Case #1: Me

11 september 2013

Kennislands visiting scholar Sarah Schulman buigt zich over de voor KL zeer relevante vraag: hoe weten we dat wat we doen ook echt waarde toevoegt? In het geval van Kennisland: maken we Nederland echt slimmer door wat we doen? Doen we genoeg goede dingen om het geld dat daaraan besteed wordt te rechtvaardigen? En wat is goed doen eigenlijk en wie bepaalt dat? Vragen, die op zijn tijd zeker gesteld moeten worden.

Klik hier voor links naar alle artikelen van haar hand op de KL-site.

Case #1

Over the last month, I’ve set out the questions I’m exploring in a new book project, ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Feedback.’ Questions that emerged over 5 years of blending design and social science to re-make public services – youth services, child protection services, carer support services. Questions that grew more urgent the more money we spent, the more staff we hired, the more projects we took on. Questions like: How do we know we are doing social good? How do we define good? How do we measure good? How do we pivot when we’re missing the mark?

Last week, I set out one of the big ideas behind my questions: feedback. Feedback is neither a new idea, nor an undiscovered idea. But it is misunderstood, and poorly applied in our relationships, in our workplaces, and in our social services and systems. I’ll argue that the lack of feedback – or more precisely the lack of standards, of knowing what is good – renders a lot of the information in our ‘information age’ and a lot of the evidence in our ‘evidence-based decision-making’ un-actionable. In that it maintains the current way of doing things, rather than changes things

Themes and cases

So how will I argue this? I will read a lot – about a number of crosscutting themes: learning and feedback; the brain’s response to feedback; cross-cultural variations in giving and getting feedback; philosophical conceptions of ‘goodness’; measurement and evaluation. I will also hang out a lot – with mums, dads, kids; people labelled as ‘problems’ be they ‘homeless,’ ‘unemployed,’ ‘criminals’; social workers; civil servants; and hopefully, some of you. These cases will form the central narrative.

Case #1: Me. 

“Your standards are too high.”

We were drinking flat whites in 40-degree heat. A staff member was explaining why she could no longer work with me. I transposed the scene with one 21-years earlier. I’m sitting with Mrs. Carter. There is no coffee. Her grey bob, round glasses, and collared shirt gives the interaction a strange formality. “You just work to the beat of your own drum, Sarah. Don’t worry about what your classmates are doing. Raise your own standards.”

And so I did. I was a Type A, only child. Growing up Jewish. In a Puritan America. One that prized self-made wo(men) and celebrated crazy hard work. Each of us had nearly limitless potential. It was our duty to go after that potential. To engage in a constant self-improvement project.

Part 1: School


School structured our self-improvement projects. I knew what was good. There were explicit standards – first to meet, then to exceed, and later as I got to college, to question.

Pre-school was Montessori. Elementary was a progressive public one. High school was an under-performing one. College was a west coast one. Graduate school was a British one.

To be a ‘good’ Montessori student was to love learning, to be curious, to try new forms of play. To be a ‘good’ elementary school student was to be adaptable – to follow structure when appropriate, and demonstrate creativity the rest of the time. To be a ‘good’ high school student was to pass exams, to stay out of trouble, and either enroll in college or find a job. To be a ‘good’ college student was both to effortlessly achieve and effortfully develop your own point of view – be it expressed in your poetry, your essays, your research, your tech start-up. To be a ‘good’ graduate student was to master theory via robust critique and clear writing.

Not only did school set standards, it gave me feedback relative to those standards.

There were constant comments. Like, ”Your essay shows real originality, but lacks structure. 25 cent words are rarely better than 5 cent words.”

There was the formal report card. It wasn’t until high school I learned report cards typically contained letters, not sentences. Sentences that highlighted my strengths and weaknesses – from multiple perspectives: my own, my classroom teacher, my art teacher, my physical education teacher, my peers, and even my parents. “I’m very good at giving presentations, my arrogant 11-year old self wrote, but I get annoyed with people in my group.” That remains pretty true today. Feedback – even if it’s from your trusty self – is rarely enough for change.

There was the rubric. A rubric lists the criteria with which to gauge a piece of work – be it a presentation, a project, a paper – and contains notes and ratings against each point. “Clear argument, good eye contact, too long.”

There was the student-teacher-parent conference. The adults uncomfortably hung out of kid-sized chairs, listening to our grievances, laughing at anecdotes, swapping strategies.

The student-teacher-parent conference wasn’t just a mechanism to get feedback. It was a mechanism to give feedback. To let teachers know what was helpful and what was unhelpful. Only later, in graduate school, did I realize how unusual it was to give teachers report cards and professors evaluation reports. Only then did I realize how lopsided feedback can be. That it too often flows top-down from those with the credentials, the expertise, the power.

But feedback – even when it’s from the top-down – is rarely enough for change. We need motivation and know-how to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be.

Looking back, that’s what set my ‘good’ education experiences apart from the ‘average’: they imparted know-how and inspired motivation. Like Mr. Snowdon, my high school calculus teacher. He was a stern, take-no-excuses kind of a man. He set the highest standards: total mastery of calculus. And boy did he know how to use a red pen. But he also knew how to explain and to challenge; to give the time and the space to try, and try again. There he was opening up the school doors at 5AM. And there we were, his students, sleepy-eyed, ready to practice differential equations over and over.

