“The truth might hurt, but what hurts more is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
When you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of your situation, the right decisions often become self-evident.
Most people are stuck. They’re in a rut with their relationships, finances, careers, and health. In many cases, they’ve accepted that where they are is the best they’re ever going to be. In the words of Ramit Sethi, “At the moment when we accept our weaknesses and stop deciding to grow, we’re the BEST we’re ever going to be. It’s all downhill from there.”
The fastest way to evolve is through brutal feedback.
This feedback tells us immediately what we need to work on, what’s holding us back, and how we can significantly improve.
A lot of people simply aren’t open to brutally honest feedback. It’s painful and uncomfortable. To be sure, it’s a skill you need to develop, and it takes time to be OK hearing about all your failures.
But like the writer who refuses to have his work proofread (“I already read it, there aren’t any typos!”), we often miss the obvious problems right in front of our noses. We need others to tell us.
It might hurt. But what hurts more is persisting in self-deceit and ignorance of your own shortcomings.
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?” -Carol Dweck, Mindset
A mentor of mine once told me a story about when he first began giving presentations.
He eventually wanted to be a paid keynote speaker, and knew he had to improve his speaking skills. So, he had a friend come along and watch his speech to give him feedback. “How did I do?” he implored after the speech.
His friend’s feedback was rough. My mentor had talked too fast during his speech, used a monotone voice, and it was tough to follow his unorganized train of thought. Ouch.
Most people might recoil at this feedback; they might ignore it, wave it away, and tell themselves that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
But my mentor actually wanted to get better. “It’s not personal. It’s business,” he told me. He wasn’t offended or prideful. He wanted to improve, and he knew getting feedback was going to be rough but incredibly helpful. Years later, he’s a prolific speaker and regularly gets paid to speak around the nation.
Hearing that feedback — and applying it — was critical to his success.
If you remain unwilling to hear the frank, brutal feedback about what you need to change, you will never achieve personal greatness.
You Must Be Known as Someone Who Can Hear the Brutal Feedback
“It is impossible to make good decisions without having an honest confrontation of the brutal facts.” -Jim Collins, Good to Great
When I first started at an old corporate job I had, I told my boss that I was entirely open to feedback, good and bad. I wanted to get better, and I knew feedback was crucial.
But our department’s culture was too dysfunctional for him to trust me.
Most people in our department were entirely close-minded to negative feedback. The others who claimed they were open actually weren’t; when anyone confronted them with the brutal truth, they often became passive-aggressive and mean.
That department reflects how most of society responds to brutal feedback — with passive-aggression, anger, or plain denial.
Accepting brutal feedback about your shortcomings is a tremendously difficult skill to develop, but a critical one if you want to become the best version of yourself. In many cases, some people won’t even believe you’re open to feedback. You have to train people to know — “I can take it.”
A fundamental tenet of deliberate practice (one of the most effective performance strategies there is) is constantly receiving blunt feedback about your performance. It’s not personal — you’re just doing it wrong. That’s OK. Here’s how to tweak it and make it better.
You’ll never improve if you’re close-minded. You have so much to learn, and you’ll master it the fastest when you’re humble enough to be told when you mess up.
One of the main reasons why people remain unopened to brutal feedback is because they equate their failure as a negative confirmation of their identity. Their self-worth is directly tied to how well they perform. If they suck at something, it means they suck. It’s not surprising people don’t want to hear it.
But our failures aren’t tied to our self-worth. Every failure or mistake is simply an opportunity to grow and learn. Our abilities and skills are fluid, and can be developed.
Failure is just part of the process, and brutal feedback helps us see it clearly.
This is the entire premise of Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (one of the best books I’ve read in years). If you want to see explosive growth, you need brutal feedback. And like my old boss, you often need to convince people that yes — you can take it.
It’s not personal. Once you understand that, help others to know that you’re someone who is open-minded towards brutal feedback.
“You can be successful only at things you are willing to fail at.” -Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Never Lose Faith That You’ll Succeed In the End
This is a trademark of all the extraordinary companies Jim Collins documented in his famous book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.
