How Do I Know If I am Doing Good Work?
I received a bit of praise this morning from someone I barely knew with regards to my writing. It came at the right moment because I’ve been contemplating whether the time I spend on these pieces has value. I don’t write for money or notoriety, but because I want to make a difference in the lives of others. Writing has become an important way for me to help others feels seen and be more comfortable in being vulnerable and getting support in the pursuit of work. Still, that’s always a tricky motivation. And occasionally the odd “you’re great”, and “here, have a medal” can satisfy my short-term desire for approval.
Does your work matter? That’s a lot trickier. It can mean that helping one person have their needs met is sufficient, for example a customer reaching out when they are clearly upset where I help them get X fixed or Y delivered. I solved a problem and made their day better and know that I’ve made a positive difference. If that happens enough during a given day or week, I feel good about my labor. For many of the social entrepreneurs I know and support the metric can be changing the very fabric of society around pressing issues like homelessness or addiction. That’s a long-term goal and requires a set of small goals along the way to ensure that the individual can measure movement and celebrate incremental wins along that longer pathway. Like most people I fall somewhere in between the individual and societal.
Back to the question that I’ve been asking myself…. does this effort ‘matter’ or feel purposeful according to my or your definition of purpose? Many of us won’t ask the question of others because we don’t want to appear needy or without an iron-clad motivation in taking on our tasks. You think to yourself that this should not be reliant on external validation or an aimless distribution of your time.
I ask you then, as I’ve asked myself, how does this fit into the distribution of what I do (a) key to my job(s) or (b) further along career aspirations. The answers to a & b determine if or how you stick with anything. It isn’t the only consideration but having those answers will take you a long way towards figuring out whether your hunger for feedback really matters. For example, knowing how well your boss perceived your interactions with customers may matter more to you long term than their assessment on your ability to bag neatly because that is a bigger part of their assessment of you and will determine your ability to rise within the company. Or the ability to deliver deft customer service is an important part of your ability to move into helicopter sales.
If the work that you are uncertain about doesn’t meet the measure of importance in questions a & b above, you can probably put it to the side for accumulating feedback.
In this case I’ve given a person who chose to write to me outsized importance in a moment of struggle. It is funny how in certain areas of life we give those who know us as people the least power. That’s because we’ve decided that others we know better are offering praise in an effort to be nice rather than being true. Ahhhhhh the human condition.
Are you questioning whether aspects of your work matter or you are doing them well? Do you find yourself pondering the eternal if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it scenario, better framed here as what changes if I get out a better newsletter or offer thoughtful advice to ensure that customers pick ripe produce? What do I do absent some predictable feedback loop?
Here are a few ways to proceed if you would rather not wait for the random note from a stranger.
Have faith that the person you are and have been in the world tends to do things at a level of quality. Be your most patient self and allow the recognition to happen at its own pace. In work that I did with pre-teens in my first job I realized that I couldn’t expect compliments from them and knew that many of the results would take place in time and outside my line of vision. That is also often true even now when working with adults.
Reach out to your boss or peers in a way that is genuine and directed. Asking for feedback on every aspect of your work may not be helpful but find a targeted way that gets across your primary concern(s). For example, I’ve been wondering whether the presentation I delivered to the team met your expectations. This is an area of growth for me. How would you suggest I improve next time? Are there resources you know of?
Reach out to a friend. Remember that the friend you ask need to be someone you respect, communicate well with and that you don’t have baggage with that will make you dismiss their advice. Stress your desire for authentic feedback and share your struggle to understand the quality of your work. Share that you are open to a critique and above all else don’t get argumentative if they give you things to work on.
I think you will find it a more predictable way to get feedback than hitting refresh and hoping that more kind words roll in.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.