Feedback sucks

I mean, whoever came up with the idea that it makes you stronger? Kelly Clarkson? Feedback is sometimes just a pointless smackdown.

See, back before the dawn of time, and before I started writing full-time, I worked as a customer service representative for an exercise machine manufacturer in Chaska, Minnesota. Subsisting as part of a team of under-paid and overworked corpodrones, I dispensed carefully worded instructions about how to repair the machines while playing Snake on my Nokia cell phone and eating free tacos from the company snack bar.

Meanwhile, up in the hallowed halls of the marketing department, there was an advertising director who had heard about my forays into the world of repair manuals. (She was also aware that I had been hired because my dad knew the president of the company.) Over the course of a few weeks and months, she stopped by my cubicle (actually, it was more like a hermetically conjoined desk in a row of cubicles, but let’s go with it) and gave me a friendly hello. Usually, the conversation went something like this:

“What are you working on today?”

“Oh, I thought I would try my hand at creating a 3D perceptive drawing of the chair assembly using the new version of Adobe Photoshop.”

“That sounds really dull.”

In some ways, she was right. The director was pleasant enough, middle-aged and slightly jaded by the world of Pantone colors and desktop publishing software. We forged our relationship with awkward conversations about the tedium of repair instruction booklets and Mac software installation. One day, she stopped by and asked if I had loftier ambitions.

“You mean to travel the world and address concerns over world hunger in a tangible way? You mean to express myself artistically?” I asked.

“No, I mean – writing advertising copy,” she said with a soft chuckle.

Honestly, I had not thought too far beyond the snack bar offerings. My wife was a stay-home-mom at the time, which meant she was running things and doing the real work. My daughter was only about two-years-old, barely out of diapers, and I was happy to have any gainful employment. There was something alluring about her proposition, though. I dreamed of spinning a fantastic yarn about taking total control of your weight loss regiment, or some crafty-sly verbiage about steel crossbeam supports.

“Why don’t you try a press release about our new factory?” she asked.
Right then, a sense of excitement filled me to the core. (Looking back, it might have been the tacos.) I agreed to the terms of our agreement: I would research the new plant, check in with several high-ranking officials, and fashion a glowing press release about our expansion plans. I was careful to avoid asking too many questions about what she wanted, but I did manage to clarify the word count. “Oh! I can write a 400-word press release in my sleep,” I thought. “That’s nothing compared to a 50-page manual!”

That night, I started crafting my prose. A stellar opening line. Quick facts and figures. A brilliantly summarized explanation of why the company needed the second plant facility. The next day, I put my press release text onto a floppy disk and sauntered up to the marketing department.

“Here you go,” I said with a faint smile.

A few days went by. Then a week.

“John, can you come up to my office?” asked the advertising director, who had called me by phone. That was my first sign that something was rotten in Chaska: her office was only up one flight of stairs.

I headed up to her office, expecting a rash of accolades and possibly even a promotion. I knew the marketing department was looking to hire a new copywriter, and I assumed I was an easy candidate for the job. When I got to her desk, I felt the wind being sucked out of my chest cavity.

“This just isn’t going to work,” she said, flatly. “Can you take this back and do a revise? I need to make sure this follows our corporate standard, and I don’t think you bothered to check on that.”

I took the disk back and retreated to my cubicle.

She was right, of course, I had failed to read any of the previous press releases. They followed a distinct format. I should have known that. The next day, I tracked down a few of the older press releases in a back office somewhere and re-crafted mine. I edited out a few of the extraneous bits and saved the document back to the floppy disk.

She still hated it. “That’s not going to work, either,” she said. I needed to go back and tighten up the wording, remove some of the extra verbiage. It needed to be more professional and business-friendly.

After a few more passes, she eventually decided it wasn’t working. We never sat down and looked at the exact problems together. Each meeting was a mildly painful exercise in learning about my own ineptitude.

But there was something more. It wasn’t really feedback at all, it was more like a block. I was never really going to write that press release.

Maybe she wanted to teach me that I was destined to write repair instructions for the rest of my life (she was wrong about that). Maybe she wanted to show me that there was more to writing a press release than just the words. I understand that now – you have to understand the big picture of the company marketing plans and long-term goals; you have to live the press release. Maybe she just wanted to make me squirm a little.

Feedback that is not specific is not that helpful. It’s like a swipe to the back of the head, thwonk. You don’t see it coming, and it doesn’t really help you learn anything. It just hurts. I suppose true feedback is like a construction project: when someone tells you how to redo the scaffolding, that’s helpful. When they tell you the building design is horrific and possibly dangerous, without saying why that is, it’s a complaint. It’s a swipe.

I didn’t learn much from the press release exercise. Maybe that I didn’t want to work in advertising. Maybe people have unclear motivations. I never did write anything other than manuals at the time, and in some ways they didn’t help me get anywhere either. I eventually left to work in a graphics department at another company. But there was one lesson: feedback is not always constructive, and not always helpful. Sometimes, it’s just annoying.


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