Collins and his team spent years analyzing 11 companies that transformed from dowdy, tired businesses into perennial world superpowers. These companies always practiced this psychological dichotomy; confront the brutal facts, yes — but never lose faith you will succeed in the end.
Will Smith was once asked about what made him different than other successful actors.
“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”
Smith never entertained the idea he would fail. No matter what — he would win, or die trying. It’s that simple, really.
It’s a long way to that morning when you wake up and realize you’ve achieved those dreams you’ve had ever since high school. There’s so much you still need to learn, to practice, and to develop. It can be discouraging.
Iconic radio host Ira Glass once said:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
There’s a big gap between where you are now and the person you want to become.
It often takes years of producing, practicing, and failing before you can consistently get it right.
Most people never make it past this phase. They give in to discouragement, and settle for a “good” life instead of the “great” one. Deep down, their foundation was shaken — they lost hope that they were going to succeed, so they panicked and grabbed whatever happened to be available.
The greatest leaders of history knew deep down, they would succeed. When Winston Churchill saw Hitler’s far superior army closing in on all sides, he still knew Britain would win. Despite massive criticism and pushback, Abraham Lincoln never lost faith the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery would win.
We can wisely recognize when we’re beaten, yes — but you need to be stubborn. Stupid, even.
Never lose faith. You will succeed, no matter what.
3 Mini-Strategies to Optimize Brutal Feedback
Critical, blunt criticism about your failures isn’t useful. Brutal feedback needs to be absorbed in the right context to be effective.
Here are 3 mini-strategies to optimize brutal feedback so you can improve quicker and more effectively.
1. Rely On Questions, Not Excuses
The most common response to blunt feedback is usually getting defensive. To avoid this trap, ask questions instead of making excuses.
Questions lead to more precise questions. Precise questions lead to the root of the problem, where you can address it.
The greatest companies in the world don’t insist they’re perfect when they’re bleeding money and losing market share. They take a hard look at themselves, and ask: “Where did we go wrong? How can we fix that? What is the first problem we need to address?”
Asking questions creates momentum, and gets you out of the frozen emotions of a wounded ego.
When you receive brutal feedback, don’t make excuses. Take a deep breath, and ask clarifying questions.
2. Engage In Dialogue, Not Coercion
Another common response to brutal feedback is manipulation or coercion.
This might sound like:
“When you say I need to be a better husband, you mean in addition to all the things I already do for you every day, right?”
“I know our employee turnover is sky-high, but if they can’t handle our structure, then there’s nothing we can do for them.”
People often try to manipulate their way out of confrontation, turning the perceived attack back on the attacker.
Instead of seeing those giving you feedback as your adversary, see them as your teammate, with a problem you can solve together.
Engage in spirited dialogue. Find the root of what’s going on. Don’t stick your head into the sand — ask hard questions, hear the hard truth, then work on solving it.
3. Conduct Autopsies Without Blame
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” -Bruce Lee
When something has failed — a business, a relationship, a fitness plan — it’s tempting to blame everything but yourself.
This time, assign no blame at all. Simply review what went wrong and take responsibility for your part in it.
If I look back at my blogging career and conduct an autopsy without blame, I can easily see why I never got any followers in my first 4.5 years of writing. I was lazy, the quality was bad, and I was horribly inconsistent.
It’s not personal. I want to get better, and as long as I kept blaming other stuff for my lack of progress, I was never going to get better.
“Who you are is a result of who you were, but where you end up depends entirely on who you choose to be from this moment forward.” -Hal Elrod
Brutal feedback makes my forehead sweaty.
My ears burn. I hear a small ringing as I’m told where I messed up. I’m tempted to feel ashamed of myself.
Confronting the brutal feedback is really hard.
But I really, really want to get better.
So, I make myself willing.
This isn’t easy. I’m confident most people will go through life without becoming open to brutal feedback about where they came up short.
But if you want to experience explosive growth and become the best version of yourself, absorbing and applying brutal feedback is required. It’s easier when you’ve committed to never losing faith that you’ll succeed.
Who you are now is a result of the decisions you’ve made. But who you become is entirely up to you — will you take the feedback, or deny it?
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