As the year comes to a close, it’s a time we’re often drawn to look back and reflect. Using a simple form I created, I gathered anonymous feedback and advice from over 25 friends, mentors, and colleagues. I learned a lot about myself (and my community) and want to share this opportunity with others. You can learn more about how I used the form, what I learned, and how to send your own below!
- Demo Form - an example showing how I personalized the format
- Copyable Template - for you to customize and get feedback from your own community
- What I Learned - details on the process and what I learned from my 2021 survey
- Feedback Request Template - for asking your friends, mentors, and colleagues for input
This year, I decided to dive into something new. I chose to take a risk and pursue an opportunity to learn and contribute my expertise to critical policy decisions in the US Congress. To do this, I quit my job, moved across the country, and committed to spending a year on the Hill without knowing what would come next. Stepping into government service has been a tremendous learning experience (more on that soon!), but this time-limited opportunity also provided me an occasion—or a forcing function!—to evaluate what the next phase of my career post-January would look like.
This has been both thrilling and terrifying. I knew that I would need help.
I sought input from friends, mentors, and colleagues from different parts of my life to assist me in seeing myself from the outside and to gain wisdom to help me make decisions about the future. I created an anonymous feedback and advice form and sent it to just over 70 people. I sent it to folks I had worked with (formally or informally) and to people who are my trusted friends and mentors. I received responses from 26 people (~36%), and their answers both inspired and surprised me.
This was actually my second time sending out an anonymous form for gathering feedback and advice. I was originally inspired to create a form like this at the suggestion of Tim Courtney who had graciously shared with me an example of some similar feedback that he had received. The form I created in 2018 was very similar but was shared with a smaller group and wasn’t paired with as clear of an ask. Although I maintained or built upon many of the design decisions from the first iteration, there were things that I chose to change to increase the usefulness of the answers and anonymity of the survey.
My goal this time around was to create space where friends, mentors, and colleagues could reflect back how they experience my strengths and tell me where I have room to improve. I asked them to share advice on what I should pursue—as well as things to avoid!—in the next year or few.
Where to next?
I am so tremendously grateful to the many people who contributed their wisdom to this project. It was incredibly inspiring and encouraging to receive so many kind words of support from people I respect and admire. I have so much gratitude to everyone who contributed their understanding and reflections. Good advice and candid feedback is such a precious thing. To all of you who offered your thoughts: Thank you.
While I am still digesting it, I am translating this feedback into action in a couple of ways:
- First, I want to grow my capacity in the areas where people see promise in me. This means honing my strategic decision-making, cultivating more entrepreneurial pursuits, and sharing both the breadth and depth of my expertise more widely.
- Second, I am changing the way I talk about myself when expressing what I want and what I do. I am learning to recognize my own style of leadership and getting more comfortable expressing it as such. Being a leader can mean being a team player, and being a team player doesn’t mean you aren’t a leader.
- Finally, I am doubling-down on some of my strengths in communicating, convening, and coordinating. I have sometimes worried that leaning into these strengths would lead me to be pigeonholed, but I’m coming to realize there are many ways to express these abilities and many opportunities to put them to work.
I will continue to reflect on the feedback and advice that I received and will continue to grow from the generous insights I have been able to glean. Thanks again to everyone who has made this possible.
What I learned
While it may feel a little formal, using a form like this can alleviate some of the typical challenges in getting feedback and advice. Providing feedback to friends often makes people anxious. They may feel nervous about causing hurt feelings or may be uncertain about what sort of input would be useful. The design decisions made in this survey were deliberately chosen to try to reduce some of these points of friction that can get in the way. I’ll step through each of the questions and share both the “behind-the-scenes” thinking as well as what I learned from the answers offered by my brilliant friends, mentors, and colleagues.
List of words
One of the first things you may notice about the list of traits included in the survey is that they are all positive. Providing critical feedback—especially to friends—can sometimes be difficult, so throughout the survey, generally, I tried to frame things in terms of positive terms, skills, and strengths. This way, people would likely have an easier time giving candid feedback, and I would still be able to learn from any notable omissions. (If I’m entirely honest, also, it was easier for me emotionally to ask my friends, mentors, and colleagues to tell me about my strengths than my weaknesses!)
In the first question, I asked responders to select words from a list according to which “best describe me.” By limiting responders to 12 or fewer of the 28 options, I forced people to prioritize which traits best described me, while liberating them from the anxiety of being “rude” for singling out a given word as not a good descriptor. (To the friends who texted me to complain about this constraint, I love you all, but it really was intentional!) The limit on number of selections allowed me to see which traits were notably absent. In my case, out of all 26 responses and 275 words chosen, not a single person chose “Systematic” as a word that best describes me. Good to know! “Focused” and “Patient” were also less popular choices pointing both to opportunities for improvement as well as roles and responsibilities that may, at least currently, not be a great fit.
