The Most Important Trait for Becoming Successful is also the Hardest to Acquire
Psychologists like Malcom Gladwell have studied the most successful people in hopes of demystifying what it takes to reach the top. They have even tried to measure how long it takes to reach success, but we know that 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expert level at some skill — as Gladwell wrote about in his book Outliers — doesn’t exactly tell the whole story of success.
Regardless of the exact length of time, we all know that success doesn’t come over night. Instead, becoming successful at anything requires hard work, patience and the ability to overcome failure.
But what separates the truly successful from those who toil away at something endlessly and never actually achieve true success is simple.
The most important trait of successful people is their ability to receive feedback from others and use it to inform their future growth.
The most successful people didn’t just spend 10,000 hours honing in on their craft. They also deliberately sought out advice, counsel and guidance from other experts all along the way.
In essence, these highly successful people mastered the art of seeking out and receiving feedback well.
Now this might sound simple, but it’s actually quite hard to master. People tend to be really bad at receiving feedback, often taking it too personally.
In the book Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen highlight this point well:
“Learning about ourselves can be painful — sometimes brutally so — and the feedback is often delivered with a forehead-slapping lack of awareness for what makes people tick. It can feel less like a ‘gift of learning’ and more like a colonoscopy.”
Let’s face it: not everyone is great at giving feedback in the first place and these experiences lead us to become self-conscious and afraid to ask for feedback in the first place.
Yet even when it can be hard to accept every form of feedback, it is the best source of information to help us avoid failure, recognize our own biases and blind spots, and gain new skills.
So while many people avoid the painful experience of asking for feedback, the most successful people embrace feedback in all its forms.
The question then is: how can we get better at receiving feedback?
1. Seek out feedback and show that you embrace it
One of the easiest ways to get better at receiving feedback is to practice it like any other skill. Too often people get accustomed to the one-yearly performance review from their boss as their only source of feedback, which is why this becomes such an unpleasant experience.
What if instead, we all started actively asking for feedback on a regular basis? Imagine how much easier it is to reach for higher goals and meet greater expectations, because we have created a constant feedback loop.
2. Make your request for feedback more specific
One big mistake people make when asking for feedback is making their request too general. Questions like, “How am I doing?” or “What do you think of this?” are too open-ended and it’s like the person giving feedback will respond with unclear advice.
Instead, try to focus on one particular goal that you’re working to improve. It’s even better to let people know what skill you’re working on, so that they have time actively monitor your performance and give you much more clear, directed feedback. It also holds you accountable, because you know people will be expecting you to improve.
3. Listen more, talk less
Probably the hardest and most important part of receiving feedback is to simply listen and accept it. Don’t get defensive, don’t try to justify your behavior and especially don’t get angry and critical of the other person.
“Feedback can be threatening because it prompts questions about the most challenging relationship you have: your relationship with yourself.” — Thanks for the Feedback
People often let emotions take over when asking for feedback and at the first mention of something negative our ears stop listening. This is what prevents them from being able to learn from and grow their weaknesses. If it helps, try asking for the feedback in written form first so you have time to reflect on it before talking to that person to ask for clarification.
4. Develop a growth mindset
Feedback of any kind is never easy to accept. It starts in school the first time you work really hard on a project only to get a bad grade from your teacher. I saw this from students when I was a teacher: people get scared of feedback because it becomes associated with failure.
What feedback should be is a guide to keep us all in a state of learning and growing. By adopting a growth mindset, we choose to value constructive feedback over the fear of failure. This is what propels the most successful people to become resilient, lifelong learners who are capable of responding to any challenge they face.
It’s easy to become fearful of what others think of us and avoid asking for their feedback. And, in truth, many people are just plain bad at giving feedback and this can ruin the experience.
But in order to become truly successful, it’s critical to leverage feedback as one of the best sources of learning about ourselves. This is how the most successful people rise to the top.
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