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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about how evaluation (think grades, performance reviews, social media “likes” and so on) impacts the quality of our work. If you are doing work that is judged in some way, it’s so important to understand this research.
The core finding is this:
A host of studies have shown that for tasks/skills we’ve already mastered or are very good at, being judged by some kind of evaluator/observer usually boosts our performance. In short, we get even better knowing it’s game time and someone important is watching. But when we are novices at something, or with tasks we aren’t so good at, the presence of an evaluator causes us to perform worse than we would if we were simply doing the thing on our own.
We can all relate, right?
Today is the Part 2 to that post, because there is a very important additional component to this research.
The above phenomenon – that an evaluator helps experts perform better but causes novices to perform worse – holds true across a range of activities but not all activities.
Creative work is different. With creative work, the presence of an evaluator worsens performance for almost everyone – whether they are skilled at the craft involved or not.*
Let’s slow down to really take that in: with creative work, the presence of an evaluator worsens performance for almost everyone – whether they are skilled at the craft involved or not.
This is why, I think, so many of the authors and artists that keep creating, over the long-term, talk about not reading their own reviews.
This is why graduate MFA programs, where evaluation happens constantly, often destroy their students’ creativity and creative confidence.
This is why writing a dissertation or a thesis while getting critical feedback from advisors along the way can be so darn hard, and why writer’s block in these processes is so common.
This is why you often see more talent and creativity in the opening episode of any competition reality show (think of the dancing, singing, cooking, and design ones) than you do in the finals. All that evaluation throughout the weeks of the show has worsened the creative output of the contestants, rather than improved it.
You might not be on The Voice this season, but what about for you? What is the creative work you do in your career, and how might evaluation be impacting it?
And what can we do about this? There are three strategies we can use to counter evaluation’s negative effects on our creative work:
- Buffer yourself from evaluation
- Quiet the evaluator in your mind
- Take evaluation less seriously
Let’s talk a little bit about each.
1. Buffer Yourself from Evaluation
Where you can, set boundaries around your creative work, so that it is protected from unhelpful evaluations. Depending on your unique context, this might look like not reading your audience’s reviews of your work, or waiting until you are further along with a project to get evaluative feedback. It might look like seeking out learning environments where the emphasis is more on practicing the craft than on getting feedback or evaluations.
It’s of course not always possible (or necessary) to entirely buffer your creative work from evaluators, and strategy #3 below is about how to receive the feedback we do get. But we can all brainstorm ways to do this to some extent, and to protect our creative process at the stages when we feel it most needs protection. We can also think about the *who* – whose feedback has proven to be genuinely constructive for our creative process, and whose has not?
And by the way, if we aren’t receiving as much judgment on our work, how else can we improve it?
We can learn from what a teacher or expert models for us.
We can develop skills from our own consistent practice at something.
We can use natural feedback loops that come not from an evaluator but from the work itself. I watch my son figure out why his tower of blocks fell down and then he’ll try a new way to build it. He’ll attempt one way to climb up on a chair and then another approach if the first doesn’t work. In many domains, we can look at the data right in front of us about what caused our work to fail or succeed and learn from it.
And, we can even seek out guidance from an expert, teacher or advisor about what techniques or small shifts might better help us achieve our aims – without our work or ourselves being evaluated in any sense.
2. Quiet the Evaluator in Your Mind
One fascinating study** on the impact of evaluation didn’t introduce a real evaluator into the picture. Instead, they asked subjects to pick a favorite character from a TV show they enjoyed. Then, they had individuals perform a task, some with a picture (a literal picture on the wall) of this TV character hanging over them, some without.
The mere presence of the picture produced the same effect as an external evaluator, causing people to perform better at an easy task, but causing them to perform worse at a task that was challenging for them.
It’s remarkable: the character was fictional, and just a picture was present, but because it was an admired figure for the participants, this felt – in the subjects’ minds – like the presence of an evaluator.
This suggests that when we imagine a judgmental client looking at the proposal we are writing, or a social media audience evaluating our last post, or a tough previous boss reviewing the job application we just put together, we are likely to also see an impact on our performance, with these imagined observers negatively impacting our work.
This is an area where we all have tremendous agency. We can start to be more mindful of the voice of the evaluator in our mind. We can become skilled at bringing that evaluator in when it’s useful, but not when it’s destructive. And we can learn to quiet the irrational, highly critical self-evaluator so many of us are burdened by. If you want to start managing the evaluator voice in your own mind, start with the Inner Critic chapter of the Playing Big book, as well as this post on the topic.
3. Reframe the Evaluations that Come Your Way
Now of course, all of us are going to receive evaluations of our creative work if we put it out into the world. An editor is going to return our manuscript, with comments. The journal article will be peer reviewed. The funder will say yes or no to our project, and so on.
But we have tremendous agency over how we interpret these evaluations. Studies have found that “the more consequential the evaluation, the greater the inhibition of learning” and creativity.*** In other words, how seriously we take evaluation matters. As women, socialized since girlhood to take other people’s opinions of us really seriously, we are likely to see evaluations of us as highly consequential.
The good news here is that our subjective perception matters. If we don’t hold the evaluations we are receiving as very significant, they won’t impact our creative output as much. It’s up to you and me to decide how consequential it is if we get a call back for a second interview, or if the publisher liked the book manuscript, or if our post got a lot of “likes.” (One great way to make evaluation less consequential-feeling is here, and there’s lots that can help with this in the Unhooking from Praise and Criticism chapter in the book.) Another great resource is Carol Dweck’s work, and her book, Mindset.
So, I offer all this to you today.
Be mindful about the presence of evaluation – coming from others or of your own judgments – when you are a beginner at something, or anytime you are doing creative work. Use the strategies: buffering your work from evaluation, quieting the evaluator in your mind, and reframing the evaluations you do receive.
Big picture: keep evaluation at bay so you can do your best and boldest creative work.
Love to you,
*Social facilitation from Triplett to electronic performance monitoring. Aiello, John R., Douthitt, Elizabeth A. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol 5(3), Sep 2001, 163-180.
**Gardner, Wendi L.; Knowles, M.L.; Megan, L. (2008). “Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as ‘real’ in a social facilitation paradigm”. Social Cognition. 26(2): 156–168. doi:10.1521/soco.2008.26.2.156.
***Gray, Peter (2013). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books.