The top words chosen to describe me (selected by at least half of responders) were: Engaging (chosen by 19 people), Inspiring (19), Collaborative (17), Authentic (17), Open-minded (16), Creative (16), Sincere (16), Giving (14), Ethical (14), Supportive (13), and Diplomatic (13). While some of these didn’t particularly surprise me, which is a vote of confidence for my own introspection, I was surprised that “Open-minded” and “Diplomatic” were as popular as they were. I’d like to think this bodes well for my current work in Congress, but could also point toward other management and mediation roles.
It’s worth noting: in the 2018 version of this survey, I allowed people to submit free-response answers as an “other” option to this prompt. This became kind of messy and resulted in duplicates as well as people adding too many words to really be useful. In the 2021 version I did away with the “other” option in order to learn more from the trends in what words were and weren’t chosen. One regret I have from my 2021 form is that, despite trying to limit the number of words and increase the relative significance of each word, I still had some redundancy. My 2021 word list included both “Authentic” and “Sincere,” which I think are similar enough that I should have chosen only one of them. The template form I’ve shared here lists only “Authentic,” but you are, of course, welcome to customize the list for your own copy.
Another simple question I included in the form was a binary choice for the question “Have we worked together?” I did not provide any “helper text” (called “description” in Google Forms, if you’re looking for it) for this question and allowed people to determine on their own terms what it meant to work together. While this pretty clearly captures colleagues with whom I had worked directly with as part of our employment, it also held space for those who had worked with me in a volunteer function or as collaborators in creative ventures or other capacities. Asking this question also allowed me to apply a filter or lens to the feedback I received. For instance, only one of the 12 responders who had not worked with me chose “Innovative” as one as a word that best describes me. By contrast at least half of the 14 people who had worked with me chose “Innovative” among my top traits.
|Overall||Worked with||Did not work with|
|Number of responders||26||14||12|
|Total words selected||275||153||122|
|Average words per responder||10.6||10.9||10.2|
|Most popular word||Engaging||Collaborative||Inspiring|
|Most popular word tally||19||11||9|
Those who had worked with me chose slightly more words on average, which may have been a factor in why more than 70% of them chose the same top five traits: Collaborative, Engaging, Open-minded, Inspiring, and Creative. In addition to these traits, they were much more likely than those who had not worked with me to say that I was Innovative (7:1), Supportive (8:5), Diplomatic (8:5), and Entrepreneurial (4:2). For their part, those who had not worked with me were more likely to choose Adaptable (7:3) and Humble (5:3) as words that best describe me.
In addition to the list of 28 traits, I also provided a free response text box with the prompt “What is a skill that YOU have that you think that I also have?” I wanted to give people a chance to reflect on their own skills and to put forward ideas that may not have been captured in the original word list. I also wanted to get a little more context to their other answers. While the list of words question offered everyone an opportunity to reflect on the same prompts that I provided, I hoped this question would provide a space for people to speak on the topics they felt more qualified to appraise on.
In my 2021 survey, common themes were curiosity, community-building, and creative problem-solving. Some people chose to answer the question in just one or two words, echoing the list from the first question, while others wrote multiple sentences providing more detail or multiple answers to the question.
It’s worth noting that, while this whole exercise is, of course, biased based on who you invite to give feedback, this section in particular has two layers of bias. This is because it includes an appraisal both of the responder’s own skills and yours. In the future I might remove this section because I’m not sure how much additional value it provides. I was hoping to give people a chance to reflect positively on themselves, not just on me, but it’s possible this triggered more insecurities than positive feelings. Perhaps a future iteration will replace this with a question more like “are there any words you feel were missing from the list?”
Advice, next steps, & lessons to learn from
The answers to the next three free-response questions made up the bulk of the feedback. In each one, I tried to capture a slightly different angle on the advice I was looking for: what am I already doing that I should do more of, what am I not yet doing that I should be doing, and what should I try to avoid? While it’s possible that these questions could have been collapsed into just one or two, I think that splitting them out creates more opportunities to gain valuable wisdom and advice. That said, if you expect the length of the form to be a hindrance for getting a robust and diverse enough number of responses, I recommend consolidating.
The first question asked “What is something you’ve seen me do that you wish I’d do more of?” This was building off of the prior questions about skills, traits, and strengths. This also gave people an opportunity to shift from just reflecting into more active advising. I used this question to try to encourage specific examples of behaviors or activities I should double-down on in the eyes of my friends, mentors, and colleagues. This also provided space for examples of things that I may not yet be good at, but could develop.
Before the final two questions, I included a little more specific information about what kinds of advice I was seeking. I used the space to state some of my interests (“climate action, disability justice, and technology”) and to clarify some of my goals and ambitions (“to pursue big beautiful challenges”). In the last two questions, I also added “helper text” to provide additional commentary and context.
The second question I asked was “What should I be trying to do next? What do you think I could be good at?” accompanied by the additional questions “What job roles might suit me? Fields I should explore? Are there certifications or training that I should consider?” I provided these more specific questions as examples so that responders would know the right level of detail and specificity to provide in their responses.
