Monthly Archives: April 2020

Fear of Criticism

When I was younger I hated to read any comments that teachers made on my work. It was manageable for math and science, where there was usually a right answer, but for any kind of free-form writing it was absolutely terrifying. When I got an essay back I would quickly look at the grade. If it was good enough, I would skim the written notes, scanning for praise, and trying to ignore as much as possible any ideas for improvements or notes on weaknesses. If it was bad, I would shove it into my backpack and never look at it again.

In school these assignments would be structured with submissions for intermediate outlines and drafts. And the purpose of this structure is to teach you, correctly, that even your best first effort can always be improved. But because I hated the process so much I would subvert it. I would usually just ignore any comments on the draft and rewrite it myself, or just re-submit the first draft as the final assignment.

Why was this so hard?

All my self esteem came from seeing myself as “smart”. I saw being smart as something static: you have it to a certain level, and it’s always the same. If I tried hard at something, and it wasn’t perfect, that deviation was because I wasn’t smart enough. Therefore the only meaningful output of doing well was praise, validating that I was smart, and the risk was discovering that I wasn’t as smart as I hoped or believed. This was terrifying, because it was the only self-worth I had, and I couldn’t imagine any other source of it.

I love, unironically, the Mos Def song Fear Not Of Man where he says (paraphrasing):

“You’re valuable, and not because you have a lot of money, or because someone thinks you’re sexy. You’re valuable because you were created by God.”

I don’t think you need to be religious to have a strong sense of self-worth, but the problem here is real and can really mess you up. It’s a bit hard to admit that this line is so important to me, because the underlying sentiment sounds so earnest and dumb. But in general, the most obvious truths sound stupid and are sometimes for that reason inaccessible to smart people.

Some helpful ideas

I’ve come a long way since I was younger, but this is still sometimes a challenge and I haven’t found a silver bullet.

First, a few quick tactics. These help me disengage from feedback, and allow me to see it as improving the work rather than reflecting on me as a human being:

  • Explicitly emphasize, to yourself and others, both before creating something and when asking for review, that done is better than perfect and you’ve prioritized getting something out there over getting it exactly right.
  • Use language like “I’m still tightening it up / playing with the structure / figuring out the right ordering”. Sometimes that’s even true.
  • Separate out the parts you want feedback on. “The language is still rough, I’m more looking for feedback on whether the core ideas make sense.”

One big change has come from seeing other people fail in the same way. In the workplace, I’ve come across a number of coworkers who send around a perfectly formatted, delightfully designed piece of work with fundamental errors in logic that several other people would have caught immediately in a draft or outline. So you can think of incorporating feedback early as a way to avoid wasting your own time.

This also became much easier to me when the feedback came from “the outside world” rather than “other people”. Working on my first startup, it became obvious that all the finely-crafted arguments in the world wouldn’t be as helpful as just running an experiment and looking at the data. Internalizing how useful that process was, and considering personal feedback to be an extension of it, went a long way. However, this situation is still in some ways closer to math homework than writing an essay. If I can put metrics on something, and think of it the feedback as “objective”, it’s easier to receive. Not everything in the world is amenable to this approach.

More broadly, it was motivating to adopt the frame of curiosity about the world rather than authoritative judgment on me and my work. Our language around this is very unhelpful. We use the term “feedback” to mean both “new information about an idea” and “another person’s judgment of whether your personality traits are helpful to your goals”. These two things are orders of magnitude apart in how much maturity they take to process, and usually you are dealing with the easier kind.

Another idea I’m exploring is that when you go to other people for feedback you are building a relationship with them. It’s like a grooming ritual for primates: by going to someone for help, you are building a stronger bond with them. You can then see their feedback as “an expression of care for you”. This can help disengage from the content of the feedback for long enough to read it and internalize it. This requires a relatively high level of trust and safety to work.

Unfortunately, caring a lot about the quality of a piece of work isn’t enough to break through this barrier. It can actually make it harder to receive feedback. The more tied up you are in whether something succeeds the harder it is to deal with critique, which might actually make you less likely to believe it will be successful. Alienation from your work can be helpful, if you can flip it back off when you need to. I suppose the ideal is to be 100% tied up in your work when you’re working, and then switch to an outside view where you and others think together about how it can be improved.

