Why are you, a creator, getting zero feedback on what you create? Or why are you getting too much? Maybe you did something simple, easy, and from your standpoint, insignificant – but still, you received a ton of positive encouragement and recognition. Or maybe you did something really hard – a labor of love – but no one seemed to notice or care. Why?

It’s natural to think of feedback as an indicator of the value of your work. But to make sense of why you’re actually getting, or not getting certain feedback, you should understand the conditions that must be in place for any piece of feedback to arrive at your doorstep. First, someone must have some feedback to give. Second, they must be able to get it to you easily. And third, they must have a motivation to do that. You’re only going to receive feedback when all three conditions are satisfied. 

Think about it: the only feedback you’ll ever hear in your whole life is the feedback where someone had a CONTEXT in which to form it, they identified a PATHWAY to convey it to you, and they had an INCENTIVE to go ahead and do that conveying. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these conditions.

In order to have feedback they could possibly give to you, a person needs to first encounter your work, engage with it, experience a reaction to it, and find a way to verbalize or otherwise express that reaction. If someone never encounters your work, of course they won’t have anything to say about it. If they encounter it but don’t engage with it – either because they’re not interested, they’re too distracted, or the work doesn’t hold their attention – they won’t have much feedback either. Even if they do encounter, engage, and react, but they can’t find words to express that reaction, there’s still no feedback that can be given. 

Next, let’s consider the means of giving you the feedback. Of course, feedback can’t reach you unless there’s a pathway of communication between the other person and you. If the person is present with you in the room, they could talk to you – “Nice job!” They could clap at the end of your performance, or give you a pat on the back. Live conversation and physical gestures, here, are the pathways. If the person is not in the room with you, then they might write you an email. But if the person can’t find your email address, then that pathway isn’t open. 

Even if the person knows how to reach you, they might encounter too much friction, in the form of hesitation and doubt, when they think of getting in touch. Perhaps the person thinks that you might not want to hear from them, might not value their feedback, or might not take the feedback well, so they’re reluctant to share it. Other messages, to other people, are easier to write and more urgent to send. Even if a communication pathway exists, there might be too many obstacles in using it. 

Of course, if your work is public then someone can “give feedback” without contacting you directly. They can post a comment or review in a public forum. But the same concerns apply: they need to have a forum that they’re comfortable using and they need to get over any hesitation or friction they might experience in doing that.

These are the reasons why, finally, the person must have a motive. There must be something that makes it worthwhile for the person doing the giving to actually go ahead with it. How does it benefit them? What need does it satisfy for them? What pleasure or relief does it bring them? What reward would tempt them to invest the time and energy in transmitting the feedback to you? What incentive would make them accept the associated risks – the risk of offending you, the risk of being ignored by you, the risk of seeming foolish to you, and so on – rather than quietly dropping the idea?

The motive could be that they want to initiate or strengthen their relationship with you. The motive could be that they want to participate in a community of people who are exchanging ideas about your work. The motive could be that they’re upset with you and they find satisfaction in saying something hurtful. The motive could be that they take pleasure in being supportive. The motive could be that they want to practice something, learn something, or promote something of their own. The point is that the motive must exist. Without a motive, that feedback is going nowhere, and you’ll never know about it.

Think about all the feedback that never reaches you, because it never got formed – a person who would have had something to say about your work never actually encountered it. Or because the pathway wasn’t open – you weren’t easy to get in touch with. Or because the motive wasn’t there. The transmission of feedback to you didn’t provide a benefit for anyone else. 

Here are five examples of how I have experienced feedback, and observed it functioning, in my own life.


One thing I took for granted about grade school, middle school, high school, college, and grad school was the availability of feedback. The abundance of feedback. Starting from kindergarten, there was a teacher who would look at everything I did and give it a sticker, a comment, a check, a grade, a smiley face. When I turned in reports and essays and projects, there was a teacher who would read every single word. Every marking I made on the page. Every math equation, every plus or minus sign, every digit – there was a teacher who would check it. Every poem, every fill-in-the-blank assignment, every short story, every presentation in front of the class – there was a teacher who would ask a question, make a comment, suggest a next step. Not only the teacher, but other students too, parents, friends, relatives. 

Going to school all those years, I assumed this was just how the world worked. If you did something, the feedback would naturally come. You could count on that. Even if it wasn’t always the feedback you wanted – the most helpful or supportive feedback – it would be there. If you worked really hard to do something really challenging and special, you’d be recognized for it. That would just happen as a matter of course.

But why did all this feedback exist in school? Of course, teachers had lots of feedback to give, because they had created the assignments in the first place. They knew what they had asked for and what a good response to an assignment might look like. And when I completed an assignment, the teacher didn’t need to wait to spontaneously encounter my work floating around somewhere “out there” in the world. No, I submitted it directly to them! And when they got the work from me, they understood exactly what they were looking at and where it had come from. They had all of the necessary context to understand and evaluate what I had done.

