Saturday, October 04, 2014

Fighting Feedback

In general feedback sucks. We want to be the bigger person but normally despite our best intentions our elephant** will go on the rampage. Clearly you need feedback to learn. It is much easier for other people to see what you are doing wrong then for you to be able to evaluate yourself.  It is however much easier to correct mistakes you see yourself than when others see them. At school it was much easier to get feedback from my Maths teacher than from my Art teacher. The worst criticism I could get from my Maths teacher was that I sometimes tended to 'go via Cape Town' in solving my geometry problems. Cape Town is a long way from Durban where I was at school. I was fine with that. I was still right. If I was wrong, there was a clear, unemotional mistake that had been made that could be fixed next time.

When my long socked, gecko-decorated-labcoated, purple-shorted, crazy haired, arm-punching, guttral-sounding art teacher used to criticize me it was a completely different story. Now it was personal. There was no right or wrong. It used to drive me nuts. Tears would well behind my eyes. The steam from my blood would rise from every pore in my body. It was war. The core struggle between my art teacher and me was to stop trying to be so clever. The painting below was my first. It was a self-portrait and like lots of teenagers I was struggling with the various sides of my personality. The introvert. The extrovert. The academic. The artist. Religion. Friendships. Family. I tried to capture this with various forms of symbolism.

My first oil painting - A self portrait aged 15 (1995)

Mr Lichkus wanted me to relax and explore art. To take a break from my head, but every piece of criticism felt like an attack. We persevered in our war and two years later I ended up doing the piece below and diving far more into abstract work and falling in love with colour and texture (and in the painting below fire as well). For the next two decades, art has been an escape for me. My happy place where I can go looking for beauty instead of trying to solve problems.

Earth (1997)

Feedback, even well intentioned and correct, even when it is worth the fight, is much harder to deliver when it isn't objective and when it is in any way related to an individual and their elephant. 

It is interesting looking at the approaches of Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) and Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb) in pushing public debate forward. They appeal directly to the Rider*. They don't play nice and certainly are likely to be low down on the list of people's most desired dinner guests unless they speak and then leave quickly. Taleb takes the approach of directly insulting his readers and pointing out that they are chuckling and thinking he is insulting someone else when he is insulting them.  I think you can take this approach once who have already won someone over. Once they already know you like and respect them or have some reason you will stick around. You can tell your buddy he is looking chubby and should hit the gym, because he knows he is your buddy. A professor can mock a students line of logic because they wouldn't even bother tutoring them if they thought they didn't have the intelligence to correct their mistakes. I suspect there isn't a lot of space for feedback when the elephant is suspicious. Feedback is most effective when the elephant feels safe and the problem is being looked at in a detached/solvable way. That is why I think Jonathan Haidt is onto something when he talks about us needing to get better at talking to the Elephant first when trying to solve some of our bigger problems. The Riders are making reasons up, and unless there is common ground or some sort of good will - get ready for a fight.


 *Rider: Rational-side. Explains and justifies behaviour and attempts to direct it. Trains the elephant.
**Elephant: Decision-making, action taking emotional and automatic side. Listens to Rider when it wants to.

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