Learning from Schmidt, Musk and Kahneman – the benefit of negative feedback in the creative process…

Tversky & Kahneman

In his book ‘The Undoing Project‘, Michael Lewis chronicles the lives of two of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s a fascinating read about two intellectual powerhouses, an odd couple with vastly differing backgrounds, who founded a bound in war ravaged Israel.

One excerpt in particular sums up their relationship, and why they worked so well together.

Lewis describes firstly how the men had one advantage over their academic rivals – the willingness and ability to remain pessimistic about ideas, and the openness to be challenged.

“The speed with which they walked away from their ideas was incredible” Lewis writes.

In a piece of correspondence, during a minor disagreement between the two men, Taversky blurts out his problem. “One of the things I admired about your work was your relentlessness as a critic. I do not see any of this in your attitude to many of our ideas recently. Also, you have become much less interested in objections or criticism, mine or others.”

Kahneman, later the writer of the acclaimed book ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ is aghast at this, and vows to change his ways.

Because both men realise something big.

The power of negative feedback, the willingness to be wrong, to put in the work to be correct is a critical part of any creative process.

And unfortunately, we’re in danger of losing this.


Positivity is the new opium of the masses in 2017.

At a recent summit event in Dublin, an audience of high powered business people spent over 400 euro each to listen to six high-profile American motivational speakers teach ’empowerment’.

We’re bombarded via manicured social media posts and bestselling books, from every angle being told that a veneer of positivity is the only acceptable outlook on life. The implication being that successful people aren’t negative. We’re told not only to ignore, but to embrace our mistakes, to ‘fail fast’ and see them as helpful. From Trump to Tony Robbins to Conor McGregor, we’re sold pollyannaish visions of a utopian future, without any sense of the realities of life. Believe and you can achieve.

Any dissenters from will be dismissed as contrarians, luddites, bad influences or naysayers.

Positivity is the easy route to success.

But to focus only on the positives along and ignore everything else is also the wrong approach to take.

As someone who practises mindfulness and spends an inordinate amount on sports psychology books, I’m only too aware of the power of positive thinking. Certainly, in a country where our male suicide rate is disgracefully high, if more people could have an open minded, progressive and positive mindset it would be a big change.

But a balance needs to be struck. In the unfailing, cult like attempt to make everything sugar coated we’re losing something in our society. We’re losing the valuable opportunity to seek out and accept negative feedback.

The power of negative feedback

The smartest people not only don’t try to avoid negative feedback, they actively seek it out, searching for possible weaknesses that they can work on.

Having the emotional intelligence and intellectual strength to not only accept, but to seek out negative feedback is hugely beneficial. If we only receiving positive feedback, then we believe ourselves to be an expert. There’s no self reflection or critique.

Elon Musk, a modern day genius in the same mould as Taversky and Kahneman also subscribes to this theory.

“I think it is very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something people typically tend to avoid because it’s painful. But I think this is a very common mistake — to not actively seek out and listen to negative feedback.”

Avoiding negative feedback is wrong-headed and dangerous.It gives an alternate viewpoint, and even if it’s not correct it gives you something to think about, to guard against.

Without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve. Staying “positive” will only get you so far. If everything is always positive, that means we aren’t learning, because a real feedback loop doesn’t exist. Sure, people need encouragement, and plenty of it, to improve. Any good coach will tell you that.

But there’s a reason why one of the key elements of Joe Schmidt’s leadership style is remorseless, sharp feedback on in-game errors delivered through Monday morning video sessions that his players both fear, but also value greatly.

There’s a reason why, after every mission, Navy SEALs do a review of what happened to get feedback. Do they all just congratulate each other? No, they spend 90% of their time on the negative: what they can do better next time.

In Adam Grant’s book ‘Originals he describes how the creative process is sticky, non-linear, difficult and thus doesn’t benefit from constant positive feedback. According to him many innovators do so well not in spite of negative thinking, but because of it.

Research shows that when American presidents’ inaugural addresses feature overly positive language and predictions about the future, employment rates and GDP actually tend to decline during the tenure. When presidents are too optimistic, the economy gets worse. Negative thoughts can direct their attention to potential problems. Watch out Donald…

Comfort Zone

Without truthful feedback, you don’t know if you’re improving.  And that doesn’t benefit anyone. The only place where real learning takes place is outside your comfort zone. More often than not, getting there requires a break from the tyranny of relentless positivity.

Sure, taking negative feedback is hard. It’s certainly something that I’ve found difficult over my life, and continue to find tough.

Nobody wants to be wrong or imperfect all the time. But learning new things is always messy. Nobody picks up a new instrument, starts a new job or learns a new sport instantly.

And let’s not always assume that people who are negative towards us are being mean for the sake of it.

Let’s instead flip that, and take presume that they’re doing it for the right reasons. Let’s start from he assumption of ‘the most respectful interpretation’.

Negative feedback is a critical part of getting better.

The benefit of negative feedback in the creative process is that friction improves the outcome. It’s a paradox, but negativity has a positive impact on creative work.

Aristotle once spoke about the ‘golden mean’, later termed the ‘Goldilocks Theory’ – society’s almost biological need to find a desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency.

When it comes to the cult of positivity, we all need some balance in our life. That’s the only way to live your truest self and to improve.