The Positive Aspects of Negative Feedback

On Twitter today, Gail Simone (if you don't know who Gail Simone is, get thee to a comic book shop and correct this at once. you can thank me later) posed this question:

GAIL SIMONE @GailSimone
Question of the day: Has an insult or negative feedback ever motivated you to make a positive change?

Well, that's an interesting question, and it's not one which I can answer quickly, so instead of replying on Twitter, I'm going to stretch it out a little here. The short answer is: Yes, twice that I can recall, but not without a large-ish stack of caveats in both cases. 

The first one I can remember was in elementary school. I was something of a class...well, I thought of myself as a "clown" but the reality probably may have been closer to "asshole." We had visitors in our class one afternoon who had brought a boa constrictor for us to "ooh" and "aah" over. In the sixth grade, a live, uncaged boa constrictor was awfully ooh-worthy. The guests commented that the boa constrictor was the largest snake in the world, at which time my hand shot up even though this wasn't a Q&A presentation.

"Um...yes?  Little boy in the back?"

"Correction: The largest snake in the world is the python."

"Uh...ok."

And I grinned broadly having displayed my superior knowlege of snake-stuff. After the class, one of my teachers took me aside to have a little chat. 

"Ridley, I looked it up (we had to look stuff up back in Ye Olden Days), and you're correct. The rock python is the largest snake in the world..."

I was still smiling, albeit a little uncomfortably.

"...but I'd like you to think about how this made our visitors feel. They came here to show us some pretty cool stuff and teach us about snakes. Did you NEED to correct them like that?"

My smile was gone.

"And think about how this made you look to your classmates."

I think my teacher was about as gentle as any teacher could possibly have been in this case. However, his constructive criticism didn't just make me think about how I looked to my classmates on that day. I started replaying my entire time at school, back to the first grade, and thought about how my actions must have looked to everyone over the entire six years.

Sixth graders are not equipped to deal with that kind of self-awareness. I was devestated. I stopped talking in class, at all, except when it was required. I was terrified of doing anything that would single me out in any way. 

I make it sound like all of the actions were negative, but, let's face it, I was being a real jerk and my teacher's correction made me aware of how other people saw me and how my actions might affect them, so that's a good thing. I'd like to think I have more empathy now, and that it started on that day.

But man, it was harsh. I'd hope that there's a less painful way to learn that lesson.

The other had to do with always being late or no-showing at events and my sister commenting that "everyone pretty much just expects you not to show up." I'd just finished reading East of Eden, which is a one-book cure for any excuses you might have for shitty behavior. When my sister told me that, and Disapproving Steinbeck looked over my shoulder, I made a conscious decision not to be That Guy anymore. That one wasn't as painful, but negative feedback is a little easier to deal with when you're older. Or, at least, for me it is.

So, yeah....negative feedback has produced positive change in me a couple of times. Given the amount of negative feedback I've received (large) and the number of times I can recall it having a positive effect (few), I'm inclined to think that negative feedback is an extremely inefficient way to bring about positive change.

P.S. Yes, the title of this post is a reference to this song