Why You Stopped Improving. And How to Fix It.

Just Putting in More Hours is Rarely Enough.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, in which he linked 10,000 hours of practice to achieve a level of mastery in a given field. Across elite violinists, computer programmers, and chess grandmasters, studies have found that, in Gladwell’s words, “ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness.”

And while there’s no denying the importance of practice in building skill, it does beg one question:

If 10,000 hours creates an expert, why are so many people bad at their jobs?

Unless, of course, their craft is procrastinating, wasting time, and making poor decisions.

What about management? Would anyone, anywhere, ever, be willing to say that every manager in their company (of more than 5 years) is an expert leader?

Of course not. Most companies are lucky to have more than two-thirds of them actually solving more problems than they create.

Despite putting in well over the 10,000 hours, most managers are no closer to mastering leadership than the day they were promoted.

In many cases, even less so as their initial drive has been replaced with one of complacency.

So what’s the problem? How can we be surrounded by people who’ve racked up 10,000 or even 20,000 hours, yet are still stuck in the same spot on the learning curve?

Because 10,000 hours is only half of the equation.

There’s No Growth Without Feedback.

“You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition,” said Anders Ericsson, whose research spawned the 10,000 hour rule, “but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” Indeed, it’s the adjustment, not the repetition, which drives continual growth. In an apt description of my own golf performance, Daniel Goleman captures the problem of rote repetition in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,

“If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.”

While it’s always important to reflect on your own performance, often your own opinion isn’t what counts. I may think that I handled a presentation flawlessly, but if the customer hates it, does anyone care about my opinion?

Learning is rarely done in isolation. It’s this external feedback loop that keeps our skills moving forward. Without it, we’ll inevitably plateau as we achieve a level that we consider good enough. It’s in honest, even harsh feedback that we increase our focus on further improvement.

Unfortunately, the feedback that many people receive at work is less than helpful. Its infrequent, inconsistent, and often inconsequential. And as a result, many employees have stopped seeking it.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in leadership positions. Leaders and managers tend to receive the least amount of direct feedback — particularly from the group in which it matters the most — their employees.

Without this feedback, without the opportunity to identify and correct errors as they occur, we’ll continue to repeat the same poor behaviors. At which point, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 hours, 1,000 hours, or 10,000 hours — there won’t be any improvement. Repeating a poor practice won’t somehow make it better. You’ll just be more efficient at a poor practice.

Just as every great athlete has a top-quality coach, and ancient royalty used court jesters to question potential poor decisions, we need external feedback to grow.

But hoping for feedback doesn’t make it appear. People are trained to hold back, especially if you’re in a leadership position. Maybe they’ve been burned in the past and were punished for offering up a critical idea. Or maybe they just see it as futile — who hasn’t given feedback to someone only to see it be ignored.

These two factors — fear and futility — are the most common obstacles to getting feedback at work. And while there’s no universal solution, there are a number of things you can do to address these challenges.

Assuming, of course, you don’t have a world-class coach or court jester on retainer.

Go First — Broadcast Your Own Weaknesses

People will naturally be hesitant to offer criticism, particularly if you’re in a leadership position. One way to open this door is by volunteering your own struggles — and modeling the honesty you’re looking for from others.

This shows people you’re interested in understanding your weaknesses and aren’t afraid to confront them. It also, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes,

“One trick I’ve discovered is that I try to speak really openly about the things I’m bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place.”

If you’re a leader, it’s naive to expect people to be candid and forthcoming without initially setting this standard yourself. As Paulo Coelho put it,

“The world is changed by your example not your opinion.”

Ask For It. But Ask Well.

There’s little point in sitting back and waiting for people to freely offer feedback. If you want feedback to be a part of your culture, you’ll likely need to ask for it.

Yet asking people, “what feedback do you have?” rarely yields a worthwhile response. A vague, broad question will elicit vague, broad answers.

Instead, ask specific questions that encourage more practical answers. A specific question on how a meeting was run or how a communication strategy went over with the group encourages people to share more actionable advice. A question on areas of our business that we’re neglecting will prompt people to reflect on their specific ideas in this area.

Asking specific questions also removes the stigma around fear and futility. A vague request for feedback sends the message that you’re just going through the motions and checking a box. Specific questions, on the other hand, show you’re clearly interested in improvement. As the Chinese proverb says,

“He who asks a question remains a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask remains a fool forever.”

Listen. Don’t Defend and Debate.

I once had a manager who, upon receiving feedback or an alternative suggestion, would quickly explain why you’re an idiot and your suggestion is completely wrong.

A behavior that quickly encouraged us all to stop providing any feedback altogether.

Not all feedback will be useful. And you’ll likely disagree with a good percentage of it. But while you may disagree with the accuracy of someone’s assessment, they still have that perspective.

And how you respond will directly affect whether people offer future suggestions.

Launching into a full-on rebuttal will make you come across as defensive and not open to their suggestions. Neither of these are messages you want to send.

And if the goal is to encourage people to provide more feedback going forward, they need to see you taking their thoughts seriously. As Joyce Brothers put it,

“Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.”

Appreciate Whoever Steps Up

“Feedback is a gift,” Shopify founder and CEO Tobi Lütke recently told Tim Ferriss. And it is. It takes both bravery and generosity to offer someone genuine feedback. All designed for your benefit.

No matter how well you know someone, candid, constructive feedback always carries some risk with it. And assuming it’s well thought-out, the other person likely invested good time in considering your performance and the best way to discuss their perspective with you.

Forget about whether you agree with the perspective. And stop speculating about the intentions of the person offering you feedback or wondering whether they have a separate agenda. That path only leads to defensiveness and negative reactions. It also guarantees that next time, said person will keep their feedback to themselves. Or just share it with others when you’re not around.

Assume that there’s positive intent. Appreciate that someone is trying to help. And let people see that appreciation.

Because feedback truly is a gift.

Take Action

“Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often.” — Mark Twain

The only way to counteract this is through sustained action. Action becomes a catalyst for further feedback. It validates that you listened and appreciated their advice.

You don’t need to act on everything. But eventually you need to act on something. So evaluate what’s worthwhile, develop a plan, and take the first steps.

As the great management consultant Peter Drucker was fond of saying,

“Don’t tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you are going to do on Monday that’s different.”

Never Stop Improving.

“True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes,” said Daniel Kahneman. And indeed, the rate by which we learn is often our best competitive advantage. It is truly the one trait that cannot be copied.

Great leaders are great learners. Those that continue to push themselves towards constant improvement will always set themselves apart from the rest. But this takes more than mechanical repetition for a set number of hours.

Getting and learning from feedback isn’t easy. It’s difficult to create the culture where people are comfortable sharing this information. It’s difficult to maintain the open-mindedness and self-confidence necessary to sustain this culture through times of high stress and high emotions. And it’s difficult to parse out the worthwhile feedback from the distractions, to separate the signal from the noise.

No one ever said it would be easy. But I suppose that’s what makes it so valuable.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Feel free to share your own ways to encourage feedback — I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.