Feedback Loops

The best way to improve at something is to make sure that in small, incremental, and consistent ways you are punished for your mistakes.

You don’t want to be in a situation where you lose a hand for every mistake. You probably won’t lose a hand; instead, you’ll probably be so safe you never learn anything. But you also don’t want to be in a situation where there are no repercussions for your actions at all; in such an environment, no rigor equals no vigor.

But if you get a small amount of negative feedback very regularly whenever you make a tactical error, that will hone the relevant talent or skill to a razor’s edge.

This is what I’ve always loved about the sales profession and the people who take it seriously. If you’re in sales, you’re getting that feedback multiple times per day. Make some minor tweaks to your technique and you’ll get hard data back almost immediately. This enables you to refine and iterate so incrementally that it becomes one continuous process.

With that method, risk becomes virtually non-existent. You don’t have enough to lose from any one decision to be afraid of it, so you have tremendous operational freedom. If you embrace the feedback and dedicate yourself to absorbing the lessons, you can try almost anything and find the very best version.

You can – and should! – look for ways to add feedback loops like this to anything you’re serious about. Taking measurements more frequently, soliciting customer feedback more often, or finding ways to place small bets on sub-tasks with short time horizons are all good ideas. But there’s a secondary lesson here as well: don’t let yourself get put in a position where these things are difficult or even impossible.

A sure way to have your skills atrophy or your intellectual rigor deteriorate is to let yourself fall into an environment where there is infrequent or even no feedback. If you’re in a job that allows you to work for a year before anything you do is evaluated that can sound like a dream… at first. But it turns into a nightmare when you discover that your work’s been terrible for a year and you have no idea why or how to fix it.

And maybe one more lesson – before you trust or believe anything someone says, do a quick check of their environment. Do they get any feedback when they’re wrong? Are they punished? Do they lose bets? If the answer is no, then a massive grain of salt applies!

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