Accepting Criticism is More Than Just a Skill

Taking criticism is one of the most critical skills in today’s (and tomorrow’s) competitive world. But to many (I would venture to say all) of us, the prospect of seeing the many flaws in our work is frightening. For some reason, it’s directly tied to our self-image.

I am here to tell you — and to tell myself — that it isn’t.  Not because I somehow know this and nobody else does, but because it’s important that someone tells us all. Our community is very supportive, which is important in fostering success.  However, we will not succeed outside of Thacher unless we can take an idea we have —  no matter how large —  and lay it out on the table for criticism.  

It is worth distinguishing between types of criticism.  We hear the term “constructive criticism” thrown around a lot without much of a definition. Often it’s misunderstood to mean “painless criticism” or “nice criticism.”  Neither of these is correct. The meaning is more along the lines of “not-malicious criticism.” Basically, if the person delivering the criticism is not just trying to demean you or defend their own self-image, then it is some sort of constructive criticism.  

Constructive criticism can hurt if we’re too attached to the thing being criticized. Sometimes it’s a test we thought we aced or a project we spent hours on. It could be as simple as an idea. In all these cases taking the criticism well and using it to grow and expand our abilities is not just something we can do, but is actually imperative to our survival in the modern world.

It’s really easy for us to see ourselves as amazing, perfect, etc. and for us to see everything we do as the best. However, for obvious logical reasons, this is not true. This is, after all, addressing a group of high schoolers. We are in fact, not the best at anything. We can all improve in every single region of ourselves, and the way to do that is to accept criticism.  

I’ll put this all into perspective with a nice applicable example.

Last year I took a class in which we worked for 6 weeks on one project. A half-trimester long project is extremely fun, but there’s a lot riding on it. From the very beginning of the term, we brought ideas to class, laying them out to improve them.  

Early in the planning for my project, I was looking for an effective way to organize a bunch of information. I made a working model and ran into numerous issues before bringing it to the class to discuss.

The day before the teacher had given us a talk on accepting criticism in groups. He told us that when you can detach yourself from your idea, you can lay it out in front of a group of people, and they can all take turns essentially taking apart your idea until either the idea is shown to be ineffective (in which case you certainly learned something) or you’re left with the critical information —  the stuff that will inform how to move forward.  

Even when your idea is smashed to bits and in retrospect it wouldn’t have done a thing, you have learned a lot. Firstly, you’ve saved quite a bit of time (not following through on something that wouldn’t work). Secondly, you have heard the critiques and criticisms of all the people in the group, which, when taken under advisement, will help you become more effective at whatever it is you’re doing.

So I brought forward my (bad) model and a new idea I had come up with. I drew it all up on the whiteboard.  I put it all out there.

The teacher took one look at the idea and wanted to know what I wanted from the result (not a good sign for the idea). Quickly, the new concept was thrown aside and from it came a whole new one. That newer idea ended up working perfectly, causing me no problems in the entire 6-week project.  Sure, the little piece of scrap paper full of ideas I had brought in went into the back of my binder never to be seen again, but that didn’t hurt because that paper wasn’t actually me.

The point is this: if we can accept criticism and admit that we and our ideas are imperfect, we will benefit from criticism and be better off. Not only will we be learning and growing faster, but it will remind us that no matter how hard we work, everything can improve.