A Taxonomy of Slowness

You’re on a car camping trip with some friends. After a long night of sitting around the fire and looking at the beautiful stars, the morning light filters into your tent and wakes you up slowly. You’re well-rested and your hair smells like a campfire, and it’s time to make breakfast. You and your friends eat and clean up together. Now it’s time for everyone to break camp and head home. You shove your sleeping bag back into its sack, pack up your tent, and look around in the grass to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

Then you see that none of your friends are even close to finished. You didn’t particularly hurry, so why were you the first one to finish? You load up your car and decide to walk around the campsites to see what’s happening.

Just not working

Sarah is playing chess on her phone. She wins her game, puts her phone in her pocket, and thinks for a minute. Is she going to start packing up? No, she decides to call her mom to catch up. Whether she’s procrastinating or just enjoying the slow pace of life, it’s going to be a while before she’s ready to leave.

I can’t start yet

Sarah’s boyfriend Dave wanders over to you and grins. “Sarah’s on the phone again… we’re never going to get out of here.”

You look at him, and then over at their tent, and then back at him. “Oh,” he says. “I’m waiting for her to get off the phone. I can’t take down the tent until she packs up her clothes. Might as well wait before I pack anything up myself.”

Does Dave really believe there’s nothing he can do? Has he considered getting started anyway, or asking Sarah to get off the phone, or just packing her things up himself?

Analysis paralysis/yak shaving/tool obsession

You continue on your tour, and see your friend Paul sitting in front of his tent with his laptop out. He’s got his headphones in and he’s typing furiously.

“Hey Paul, what are you up to?” He looks up and takes one headphone out.

“Oh, well, I started to pack up, and then I thought that it would be nice if I could pack up my tent even smaller. You know, I never really learned how to pack up a tent – I just figured it out for myself. There might be much better ways to do it that I never learned about!”

“So you were watching a video on how to pack a tent?”

“Oh, no. I opened a few tabs with those videos. But I realized that I didn’t want to watch one video and then forget how to do it, so I started taking notes. But then I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the notes again next time, so I started reading blog posts and watching videos on different note organization methods.”

You leave, quickly, before you have to hear him try to pronounce zettelkasten.

Energetically doing the wrong things

At the next campsite, Jamie is vigorously shaking out her car’s floor mats. You ask her why.

“I went to a productivity retreat once, and the success guru there told me that the first step to succeed in anything is to visualize yourself having already succeeded. When I pictured myself leaving the campsite, my car was clean. So I decided to clean my car before packing up.”

“But you could leave even if your car wasn’t clean, right?”

“Oh, I guess that’s true.”

It seems like Jamie is productive by some definition, but if all she cares about is driving home, she definitely doesn’t need to clean her car right now.

Playing hero

Ashley’s campsite is next, but she’s not there. You pull up a chair and wait for her. That cool morning air, you notice, is turning into a hot afternoon, and you think about traffic beginning to coagulate on the highways home.

Ashley walks up to you and passes right by without saying a word. She goes to the picnic table where you all had breakfast, picks up a trashbag, and turns around back in your direction.

You had completely forgotten, but she’s right. You need to take all your trash to the dumpster at the end of the road before you break camp. You feel bad for not helping out.

“Ashley, why didn’t you ask for help?”

“Oh, I just figured I’d do it myself. You know how slow our friends are, if they have to do anything besides pack up their own things we’ll never get out of here.”

She continues on her way, crunching gravel underfoot. You’re grateful that she’s cleaning up for everyone, but you can’t help wondering what if would take for her to actually rely on someone else to help.

Doing the right things, but slowly

The last campsite you visit is Matt. He’s facing away from you, and is in the middle of pulling the poles out of his tent, so you just watch him. He pulls the tent pole another foot out of the sleeve, and then pauses. He tilts his head to the side, thinking. Then he moves his hand, painstakingly, and pulls the tent pole even further out.

Why is he moving so slowly? Maybe he’s unsure whether he’s doing it right, so he needs to consciously reflect on every step. Maybe he feels at peace in that deliberative energy. Maybe he’s really just not in a hurry. What would make him go faster?

As you walk back to your car you start thinking. You finished first, but was it really a competition? Your sleeping bag is going to be really wrinkled next time, and actually you might have put your clean clothes and dirty laundry in the same section of your backpack… Oh, it would be good to take out some snacks for the drive home, did you put those somewhere organized or just jam them into some other bag?

What you did isn’t perfect, but you’re finished. It’s time to go home.