That's bad, do it better

One of the most brutal things to adapt in life after college is the sheer amount of feedback, criticism and rejection that come with real life. This happens in just about any direction one decides to go: graduate school, industry, public service or self-employment. It may not feel that way for students, but school is an overly protective environment; getting a C or even an F may seem like the end of the world at the time, but that’s nothing compared to doing the best we can in a project/job, giving it all we have, just to hear from someone we respect that what we’re doing is not good enough. I’ll talk about Academia because that’s what I know best, but these observations apply in general.

Perhaps the most important skill to succeed in graduate School and beyond is the ability to take feedback, criticism and rejection, turn them around, and use them to our advantage. This is a skill that not everyone has, or wants to acquire. It can be painful at first, brutal even. But it’s the difference between giving up and not giving up.

Academics are subjected to constant streams of feedback coming from paper reviews, grant submissions, practice talks, real talks, merit reviews, promotions, etc. It starts with our first paper and it never ends! Some of that feedback is positive (hey! you got the grant!), but a lot of it is negative (your paper sucks!). We train our students to be able to deal with this by mentoring them, working with them, and providing them feedback on their work before they attempt to publish it. In my 12 years of being a Professor, I’ve seen many different kinds of students. There is no question that the ability to deal with feedback, criticism and rejection is the single most important characteristic to succeed.

Luckily, this skill can be learned. But it takes a while to get there. For students starting the PhD, the first time they get serious feedback on a paper/work can be somewhat of a shock. After all, they are working so hard, giving their best, and then they are told it isn’t good enough? Worse, often they aren’t told what else to do! “That’s bad, do it better” is a daunting piece of feedback!

But in research, this kind of open-ended criticism is the main kind of criticism one ever gets. In matters of intellectual production, it’s hard to know what “the right thing” is; it’s a lot easier to detect “wrong things.” And if someone tells you what the right thing is, then it’s not your work anymore — it’s theirs. In research, as well as in patents, it’s not the person who [blindly] implements the work that gets credited; it’s the person who has the right ideas. I have a rule that I try to follow with my students (although sometimes I don’t enforce it) about who gets to be first author on papers: if I feel they are driving the intellectual work, they go first; otherwise, if it’s me who’s doing all the thinking, I go first, even if they are the ones typing things on the keyboard and staying up late doing experiments. Needless to say that my goal as advisor is to not be first author on any of my students’ papers. But I like to be deeply involved in their work, and it is my job to give them feedback.

“That’s bad, do it better” is where things make or break for students. Some people can’t cope with criticism that’s relatively open-ended, it takes them down a spiral of lostness that only gets worse and worse. Others absorb the shock, turn it around and make something better.

So what’s the secret to turning this kind of open-ended pressure around?

1) Listen carefully. Listen to what’s being said and to what’s not being said. Pay attention to details of the critique. If it comes in written form, read it 3 times before you even allow yourself to think anything.

2) Stop before you react instinctively against the criticism. Take a deep breath. Sleep over it. Never respond to criticism before you fully understand what the criticism is about. If your reaction is to say something that misses the point of the criticism, you will be obliterated on the rebound. See 1)

3) Use the critique to your advantage. Are there suggestions in it? Hints of suggestions, perhaps? If so, steal them, shamelessly, and make them your own. If not (and many times, there aren’t), there is least one piece of information, the one that comes at face value: whatever you have is not good enough. Internalize that possibility, and go one step further to imagine what else needs to be done. Again see 1)

It’s a Yoda thing. USE THE FORCE, LUKE!

P.S. Sometimes criticism is just bad and should be discarded. But from my experience, that’s the exception, not the norm. No feedback should be discarded without first considering the possibility that it is useful feedback.

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1 Response to That's bad, do it better

  1. The ability to accept criticism is also essential in ones ability to take risks. One can always become skilled enough to play it safe, with safe ideas and safe writing that are almost beyond reproach, but this isn’t actually very good for the field. Likewise, reviewers should arm themselves with the ability to critique (evaluate and reason about ideas) rather than just criticize (find faults); these are actually different concepts.

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