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.