The funny thing about peer review – also known as feedback, or as its harsher-toned pseudonym criticism – is the dichotomy between how we say we feel about it compared to how we actually do. If you ask anyone the following question – How do you feel about receiving feedback? – they’ll all respond the same:
“I love it”, they’ll say. “In fact, I thrive on it. Gimme more! Numma numma numma!”
But in reality, no-one likes to be criticised – whether the criticism could be construed as constructive or not. We may pretend otherwise, but beyond the bullshit façade, we all want our first-attempts to be perfectly-auteured realisations of our original vision. I’m no different to anyone else in this regard: even if I ask for it, I don’t actually want your feedback – I just want you to tell me that I’m awesome.
But here’s the rub: it turns out that the ability to accept and learn from feedback is an essential cornerstone of anyone seeking self-improvement. Just like everything in life, there’s unfortunately no gain without pain; and depending on your emotional investment in the thing being critiqued, the pain can sometimes feel like a sharp dagger shoved between your ribs.
At the conclusion of the last post – published the day before the SOBA National Homebrew Competition – I spoke of my high-hopes for Brew Hui Bitter v2.0, believing it to be in fighting-fit form to claim a medal for the Brew Hui stable. True to form, I had the romantic notion that Gold was on the cards; and had – at least in my head – already half-written the current post, lathering it with phrases like “Fitting end to the project” and “If I can do it, so can you!”
I spent most of the Competition day refreshing Twitter – since the exceptionally-organised SOBA team were providing blow-by-blow updates of those beers and brewers that were deemed worthy of a medal. But come 4:30pm – after reading everyone else’s name but mine – I came to grips with the fact that Brew Hui hadn’t medalled.
That’s okay, I told myself; it was pie-in-the-sky to think that you would. Recalling that the SOBA team had promised to upload feedback to their website by the end of the day (exceptionally-organised, remember), I quickly thumbed my way to the site: but as soon as I did, I wished I hadn’t.
Nine. Out of Fifty.
Nine! Eighteen Percent! A mother-fu*king ‘F’!
Now I’ve had my fair-share of failure – my early-2000’s were rife with it – but f*ck me. Eighteen-percent is a bath. A shocker. An embarrassment.
Ricky Gervais once said that it’s better not to try, than to try your hardest and be rubbish; and while he made the comment in jest, the superficial flippancy hid a core of elemental truth. I had genuinely tried my best with Brew Hui Bitter v2.0; and what’s worse, I actually thought it was pretty good. I believe my exact words – which I now shudder to recall – were that it wouldn’t be out-of-place flowing from the taps at Galbraith’s.
I now owe Sam Williamson a bashful apology for taking Galbraith’s name in vain.
I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed – more a hammer than an axe – but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt as part of my day-job, it’s how to process peer review. It’s probably to do with the fact that I’m usually wrong, and thus require constant correction; but whatever the reason, I reckon I’ve picked-up some useful tricks – and will now, for the benefit of those processing their own Competition feedback, share with the group.
* * * *
I reckon there are three phases to the successful reception of criticism. I’ve just described the first – the sticky Knife Between The Ribs phase – and from experience, it’s this phase that that leaves the most indelible mark. It’s also the phase during which you’ll invariably take every skerrick of feedback so-damn personally, as if its provider was purposely trying to tip over your apple cart and then shit in your mouth.
As our frequency of exposure to peer review increases – and we get more comfortable putting our head above the parapet – the harshness of the Knife Between The Ribs phase may reduce; but we’ll never actually be rid of it. The pain is essential – it reminds us that we care about what we’re doing, and want to protect it (as evidenced by our physiological response, which is invariably a defensive one). Our best hope is to reduce the time that we spend in Phase One – and to expedite our journey to Phase Two:
Namely, the Oh Shit, They’re Right phase.
The Oh Shit, They’re Right phase is best-described as an over-enthusiastic rejection of Phase One. It’s us trying to remind ourselves that feedback is important, and I should be listening; but instead of just listening, we just start agreeing with everything the feedback-provider says. Cloves? Ah yes, I soooo detect that now. Phenolic? Yep, that too.(Y’know, whatever that is.)
The knack to moving-on as quickly as possible from the Oh Shit, They’re Right phase – which can be as destructive as the Knife Between The Ribs phase, if you linger too long – is to hone your ability to accept objective truths and disregard everything else. Believing that a reviewer – no matter who they are – is a perfect judge of damn-near everything is to ignore reality: they’re just people, and thus prone to the same errors of judgement as the rest of us. Accepting every critique as if it was handed by God to Moses is a rookie mistake – one which I can, for the first time in this project, claim to be beyond. There is no such thing as super-human; only plain-old human – and realising that fact can help contextualise those pieces of criticism that might otherwise keep us awake at night.
Striking this realisation – as swiftly as possible – moves us on to Phase Three: namely, the Mastery phase.
Being a Master isn’t the same as being perfect – rather, it’s realising that you aren’t, and that no-one else is either. Mastery is all about grabbing those home-truths – such as: I Need To Keep a Closer Eye on Fermentation and Sanitation – stuffing them into your quiver, and then moving-on to the next level. The mark left by Phase One’s knife will still be there – it always will be – but beneath the superficial wound will lie a new layer of bionic scar tissue: harder, better, faster, stronger than before.
To the exceptional SOBA National Homebrew Competition team: thank you for filling my quiver. I’ll be back next year for more pain.
Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook: www.facebook.com/brewhui