As for the means of giving feedback, teachers could talk to me in class, they could write notes on my assignment sheets, they could write grades on my report cards. The pathways of conveying feedback were open and easy to use.

As for the motive to give me the feedback, well, doing this was part of their job. Teachers were being paid to review my homework. They were being paid to read my essays. They were being paid to check all my math equations. We can assume that most teachers have a benevolent interest in helping students learn and grow through feedback. But along with that benevolence, a teacher’s livelihood requires giving feedback. The motive is strong.


When I got out into the “real world,” I pursued my calling of creating music. Over many years, I finally reached a point in my adult life where I had gained the knowledge and skill to begin working on an album of my own original compositions. And I worked harder on that album than I had worked in four years of college. And the result was surely better than anything I had created in college.

Back in college, I had been a straight A student, receiving positive feedback and encouragement on a daily basis. Phi beta kappa. Awards. Praise. And when my class graduated, there was a big ceremony and days of celebration. I wore a special gown because I was receiving my M.S. along with my B.S.

But finishing my first album in my thirties was more significant achievement and life milestone – in my scheme of things – than graduating college had been. For me, it deserved a celebration as big as a college graduation. When I released the album, what happened though? Nothing at all.

I made some efforts to promote it, hired a PR firm, rented a kiosk at a music festival, did what I knew how to do on social media, and took a opportunity to be interviewed for a podcast. Still, nothing. No response except from a few friends and relatives, and a few new acquaintances who I can count on my fingers.

The one review I got was in my college alumni magazine. Why there? They didn’t need to spontaneously encounter my work: I had sent the CD to the magazine and asked for a review. There was a professional reviewer on staff who could listen to it. And in each issue, there would be page dedicated to reviews of alumni work. That page was the “pathway” for conveying the feedback. The motive was there too: the editors needed to fill that page. (Of course, I appreciate their attention to my work and am flattered that they liked it.)

One simple way to understand the abundance of feedback I received in school versus the scarcity of feedback I received out on my own was that, in school, lots of people had the opportunity, the means, and motive to give me feedback – they were seeing me in person every day and being paid to give me feedback – whereas out on my own, no one really had a motive, and not always even the means or the opportunity, and I wasn’t creating these for them either.


When I took stock of the resounding silence after my album release, I realized there were dozens of things I could do to be a better promoter of my own work. Still, I felt baffled by the silence. My thoughts would go like this: Even though I’m an introvert who doesn’t excel at self-promotion and even though I haven’t yet done all of the easy things I know I could do to build a wider audience – shouldn’t there be something? Just a little faint whisper of a response from “the world”? How could I have worked harder on this album than anything before in my entire life – and how could it be that I’ve made it accessible to anyone on the internet with two or three clicks and NO ONE responds? 

To put things in perspective, I found it helpful to consider my own habits of giving feedback to musicians and other creators. See, in my heyday of CD collecting, from the early 90s through the early 2000s, I would spend hours every day listening to albums, and sometimes the performances in those albums would transport me to a state of indescribable ecstasy. When I experienced that indescribable ecstasy, how often did I write to the composer or performers to tell them how much I appreciated their work?

I could only remember one time. Back in college in the 90’s, I had been listening to an album called The Island of St. Hylarion by Ensemble PAN. I was so pleased with it that I found the email address for New Albion Records and wrote them a gushing paragraph about my delight in listening to that recording, mentioning each performer by name and what I loved about them. Later, I felt a bit bashful about my over-the-top expressiveness. Anyway, I never heard back. And I never did this again.

In all the thousands of hours of listening experiences that had been made possible for me by the labors of countless performers, composers, recording engineers, and record producers – there had only been one time when I sent any direct feedback to the creator or producer. I’m talking about some of the best, most joyful moments in my life here – and only once did I reach out to the people who had made those moments possible. 

Often I don’t know what to say, or I feel that my positive words could never live up to the greatness of the music itself, or I assume the record label and the artists won’t know what to make of feedback from some random guy. Or I’m just too lazy. Or the artists are dead. There are so many reasons why I don’t send feedback. So why should I expect that if I put my own stuff “out there,” other people would overcome similar obstacles to the ones I have? Why should I expect they would make sure that their feedback reaches me? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m expecting something from others that I’m not doing for them.


Switching gears here, in my professional life in the tech world, I’ve worked for different managers and have had friends who themselves were managers. So I know that there are two very different situations a manager can be in. Manager 1 is given a mandate to cut the staff size, so they have an incentive to give negative feedback that would justify firing people who are doing solid, respectable work but not constantly overperforming. Manager 2 is asked to “keep everyone happy” because the company can’t afford to lose anyone right now. So they have an incentive to give positive feedback and encouragement. 