Part II: Work

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One day I was no longer a student. And I no longer knew how others defined good.

In London, at social design firm Participle, good work seemed to be projects that scaled. By that standard, our youth project very much missed the mark. We re-designed universal youth services – flipping the resourcing model from buildings and workers to young people and community members. But it was too radical. Too complex. Too hard to get the system to sign-up to an intervention that would effectively dismantle it. Other projects hit the scale mark. But did those projects change behavior? change systems? sustain those changes? make a dent in the social problems for which they were designed? decrease inequalities? create enough social value to warrant their costs?

I am not sure. We didn’t explicitly talk standards. That meant we didn’t always know how to interpret feedback. Nor did we build our capacity to close the gaps. There was a certain British implicitness to it all.

Not that implicitness was only found in Britain. It was in New Zealand and the US too. Here I was living out one of my own PhD findings. In 200+ interviews with civil servants and policymakers in these three countries, the questions nearly everyone stumbled on: what is good work? how do you know you’re doing it?

We made some inroads at the The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. We talked standards, but rarely prioritized them. We selectively collected feedback, but had few routines for analyzing. We built our capacity to iterate our solutions, but not our methods, revenue models, structure, or interpersonal approaches. In three years, I had one conversation with the chief executive about my performance. One.

Meanwhile, I was becoming radicalized. Hours spent with drug addicted parents, families in crisis, older people living alone had begun to raise my own standards of what work was good, what was mediocre, and what was plain bad. Good work changed behaviors; dismantled harmful systems; reduced outcome inequality; and exchanged rather than delivered support. To do all of that, good work had both a rigor and an artfulness. A look, a feel, a tone, a momentum.

But the raised standards were an ill- fit. For the new, inexperienced team we hired. For the cultural context we operated in. I came to Australia still a Type A, only child, from a Jewish family, in a Puritan American world. But I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. No, I was in Adelaide.

The Australian dream is being by the beach in a nice house, with lovely food, and family. As Donald Horne writes in his classic critique The Lucky Country, “Ordinary Australia is not a society of striving and emulation. What they want they can usually get – a house, a car, oysters, suntans, cans of asparagus, lobsters, seaside holidays, golf, tennis, surfing, fishing, gardening.”

Life in Australia truly is pleasant. There’s not an urgency for different, for more. “A skeptical people like the Australians is more likely to achieve change organically than by cataclysm: things move along more or less comfortably in their own directions…”

And so that’s how I came to be somewhat uncomfortably drinking coffee with a staff member, in 40 degree heat, discussing my “too high” standards.

It’s hard to discuss ‘too high’ standards when you don’t even agree on ‘the’ standard.

 Part III: Life

Parents and me

It wasn’t until he walked out, in the midst of an argument about the dishwasher , that I realized we didn’t agree on the standard. My standard of a good relationship was honesty and resilience – where we could say how we felt, whether it was anger or disappointment, and move on. My boyfriend’s standard of a ‘good’ relationship was one that was peaceful, where there weren’t any arguments. Our definitions of a ‘good’ relationship had been shaped by some very different childhood experiences.

You see it’s not just in our work lives that we struggle to define what is good. What makes a good girlfriend? A good friend? A good daughter? A good 28-year old?

When I feel slighted that a friend didn’t call, I recognize my standard of good friendship is not being met. When I feel like crap after an interaction with my parents, I recognize I’ve fallen short of my own standard of good daughterhood. Indeed, I am  most aware of my standards when they are not being met. It’s far too rare that we articulate them with our friends and family upfront, and even rarer that we question where our standards come from and whether they are, in fact, ‘good’ or ‘fair’ standards.

Sometimes (OK, quite often) I use the comparative method to define good. I start by selectively choosing a target group. Preferably crazy hard working, high achieving peers from college or graduate school. Where are they in their life? How settled? How sorted? How happy? I don’t recommend this method. Particularly if your peers are the kind that also like to raise the bar.

Other times, I use the contrast method to define good. I identify ‘bad’ characteristics of relationships – be they from my own personal catalogue, or observations from novels, TV, movies – and use them as an anchor point. Good, however, is not the opposite of bad.

Still other times, I seek out professional opinions. My mom is a therapist. I like therapists. I’ve been known to pick up a self-help book or two, or scour the research to figure out ‘best practice.’ Like John Gottman’s research on what makes for a good relationship, and a good argument.

I am constantly seeking. Seeking to know the standard, to meet the standard, to beat the standard. How I see the world, how I interpret people’s looks and tone of voice, their comments to me, their style of interaction all gets filtered through my ultimate standard: striving for better.

Writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues it is this standard – striving for better – that’s bad.

“The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage…Even if we set aside the inevitable questions – How would we know if we had realized our potential?” Phillips ponders in his new book, Missing Out.

Is Phillips right? Or he is just British?


These (rather long) blog posts – what I’m calling writing pieces – are the start of a book project called The good, the bad, and the Feedback….  The book seeks to answer the questions: What is good? How do we know? All feedback welcome!

Deze tekst heeft een Creative Commons Naamsvermelding-licentie (CC BY) en is gekopieerd van de Kennisland-website. Ga voor de volledige versie met afbeeldingen, streamers en noten naar

This text has a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) and has been copied from the Kennisland website. For a full version with images, streamers and notes go to