Taking Criticism

I recently admitted to myself that I don’t take criticism very well. Oh, sure, I’ll pay lip service and respond courteously. I even have the gall to publicly admit that I’m wrong. But to really internalize what the criticism says, to truly engage with understanding flaws?

I’m not good at that.

This is my attempt to create a reframe of criticism in a way that makes more sense. It’ll also be far more stream-of-consciousness compared to typical things i write. This is…not well-structured.

<Conversation with Self>

Q: So, what exactly is criticism?

A: It’s when someone tells me that I’m wrong. It’s when someone points out that something I’m doing isn’t good.

Q: What does it feel like when you receive criticism?

A: I feel angry. It feels like they’re attacking my idea, and my idea is great, so I need to go and defend. It feels like they’re attacking me. Then I get very upset, their words keep hanging around and around in my head. Until I’ve found a way to rebut it, it keeps staying in mind.

Q: But they’re not trying to start an argue. The other person is just pointing out something they think you’re doing wrong. Can’t you think of times where you gave people criticism because you thought they could improve?

A: Yeah, but I obviously think that I word my criticisms very nicely.

Q: So part of the problem seems to be people who don’t word their criticism nicely?

A: That’s not exactly it…it’s more like any criticism I get, I’ll immediately get very bad reactions, it feels like I’m losing hit-points, or that I’ve failed somehow, in losing some sort of status in their eyes.

Q: So part of it seems to be about social perception—how others see you?

A: Ehhh. It’s really more about the initial gut feeling of anger as well as the haunting feeling of the words sticking in my head. That’s the important part.

Q: Let me try something…

A: Sure

  </Conversation with Self>

Okay Owen, so here’s the deal. When you see someone criticize you, it feels bad, yeah? Like you’re reeling from a hit? Well, try this reframe instead: You are currently already flawed.

Doesn’t feel like it, huh? But the point is, it’s already true. If someone else points it out, that doesn’t make it true. Either it is or it isn’t. and if you have perceptive friends, then it’ll like be true—you just haven’t seen it. So if you want to pursue truth, to get good real-world outcomes, then you want to listen.

This is roughly isomorphic to how you use the Litany of Gendlin! The idea is to confront those dark spots of yourself, except that someone has shown the light on it.

Or, how about this: imagine that every piece of criticism isn’t an attack on your conception of self, but it’s instead a step towards a truer internal reality. Visualize it as every piece actually moving you closer to a world where you’re seeing clearer.

“Wait! This is good, but sometimes people give me really poor criticism—either it’s something I already know or it’s something useless!”

Hah, you think yourself so arrogant as to have already internalized everything you already know? Reminders are always helpful to stay on track.

“That’s true…”

 As for advice that seems useless, try using the heuristic of pain. You can likely tell when criticism is bunk and just ignore it. The rest of the time, if criticism feels hard and painful, it’s probably onto something.

How do you feel now?

Try this on for size:

<insert self-generated criticism strawman>

“Owen, I think your entire writing process isn’t likely to be useful. mindlevelup isn’t achieving much marginal benefit compared to other rationalist blogs. Your time would be spent elsewhere; it’s not fun to read, and your insights merely rehash things other people have said before.

In particular, several of your ideas have bastardized the original source material in poor ways, and I’m somewhat concerned about your ability to think about things. The way in which you write isn’t well-structured, and I’d be hesitant to recommend other people to read it. It’s not bad, to be honest, it’s just…bland?  

(There’s no niche, if you know what I mean. It’s just…there.)

Also, when it comes to rationality in general, you’re too willing to accept the word of others, and you suffer from minor hero worship. I think you need to strongly consider the ideas in your head and whether they’re worth keeping around. You could be doing cool things, but you seem to caught in a local optima for right now.”

Yikes.

Well, I think that I haven’t exactly debugged the internal feeling of “ouch”, but right behind it is the glowy-bright-future that comes with the pursuit of truth…

Anyway! If you, dear reader, have things that seem like criticism and want to drop them in the comments (or through some other channel), this is a solicitation for things of this sort!

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4 comments

  1. Criticism makes me angry especially if it comes from someone I’m close to and even when I was the one who asked for it in the first place. People are usually nice and unhelpful when they’re supposed to criticise so my subconscious expectation is that they won’t criticise ever. Anything that does not match expectations creates emotion. To change my expectations, every time I do a project or give a presentation etc., I make a list of ways to improve so that I’m forced to seek useful criticism and expect it because I don’t want to see an empty list. This has worked well for me so far. Now I get pleased every time I get criticism because I’m excited to add it to my long list.

    As for criticism of mindlevelup, personally I enjoy short posts like this because I can see how you think and that is useful for someone like me who isn’t much of an experienced rationalist. For people who are already active in the rationalist community or people who are not aware of it, they might not be as useful which is why you won’t be able a to build much of an audience based off those. Longer posts such as rationality 101, planning 101 and attractor theory are awesome for beginners especially because of the cute graphics which make it easier to get the point you’re making and also make the writing less intimidating. I think appealing to beginners provides greater value than appealing to people who are already aware of the rationality community. I think you might be able to make a huge positive impact by getting more people interested in rationality because your strengths are really useful for something like that which is why I’m excited for the instrumental rationality book.

    This comment isn’t thought out very well. But it’s hopefully more helpful than writing
    nothing at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the thoughts! The framing about seeking criticism via a list and rescaling expectations is helpful. I think it’s good to go into things with that in mind.

      I think you’re right in that a lot of the musing posts are sort of at this intersection of being both inaccessible to newcomers as well as too plain/obvious for people who have already gone down this path.

      Like

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