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Don't Fear Feedback

Man with headphones, low lighting, in front of window, view of water

“No one likes to be found at fault. In fact, this is what many of us walk around fearing—that we’ll be exposed as imposters, we’ll be put on the spot in front of people, we’ll have to admit error. This makes us defensive, it makes us play it safe, and in some cases, it even makes us dishonest.” - Ryan Holiday, Daily Stoic email June 20th, 2023

One of the most challenging aspects of being a musician is sharing ourselves with others. Whether we are releasing original music or performing in front of an audience, opening ourselves and our music up to potential scrutiny can make us feel vulnerable and afraid. As a result, many of us avoid putting ourselves in situations where we can receive feedback. This puts us at ease in the short-term, but ultimately holds us back from all the potential growth and development this valuable input can bring. If we can move through the fear and actively seek out feedback, we’ll be able to learn and improve at a higher level.

Receiving criticism can be painful, especially if it’s harsh or discouraging. But more often than not what is worse than the actual feedback is the fear of it. As Scott Young explains in his book Ultralearning: “Fear of feedback often feels more uncomfortable than experiencing the feedback itself. As a result, it is not so much negative feedback on its own that can impede progress but the fear of hearing criticism that causes us to shut down.” If we give in to this anxiety and keep what we’re working on to ourselves, we miss out on “the aggressive feedback that could generate faster results.” Fortunately, hearing input from others becomes easier to do with experience. “Though short-term feedback can be stressful, once you get into the habit of receiving it, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally.”

In his work studying deliberate practice, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found that receiving immediate feedback is essential to reaching expert levels of performance. Without it, we can hit a plateau in our musicianship and creativity—where we’re working on our playing, performing, or songwriting, but improvement in those areas is noticeably stagnant. Part of the problem is in how difficult it is to be objective about the quality of what we’re doing. We will inevitably have blind spots when it comes to many of our weaknesses, especially for those of us who are early in our musical journey. By reaching out directly for feedback we can benefit from other people’s perspectives and experiences, which will help steer us in the direction we need to go. If someone points out an area we’re already working on to improve, we can take that as a sign we’re on the right track.

Even if we are afraid of looking or sounding foolish, or of being told our song or performance isn’t as good as we would like, seeking out feedback from other musicians and music lovers will give us a better idea of how we’re doing—and most importantly, how we can improve. If we have weaknesses in our craft, it’s essential to know what they are so we can remedy them. Receiving input from our peers or an audience will save us time in finding where those holes exist, and will ultimately help us achieve a higher level of mastery.


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