Similarly, for the last question, “Is there a lesson you’ve learned in life that I can learn from?” I added “Pitfalls that I might be prone to? Things that are too easy or may box me in? Things you wish someone would’ve told you?” The reason that I framed this question in terms of the responder’s own experience is similar to the reasoning on shared skills. I wanted to give people permission to share some hard truths, but I also wanted people to reflect and draw upon their own experiences.
While I am still digesting all of the incredible feedback I received and there are still more themes to pull out of it, here are three high-level themes I noticed that surprised me:
- People see me as a leader (or want me to be more of one).
I tend to think of myself as a team player and don’t always feel certain enough to be the executive decision-maker. Despite this, many people suggested I pursue more management and leadership roles, especially leading multidisciplinary teams. Multiple people even suggested I run for public office! I do love connecting people and collaborative work, so I am going to try to lean into this more in the next few years by developing my ability to coach, make strategic decisions, and to overcome my insecurities about calling myself a leader.
- Cultural and value alignment are a real concerns.
Several people expressed concern about me pursuing roles in organizations that would lead me to feeling burnt out due to bad organizational culture or poor alignment with my values. Some people expressed this by suggesting entrepreneurship or leadership roles (“become an owner as quickly as possible”), while others emphasized “knowing when to quit” and to not pour too much of myself into trying to change toxic workplaces in favor of moving on to healthier, more value-aligned environments. I like to joke that I chose my current team and boss based on “vibe,” but it’s kinda the truth. I have worked to recognize how important feeling valued and value-aligned is to me doing my best work. It was heartening that multiple people encouraged me to not lose my funky individuality and sense of purpose and to seek environments and community where that can thrive.
- I can afford to fail more and take bigger risks.
Given that taking the leap to pursue my current work already felt like a risk, I confess this theme was a little tough to internalize. That said, (and maybe because of that feeling) I think this is the perfect time to get this feedback. In many ways, the next steps from my current position may seem “obvious.” Obviously, I should keep working in AI policy. Obviously, I should leverage this fellowship as a foot in the door to being a Congressional staffer. Or obviously, I should pursue a policy role in a tech company or tech-oriented non-profit. And maybe I will! But the universe of possibilities is wider than that, and I have not been as ambitious as maybe I could be because I’ve been nervous about being ready. The advice I received is that sometimes you just have to leap and do things before you’re ready in order to become ready.
In the 2018 version of this survey, I gave people an opportunity to relinquish their anonymity and provide contact information to discuss their advice and reflections further. In the 2021 edition, I removed this option. What I found in the previous iteration (which I admittedly sent to a smaller group of people) was that if enough people chose to identify themselves, it essentially outed anyone who didn’t choose to.
I feel like there is value in the anonymity, not only for the responders but also for myself as I read the responses and interpret the feedback. For this reason, I decided to remove the field prompting people to share their contact info. Despite this, some people did share their names and contact information in other areas of the form. This was fine given the low stakes of this survey, but if I want to survey people anonymously in the future, I may explicitly ask people to not identify themselves.
Feedback Request Template
This kind of feedback is deeply personal, so it’s great if you can personalize the feedback requests you send (or at least use a tool like mail-merge). Still, if you’re sending to a larger group of people (or a couple different groups), it can be helpful to start with a template.
Your request message is an opportunity to connect and set the tone of the feedback you want. I typically use it as a place to be reflective and vulnerable. You might use it as a place to express gratitude for the mentorship you’ve received or to shine extra light on the goals you have for getting this feedback.
I’ve included two feedback request messages here. One is a more generic template message illustrating some of the components you may want to include. The other is the text of the request that I sent out. As you can see, these messages can vary quite a bit based on your audience and the tone you want to convey.
I’m sending you this note because I would appreciate your feedback and advice.
I am [coming up on some milestone (it can be something work-related or not)], and I want to take some time to reflect on where I am and where I’m headed. I would be grateful if you would take a few moments to answer a couple of questions and give me some perspective on what you think I’m good at and what I should be thinking about doing in the future.
Here is the link to provide anonymous feedback: https://forms.gle/7E7droUi9SpbaFRH6
I’d appreciate if you could share your thoughts by [a date two weeks from now].
The message I actually sent
I’m sending you this note because I would appreciate your [anonymous] perspective on, well… me!
Just a few months remain in my fellowship working in the US Senate, and it has been an incredible experience. I may not know what I’ll be doing after January, yet, but I do know that I am blessed with an incredible community of friends, colleagues, and allies, and I’m so grateful for you all pushing me, lifting me, and supporting me in being my best self.
It’s a curious thing, isn’t it? A “best” self.
While there are many flaws and tragedies in the history of America, there is one thing that has long stuck with me from this line in the Preamble of the Constitution. It opens with the phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union…” The idea of a “more perfect” anything is such an interesting one. The idea of not achieving or even aiming to achieve perfection but instead striving for a state of perpetually better striving is something that is deeply relatable to me.
I would be so grateful if you would take a few moments to help me in my own process of perpetual striving to be a more perfect B.
Here is the link to provide anonymous feedback: https://forms.gle/KXcpHF1kbR6po39Q8