This post is Part 5 in a 12-part blog series on humility and growth. (If you missed the first post, you can find it here.)
I don’t like receiving feedback about what I’m doing wrong. It’s uncomfortable and doesn’t feel very good. I still remember one time, I got the reviews back on a journal article I had written. I had worked really hard on the paper and I thought it was pretty good. But the journal rejected it. Here was the feedback: “I have to confess that it was a little difficult to stay objective because I was appalled by the poor writing skills of the authors. If the authors wish to rewrite this manuscript, it is suggested that they ask for assistance in editing.”
Negative Feedback Can Hurt
Ouch! When you receive negative feedback on something you are doing, it stings. We all have a strong motivation to maintain a positive sense of self-esteem, which basically means we want to feel good about ourselves. This is one of the most powerful motivations that we have. When we receive feedback that paints ourselves in a negative light, it’s tough for us to handle. We might try to discount the feedback, or even blame the person who gave it to us.
Feedback is Necessary for Growth
Here’s the problem: Our natural tendency to want to feel good about ourselves and discount negative feedback torpedoes any hope of achieving meaningful growth or change. Psychologists who study excellent performers (e.g., chess masters, violin virtuosos, star athletes) have discovered that in order to improve, we need consistent accurate feedback on our performance. We need to know what success looks like, what failure looks like, and how we can correct a failure. We need this feedback in real time—or as close to the actual performance as possible. Without consistent feedback—especially around our failures—it is impossible to improve.
Humility and Feedback
This is where humility comes in. Our natural tendency is to avoid negative feedback. But humility says it is normal to have limitations. Humility encourages us to admit our limitations and face them honestly. Humility acknowledges that we all have limits. Limitations aren’t something to be ashamed of, they are normal and to be expected. Openly acknowledging and owning our limitations is an important prerequisite to obtaining negative feedback about our performance, which is an important aspect of growth or change.
In order to grow and change, we have to be open to, and actually seek out, feedback about ourselves. Furthermore, it is essential to obtain feedback about what we are doing wrong. This is the only way to improve. However, getting this type of feedback is difficult, and we have all sorts of psychological defenses that prevent us from seeking out and incorporating negative feedback about ourselves. Enter humility. Humility sets the stage for us to seek out and incorporate negative feedback about ourselves—giving us the opportunity to grow and change.
To change, you need to get accurate feedback about yourself. To get accurate feedback, you need to start with humility.