If I were given a magic wand or lamp or genie or handful of wishes, the top of my list of things I would change about myself would be my ability to accept criticism. (It just barely edges out the pimple immunity charm, the better distance vision transformation, and the get-out-of-motion-sickness free card.)
As long as I can remember, I have been hypersensitive to criticism of any kind. A comment like -- “hey, little 6-year-old Stewgad, you should tie your shoes”-- would elicit serious hurt feelings, a flood of weeping, and then guilt that usually sounded something like this in my inner monologue: “I know that my shoes SHOULD be tied, and the fact that they aren’t clearly indicates that I am deficient in some fundamental manner. I clearly suck at everything; I can’t color in the lines, I can’t eat neatly, I don’t know my left and right, and now I can’t even keep my shoes tied.” This guilt usually would go on for a while, but ultimately morph into a latent hostility: “Why should I tie my shoes, anyway? What’s it to you if my shoes are untied? My shoes are fine just the way they are and I will trip on them as often as I like, thank you very much.” I think this emotional whirlwind stemmed from a most fervent and deep belief that critical feedback=failure, especially if it is right. The corollary to this equation is, of course, that failure at a task = personal failure. To hide this, and because I am nothing if not fairly obedient, I’d quick as I could tie those damn faulty offending failure shoes, even through the weeping, guilt, and inner grousing.
So, naturally, being as sensitive as I am, I gravitated towards a career in a loving, supportive environment where praise is abundant, criticism scarce, and chocolates are handed out regularly. Hey, wait a minute…
Today, I got the Chapter Formerly Known as Chapter 2 back from my Advisor. I don’t know what I was expecting, but he had the gall to actually criticize it. No, wait, I do know what I was expecting. I was expecting him to say: “Make these small changes in typo-like errors and then you’ll be done with this one. Wrap it up, and move on. Would you like a chocolate?” His comments were mostly in-text, but on the last page he said this: Good! It needs a few things -- 1. Make a big structural change because the 1st half of the chapter doesn’t seem to be related to the second half of the chapter. 2. Make a small structural change. 3. Too many assumptions need to be made explicit. 4. Small-ish stylistic change. Let’s talk. Call me.
Now, given the responses to my work from my first advisor – either none at all or sheer destruction and devastation – this was a pretty ok response, I think. But, still when I read it a little while ago, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach that I always get when I’m criticized. I felt stupid, inadequate, and 6 years old again. I felt exhausted at the thought of having to do more on this chapter, and overwhelmed that everything isn’t right the first (well, actually, second) time. I want to give up, throw in the towel, cry and stomp my feet and go home and eat ice-cream and go to bed and never come out.
But, it is raining hard right now, for the first time in weeks – that deep, heavy summer rain that cools everything down and makes such lovely noises and delicious soft, wet smells – and I’m wearing sandals. I don’t really want to wade through the downpour just to have a tantrum, so I guess I’ll have to deal with this here and now.
I think I can manage the 2nd and 4th those changes fairly quickly – it will just involve a little re-arranging and some giving up of language that I thought made me sound smart, but apparently is just opaque. (Oops.) Manageable fixes, I think. The 3rd thing looked bad at first, but then I read his marginal comments and I see the places he’s talking about, and feel kind of good about the chance to respond to those comments and to flesh out some things that I had let go by because I’m just to close to this to see them. Of all of the critiques, the 1st one is the most tricky. I don’t know if this means I’ll have to rethink the organization and get a new conceptual framework to tie the two halves of the chapter together, or if it just means that I need to throw in a better connecting paragraph or two between the two parts? Or maybe just give up trying to keep the two things together, and so divide them all into 2 much shorter chapters. I’ll have to ask him about this. I won’t dive into this today but I will start to think about when I can tackle these changes.
