Taking It On The Chin

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.

BrewHuiBitter_JudgesSheet

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.

GalbraithsFront

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

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15 responses to “Taking It On The Chin

  1. My opinion is that all other people are stupid. In regards to my beer, provided I like it, I don’t give a shit what other people think. I don’t think any of my beer drinking mates liked my Chilli and Watermellon Lager or my Rhurbarb Wit, but I do, so that’s a win for me. I like drinking it and I don’t have to share it. Bonus!

  2. Great post. Your beers are much like your children. All babies are quite ugly to begin, but with nurture grow into cute young things.

  3. I think one of those words is meant to be “Isoamyl Acetate” – banana/peardrop ester. I must update the website with the judging tables so you know who to send nasty letters to! 😉 In this case, Table 1 was: Kieran Haslett-Moore, Jason Bathgate, and Dale Cooper. I don’t have the table steward info on me right now so I don’t know who to spank for the misspelling!

    Better luck next year Jason. I’m sure your beer will improve out of sight!

    • Thanks so much Greig – you (and your team) did an absolutely marvelous job of pulling it all together. The blow-by-blow updates were outstanding! (And the judges were almost-certainly bang-on with their assessments…but I must say: nine-out-of-fifty never tasted so good!)

      • Cheers Jase! We must go for a pint sometime. You’re in Auckland, yes? We can discuss the terrors and pitfalls of beer judging! You should also meet Phil – he’s the guy who got all the update magic going.

  4. I think the hardest part about getting an honest assessment about where the quality of your beer stands is finding someone with the palate and experience. Friends and family will usually all say that it’s great, because they are biased and/or they aren’t that discerning (plus they are getting free beer so why bite the hand that feeds you). And you yourself (the brewer) is probably the most biased because your brews are like your children and you have high expectations for them. Unless they are completely gross, you will most likely overlook more subtle off flavors. Sending a brew into competition though is one way to get honest qualified feedback, and you now have it. Onward and upwards.

  5. I can relate, Jase: having started brewing about six years ago, we were confident enough in our first two beers to enter them into that year’s NHC, expected great things, and got the smackdown instead (and from memory, the same fusel and phenolic comments you got). Still, it wasn’t enough to put me off brewing (although it did mostly put me off competitions!) and I’m pretty happy with what I make now. Aside from starsan, the best investment you could make is temp control for fermentation.

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