfect games in a row, there’s technique to work on.
When you find a pursuit you’re passionate about, there is an intense gratification which sprouts from putting in the work to improve. You bowl to get better at the bowling.
The fortnightly hobbyist has no interest in the intensity or focus required to pursue bowling.
When bowling is a hobby, the fun is showing up. The fun is the bowling.
When it’s a pursuit, the fun is the result of consistently showing up. The fun is the bowling because it’s making you better at the bowling.
Idenfying these patterns in the things you love to do and making clear decisions about what you’re willing to suck at is can liberating and quite valuable.
Pursuits demand tenacity and a refusal to fail. They’re high stakes and hard work, but far more gratifying tham hobbies long term. Pursuits are a commitment to growth.
Hobbies provide a special kind of short term satisfaction which we all crave. They’re low stakes and relaxing. Hobbies are the time where we can give ourselves permission to fail. The results don’t matter because taking part in the activity is it’s own result.
We should all have both hobbies and pursuits, but we should also know the difference.
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.
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.