The Power of Feedback

May 25, 2020

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
  But O heart! heart! heart!
    O the bleeding drops of red,
      Where on the deck my Captain lies,
        Fallen cold and dead.

—Walt Whitman

The year was 1855. Walt Whitman had just published his masterpiece.

No one cared.

His first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, was greeted with deafening silence. Eventually, some of his peers engaged with it only to criticize and dismiss it. The young poet’s first attempt at publication had failed.

Whitman was devastated.

In the depths of his despair, he received a letter from none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty.

Like a gentle blow of wind igniting a budding fire, the letter revived Whitman’s creative soul. From that day forward, he kept the letter tucked in his shirt pocket, right next to his heart. It would carry his spirit for decades.

A single letter overpowered the criticism of an entire community.

That, my friends, is the power of feedback.


Upon reading this, you might be thinking: “That’s a nice story, but we can’t all get letters from Emerson. How do you know which feedback to trust?”

Firstly, remember that accepting feedback is a choice. Even if you accept it, you are under no obligation to act upon it. If someone is offended when you ignore their feedback, it reveals the true intent of their feedback. They may be looking to change you rather than guide you.

The best feedback helps you achieve your existing goals, rather than trying to dictate new ones.

Embrace feedback that guides your methods, but never let it distort your message. Stay true to your essence — it’s what makes your work yours! Once you start changing your direction to suit others, you’ll forget the unique motives that drove you in the first place.

You too can look to Emerson for guidance:

Learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across your mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.
Self Reliance, R.W. Emerson

Trust yourself first and foremost.

Don’t let feedback stop you from being you.