Friday, May 24, 2013

Your Reality Check Just Bounced

A friend showed me this video of an art student being criticized.

Apparently, something wasn't perfect with her project and her peers had some less-than-flattering comments about her picture.

This story reminds me of a paradigm shift I had about 10 years ago. I write software for a living. And I write subversive fiction when I can. The paradigm shift was that I quit thinking the QA tester dude was my enemy, but a colleague offering a valued service.

In the case of software, it's easy to hand it over to someone to test, and they can tell you which requirements it failed to meet. Or which behaviors it did not do, and which malfunctions were observed. In the case of fiction, things get far more subjective.

But in both cases, you get feedback. It's lovely to find out you've exceeded expectations, performed everything asked of you flawlessly, and have created an exemplar of perfection for the generations to admire.

And although it is lovely, IT NEVER HAPPENS.

Everyone starts out knowing nothing. Those of us who are lucky learn. And learning works via positive and negative feedback. Do something a little right, you should get a little positive feedback. Do something wrong and you should get some negative feedback. You need both to learn.

We can argue about injuring someone's self-esteem, and how negative feedback should be directed toward fixing what's wrong with the piece.

Yet even when you get abuse from a mean teacher, you learn something you've done is wrong and you know you must do something different to make it right. You need to know what works and what doesn't work. You need someone to see what you don't see.

I fail to see what I don't want to see: my own imperfections. When I'm working on a bit of software, I don't want to hear that I'm not finished. I don't want to know that the task is more difficult and I've got to put more, better thought into it. I don't want to learn that tests that worked last week have broken just now, because of something I did wrong.

I don't want to face into the negative truth that I'm not perfect. One of the surprising things about being perfect is that you can't learn anything when you're perfect.

And that's what a fool does, s/he stuffs cotton in the ears when the critique comes in that s/he does not want to hear. (In this case, Henry Cloud says you have to change the conversation to "why aren't you listening?") But I hope you're not a fool, and I hope you want to know when your painting is more like some kids' refrigerator art than it is like Rembrandt. I hope you want to know when your prose is so wooden it is an insult to furniture. I hope you want to know when your software does not meet spec.

Because only when you want to know these things can you want to learn. And only when you learn can you improve. And when you want to know the negative facts about your work, then you can sincerely ask your friends to tell you what they see that's wrong. And you can seek out those with more refined perceptions who can tell you the harder things that are wrong.

Of course, then it's up to you to do something with that feedback. Sure, you can tear up your canvases, burn your manuscripts, or format your hard drive, but none of those things are constructive. It's up to you to seek out what you can do differently that'll enable you to do better next time.

So, here's your hunting license: If you see anything in my prose that's wrong, feel free to tell me about it. I may not heed your critique, but if I don't it's on my own head.


  1. Art critiques are subjective. The artist may have a vision that is not being seen by the viewer. Or the viewer plain just may not like the piece.

    With a technical subject it is easier to make the case that the creator is doing something wrong.

    How about a link to the video?

    1. I embedded the video, you should be able to get the link by right clicking on it. Let me know if you can't get it to play and I'll add a link.

  2. I believe this might just be like displacement of her frustration from some previous bad experience in the day... or about the person who's commenting...or her overall experience with the discourse of the class. you know, its not just 'the criticism' alone.

    Regarding your article, seeing it outside this context, I think you make a good point. I was in my college dance team and our boss was incredibly, insanely straightforward, acerbic, but too a great extent and it would become very difficult sometimes to take it. But we all did it anyhow cz that's how we would learn and so we have to toughen up. but if i lead, THIS WOULD NOT be my way to teach people really... but somewhere one HAS to be able to receive constructive criticism and not just at work, but even with friends and everyone. I'd rather be friends with someone who'll tell me the truth as against lying and letting me make a fool outa myself before everyone... so yeah.

    But having said that, i believe that if anyone says something that's uncalled for and isn't bout the 'training' or you're 100% sure that its impertinent in some way i think, that in such situations raising your voice - even to authority figures, is imperative. and it takes tons to stand up for yourself to a group- SO its pretty awesome what she did :p and i like the painting, they (classmates) din say anything nice bout it :(

    1. I was a math major and I had a math teacher who was a horrid lecturer. But I learned that the business of learning is two-dimensional. I have to adapt my mind to mesh with the teacher's as much as s/he has to adapt his/her presentation to the needs of the students. Though the primary responsibility is on the teacher, this does not excuse the student from doing his damnedest to learn. And sometimes that includes biting your tongue when you want to strangle the jerk.


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