Why Negative Feedback is Invaluable

Randy Pausch was a passionate educator and mentor, and co-founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (the ETC). He is now posthumously famous for the speech and book “The Last Lecture,” where he discussed achieving his childhood dreams, and for the bravery he publicly displayed facing terminal pancreatic cancer.

I had the good fortune to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon from 2003-2006. It was through an introduction from another professor (Roger Dannenberg, author of Nyquist), and a bit of pure luck, that I ended up in Randy’s ETC program. The Entertainment Technology Center aims to bridge the divide between creativity, art, and technology, with a focus on game design, all stemming from Randy’s course “Building Virtual Worlds”. I learned so much from Randy there — by far the most valuable lesson was the importance of constructive criticism.

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Honest feedback for another person on how they can improve their work, abilities, or behavior, is incredibly valuable information, yet most people take the easy way out, and keep criticism to themselves. It’s understandable why people shy away from offering feedback: doing so in a tactful way takes effort, and it’s easier just to abide by the mantra “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything.”

Randy was never hesitant to provide utterly honest critiques to others, or to take the time to provide one-on-one constructive feedback. In fact, it was half-way into my first semester at the ETC when he did just that with me.  He pulled me into a meeting room at the ETC and gave me what at the time felt like a brutal reality check. In all honesty, it was the most invaluable mentorship I’ve ever received.

“You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better. ”
― Randy Pausch

Of all the great lessons and wisdom Randy has shared with the world, this is paramount: if you have feedback for someone but don’t share it, you’re robbing that person of an invaluable information. As one of Randy’s former colleagues Kirk Martini wrote “Being a mentor is not about being nice, it’s about being helpful. Here’s the difference: being nice is about making a person feel good; being helpful is about serving a person’s best interest.”

Randy was tactful but also objective and realistic, and knew learning from failure was good long-term strategy, especially for his students. One of the sayings I remember him for most came out while he taught a class at the ETC on usability and user testing: “don’t be afraid to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In the same spirit, stop sugar coating it and just say what you’re thinking.  In work and life, people may suggest to us that something is broken, yet our biases, pride, or emotional investments prevent us from hearing them clearly.

Randy posted much of his presentations and thinking on his website. There is also a great resource by his friend Gabriel Robins. Here are some other great lessons that Randy shared: