On Taking Criticism

June 3rd, 2011

Scientists and writers take on a burden few others do (although a few other professions have it as bad or worse).  They accept that in order to have success in their careers, or just to maintain a longterm career, they will experience intense and frequent criticism.  That criticism, when done professionally and with insight, can be exceptionally constructive.

All too often it’s insulting or worse.

Good critique groups, good reviewers, and good referees/PhD committees, will review a story, a paper, a scientific result, and refrain from making personal comments or articulating negative assumptions that might well not be true.  Not everyone is good.  And it’s hard for anyone, no matter how thick the skin, to take it all the time.  I’m guilty of being less than professional when I’ve criticized some folks who I think are especially deserving targets not worthy of their fame/fortune/success: Ben Stein, Michael Bay, Ann Coulter, etc.

They’re big enough asses or just untalented hacks lucky enough to cash giant paychecks I don’t need to worry about hurting them.

But I want to talk about a bit more what it means to go into fields where you regularly get criticized.  Even if you’re really good, in an objective sense, someone will hammer you directly or indirectly from time to time.

I just looked over my student evaluations.  They were good this semester, better than 4 out of 5 in nearly every category.  I’m doing a lot of things right.  I can take that to the bank.  Still, however, some individual comments are tough.  Usually every semester I teach a big class (100+ students) one of them will say I am the worst professor they ever had, which I find highly unlikely given my experiences, but I get to read a paragraph slamming me for the same decisions that other students praised.  The next comment usually says, as it did this year, how effective I was, but the label of “worst professor ever” stings even as the other appreciative comments ease the sting.

It’s not much different with novel reviews.  Some writers read them, a few don’t, and most wisely avoid commenting on them.  Most of my reviews have been good, but a few say some very negative things.  Fine, that’s life.

The best lesson about taking criticism is not to listen to any one individual, unless they’re your editor or referee for a science article in which case you have no choice.  Any one person can and should be ignored.  If a majority says the same thing, listen.  If it’s a single person, no matter how passionate, best to ignore them unless it reflects your own self-criticism.

So, while I have my newest student evaluations, I also have a couple of grant proposals outstanding, but on the flip side I have two referee reports to send in and many dozens of Chandra X-ray observatory proposals to review (I fly to Boston in less than three weeks for a meeting to discuss those).  It’s a good thing, I think, that the reviewed are often the ones also asked to review.

Let me rant momentarily about the assholes who think no one who writes, does science, or puts themselves out there (e.g. just blogging like this) should complain about negative comments.  Personally, I’m unlikely to complain about heartfelt constructive comments (and do consider what that individual student each semester who thinks I was “worst professor ever” says even when dozens of others say I was good or great), but everyone can and should complain about assholes.  These are people who are unprofessional, extrapolate in unreasonable ways, make insulting comments rather than constructive ones, etc.

Life is too short not to be constructive!

I always try to take constructive comments to heart and improve.

Too many people can’t tell the difference between fact and their own very biased opinions.  Too many people forget that other people are the creators of the experiences they criticize, and they’re just doing the best they can.  Sometimes that’s not as good as it could be or should be, but being an asshole about it is rarely the way to go.

Yeah, I’ve been an asshole once in a while.  I try to reserve that for actions or works that are irredeemable in my opinion.  Attacks on science, immorality based on superstition, really bad work that has garnered attention and accolades far beyond its worth.  Asshole mode is reasonable when playing for a particular invested audience (e.g. in reviews, political commentary, etc.), but not when playing back to the originator.

Criticism is such an important thing in the development of young writers, scientists, and other creators.  It’s also one of the burdens we consistently live with our entire lives to be part of certain enterprises.  It’s the price to play, but no one needs to pay the assholes, and they show up sometimes.  We can complain about them reasonably I believe…

At some point I want to revisit the referee system.  It is somewhat effective, but not efficient.  I don’t think there are enough rewards or punishments built into the system.  While there are definitely some semi-competent assholes who should be banned, there should also be a way of rewarding the saints who do a great job often, without significant reward.



You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.