Now think of it, you can be the same employee, doing the same work, but the feedback you’d receive from Manager 1 versus Manager 2 would be entirely different. When the feedback arrives, you’d probably take it personally and think it’s a reflection on your work. Sometimes it is. But in this example, the feedback is more a reflection of the manager’s own incentives. When the manager says “Great job!” they mean “I can’t afford for you to leave” and when they say “Lousy job!” they mean “I can’t afford for you to stay.”


I’ve spent many pleasant moments singing the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I even created an arrangement of it for fingerstyle electric guitar. 

I’ve sung it with friends in little song circles, but most of the time, it’s me, alone in my living room. And sometimes, when I’m alone in my living room, I sing it so well, if I do say so, with such a blend of simplicity, freedom, a bit of humor, and tinge of pathos, that I just think something should happen. The feeling is one of “Please, God, give me a sign, just an itty, bitty sign.” I know that no one’s there to listen, but can’t there be a little something, just the tiniest thing that happens when I pour my heart out like this? No. Nothing. I could sing this song or any song as well as possible – with heartrending beauty – but if no one’s there to listen, no one’s going to respond. And there are no exceptions to this principle. Why is that so hard for me to understand?

But last summer I made my way to a folk music camp on an little island in a lake in New Hampshire. I was feeling down because I had lost my stepdad just a few weeks earlier. At camp, the charm of staying in a primitive cabin with mosquitoes but without running water had started to wear thin. The pickup inside my guitar had come loose and was jostling around making noise and I couldn’t find a way to repair it – a practical annoyance. One night there was going to be an all-night song circle around a bonfire. I didn’t want to go. I had decided not to go since I had been trying to get to bed early each night to maintain the limited energy I had. But I made myself go. I stayed an hour. Had a good time listening to some fantastic song performances and cheering them on, but I decided to go back to my cabin. Then I changed my mind and stayed another hour. And then another. Around 1 or 2 in the morning a camp organizer saw me and asked if I wanted to sing. I hadn’t planned on it but I said sure. After a few more songs, it was my time to step into the circle.

I started to sing Wild Mountain Thyme. Immediately there was a hushed silence. Then some people started singing along with the choruses. More joined. At the end, there were wild cheers. Of course there had been cheers after every song but I got the feeling that the crowd was outdoing itself for me. People started coming up to me, hugging me, telling me how much they’d loved my singing. And this continued the next day, at breakfast, everywhere I went, “Great performance! I loved your song!” One person told me it had been their favorite song of the whole bonfire event. Then another person told me it had been their favorite traditional folk song performance that they’d ever heard in their life.

I later found out that some veterans of the camp considered Wild Mountain Thyme as the unofficial anthem of the camp. But no one had sung it this year, not before I got up and did just that. So I liken the whole experience to… imagine if I had walked into bar and there were people from a small, lesser-known country like, say… Andorra… staring at a TV and watching the Andorran team compete in an Olympic event, and then I started passionately singing the Andorran national anthem without even knowing it was the Andorran anthem. Think about how happy I would have made those Andorrans at that moment. That’s the best way I can describe how happy everyone seemed to be when I sang Wild Mountain Thyme at the camp. 

So this was a moment when I received an overflowing abundance of feedback on some of my music making. But what made it possible for that to happen?


The camp organizers had invested hundreds of hours in bringing like-minded folk music enthusiasts together. The other camp participants had invested hundreds, even thousands of dollars in traveling to the camp, paying for admission, and so on. They had all invested in showing up at the bonfire that particular night, singing their own songs and cheering each other on. And I had invested too, overcoming my tiredness, my shyness, my general reluctance to do this. And the camp organizer had made an investment in creating an opportunity for me to step into the circle.

That wonderful moment that I shared with others through the song Wild Mountain Thyme would not have been possible without all that investment – most of it made by others.

But once that investment had been made – once the camp had been organized and all of us had gotten ourselves to that remote location and then stayed at the bonfire that particular night – then the right conditions for feedback were in place. The feedback arose from a shared experience where everyone was listening and singing along together. Everyone had something to respond to. The pathway was there – everyone stood around the same bonfire and could see and hear each other responding. And the motive was there. Because in an environment like this, people felt an intrinsic joy in supporting each other and sharing their love of music. And to cheer someone on – including the time when the person being cheered was me – was to do more than praise that specific person. It was to bond with everyone there. It was to be part of a community. It was to share the joy of knowing that sometimes in this world, we really can find ourselves in the place we want to be, surrounded by the people we want to be with, doing the thing we most love to do. It was to share that love. ■

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