Real Feedback

Before I started sharing my blog, I spent a long time sharing my intentions. I misled myself to think I was building momentum for my blog launch, but in reality I was procrastinating.

“I’d like to start a blog.”

“What will it be about?”

“It will be about my thoughts. What do you think? Any feedback?”

“Sounds good.”

These conversations produced little value. And so I delayed the challenging work of product-building, demoing, shipping.

There’s a time and place for market research. It’s a good idea to understand what users (readers) want before trying to build something for them. Feedback is good.

But only if it’s good feedback.

Once I created the blog and established a writing routine, I was in a much better position to understand what potential readers might really want. I can now parse feedback more effectively, and I also receive more effective feedback in the first place.

Give before you get. This aphorism holds true in so many ways. It not only applies to launching a blog, but also more generally to problem-solving and teamwork.

Take the example of software debugging. Something went wrong and it needs fixing. OK, where should I start? I could go to my smart friend, ask a million questions, and make them solve it for me. Or I could give it a shot myself.

First, I might try to reproduce the problem. Then I might read all the error messages, go to the relevant code snippets, and write down in my own words my understanding of the full state of affairs. I can list specific questions I think are unclear or blocking the solution. I can try to answer those questions myself, really exhausting all possibilities by running every experiment I can think of. New questions might come up in these explorations, and I have to keep repeating the question-resolution dive.

At some point, if I’m really stuck, I’ll actually know I need help instead of defaulting to stealing other peoples’ time and energy. This is analogous to taking initiative to work on a blog instead of talking about working on a blog. When we proactively take it upon ourselves to problem-solve, to pioneer progress—regardless of if it’s in big or small ways—we level up and build skills. We learn. We get faster and more effective.

We empower ourselves to communicate more honestly and productively with ourselves and those around us.

The idea of giving before taking is closely related to focus. How do we allocate our time and energy to the right things?

From kindergarten to college, I was puzzled about why my neck hurt so much doing sit-ups. Other people didn’t seem to have this problem. The gym teachers weren’t much help, because they didn’t emphasize how to focus on the right things.

Here’s the secret: sit on the floor, knees a little bent, back upright. Curve your spine and lean a tiny bit backwards, then come back with a small motion to sitting up straight. Feel the abdominal muscles tensing and creating that motion. Lean back a little farther, until you’re 45 degrees to the floor and coming back. No other muscles should we working here. You should feel your abs.

Once you know what your abs really feel like, you want to focus on them when you’re exercising them. So if you go all the way down to the floor and come back up, your neck should play no part in your torso movement. It’s all about the abs.

Nobody ever sat through this debugging process with me. I would always automatically clench my neck muscles to move my head along with my body. There was extra loading and stress to my body in the wrong ways. I wasn’t focused on the right things.

It’s challenging to maintain these attitudes, even when we’ve learned them through and through. Recently, I was doing a difficult ab exercise (the right way), but it didn’t feel super effective. I knew I wasn’t challenging myself fully with each motion.

So I switched to a more traditional, seemingly easier, old-school sit-up. The difference was my change in focus, and the speed with which I approached the exercise. Everything had to be slow, and very hard.

The goal wasn’t completion of so many reps or to actually achieve the beginning and end states of sitting up or down. And it definitely wasn’t to strain my neck. No.

The goal was to steer towards the pain. To embrace challenge and struggle in the journey between start and stop. I was in it to build muscle, not to sit up and down.

This attitude reminds me very much of a recent interview with Vladimir Kramnik where he talks about the goal being learning and enjoying chess as opposed to winning. Also relevant are Seth’s many musings on generosity, for example this article or this one.

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