Overall, I’m starting to feel a little bit ok about this criticism. Maybe I’ve taken to heart something I taped up on my wall: “Your work is worthy of critical feedback.” Maybe this criticism was so gentle it didn’t hurt as much as it could have. (He did say “Good” plus an exclamation mark, after all.) Or, maybe I’m growing as a person. Maybe I can learn how to be criticized, how to hear constructive critical feedback in the kindly spirit in which it was offered and use it to help my work be better. Maybe I’ll never get rid of that sinking feeling in my stomach when I encounter criticism, but maybe I can run through the guilt/anger/acceptance gamut more quickly than I could when I was 6. I don’t know. I did learn to eat neatly, tie my shoes, and color within the lines. But, then again, I still can’t tell my left from my right without some hard thinking, so maybe not. Here’s hoping.
- At 7:15 PM father figure said...
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- At 7:55 PM Stewgad said...
FF- in the interest of protecting my anonymity (about which I'm becoming increasingly paranoid), I took down your full post and removed the more personal references. Thanks, though, for your wisdom and for sharing your thoughts with me. And for reminding me of the futility of seeking perfection!
Father Figure said...
Stewgad, I know exactly how you feel, it has bothered me my whole life. ... Even if I do a good job (I think) with a little criticism, even if not about me, I take on as my fault. If I had only done this . . . that might not have happened. ... So, even if we do know our left from our right, nobody is perfect. Mistakes are normal, and even the best can be improved upon.
- At 8:57 PM academic coach said...
You are right, Stewgad, to be Tribblish in your maintenance of your privacy.
This post is absolutely brilliant, and wonderful, and moving, and I'm going to cut and paste it and use it someday to help a client feel less alone/discouraged/crushed. You have SUMMED UP how many of us feel when criticized. And you are right -- getting accustomed to this Constructive Criticism provided by your advisor -- and learning to use his words to improve your diss -- is a sign of maturity.
You will do well in academia, and life, if, when criticised, you put the work aside for a few days, then pick it up, see the rational parts of the critique, realize that it is not a condemnation of your personal worth, and get back to work. The product will be better. You will realize even more deeply, as you know now intermittantly, that the words are an attempt to improve your scholarship, not put you down.
Bravo! Thank you!
- At 9:19 PM New Kid on the Hallway said...
Oh, I so know what you're talking about here. My advisor never intended to be cruel, but she also never gave positive feedback, so every time I spoke with her about my work I came away feeling crushed. (H learned to take me home and ply me with ice cream and chocolate and movies on these days!) A lot of that was me (although some of it was her, since I don't react that way to everyone's comments...) Anyway, it sounds like reasonable criticism to me, and in the long run, you'll be happier that you have someone pointing out specific things to improve. (I know someone who had a sweetheart of an advisor who just kept saying, "Wonderful! Just great!" And while I think she is extremely smart and probably does produce wonderful stuff, she said she always wished he would actually tell her what she needed to fix.)
- At 9:17 AM HistGrad said...
Yup, you hit the nail on the head. Fortunately or unfortunately, my "harshest" (or best) critic is my own husband and every time he reads a chapter I have those futile hopes (soon to be dashed) that he'll recognize the chapter for what it is: a perfect flowering my natural brilliance. Right. Of course, that never happens, and of course there are major revisions, and of course the chapter is always better for it... but yeah, I totally sympathize with that exhausted feeling.
But in the end, you're right -- it doesn't sound like a Huge Major Critique, rather a few changes that won't take long to implement. And then you'll fully deserve that chocolate! :)
- At 10:42 PM Stewgad said...
Thanks guys - I'm feeling pretty good about it today, so I think that this is definitely progress. I know there are some changes to be made but I'm feeling increasingly confident about my ability to make them.
Thanks so much for your support!
- At 6:45 PM dr four eyes said...
Another "me, too" here. Although I will admit that I am not perfect, I almost never like it when someone else suggests that my writing needs improvement. I sulked for two days after getting comments back on the first chapter drafts I sent to my director. And then I ignored the comments for several months while I was working (very hard) on another chapter. By the time I got back to it, I could see his points and made the revisions. The nice thing about this episode is that none of my subsequent chapters have been trashed, but I still expect them to be and so am always pleasantly surprised.