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On the importance of taking criticism well

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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If don’t take constructive criticism well, I won’t get it again. And it’s hard to get it in the first place. And I need it!

The science of pain is an extremely complicated domain. To an outside observer, the subject might look seem like a “niche” of medicine; but from inside the belly of the beast, it’s like a bewilderingly immense library full of more things to learn than any one human being could possibly get a handle on. To do my job well, I need constructive criticism, because I will get things wrong.

It usually happens when I reach beyond my own area of knowledge, without even realizing it…

A noteworthy example of a well-deserved criticism

I wrote something about infections and frozen shoulder, an unusual intersection of my usual subject matter with a completely different area of medicine. I know about as much about the science of infections as I know about the cotton industry (which is all about cotton I think, but citation needed).

So I ran sent my draft to a proper expert, an infectious disease doc of my acquaintance, and he quickly replied to tell me, politely, that part of it was badly wrong. I had missed something obvious — obvious to him, anyway.

So I got firmly corrected and that was great. I was truly grateful, I fixed the post, and I expressed my gratitude. Mission accomplished. And what matters most to me is that this expert will probably be do it again someday. That’s more valuable than any one thing he can teach me.

I don’t want anyone I respect to ever regret constructively criticizing my writing

Not everyone who submits an unsolicited criticism to me gets an answer, of course, or gets one they like — there are just too many critics, and too many aren’t doing it constructively. Many make it clear that they will only take complete surrender for an answer: “You’re wrong about everything, you should take your entire website down and never write anything ever again.” •delete•

But I have critics I can trust. I have cultivated relationships with dozens of experts who are qualified and inclined to criticize in good faith. I do this in the hopes that they will someday tell me I screwed up — because how else are we supposed to learn, if not from people who know more?

Sometimes I pick a semi-random criticism to take seriously: I think it’s an important way to try to keep it real, prevent my views from fossilizing into dogma, and limit the echo chamber effect of only listening to friends and mentors.

When I respond to criticism, I really try hard to take it like a pro. I don’t ever want a critic to think, “Well, sheesh, I guess I won’t bother offering feedback to him again.”

People who criticize are often nervous about it

I am a messy human, and my initial emotional reaction to criticism is usually prickly — even when it’s good criticism. I wait for that initial how-dare-you flush to fade away, and that’s when I remember: critics are usually quite anxious about the reaction.

Criticizing is conflict, and so most people avoid it. If I bark at someone who had to work up the nerve, they might literally never forget it — not only discouraging them from ever offering me their opinion again, but maybe also discouraging them from offering their opinion to others. That’s a terrible result!

Good criticism is hard to find

It’s hard to get people to offer earnest criticism in the first place, believe it or not. Although I get a lot of flak — insults and drive-by griping, people who obviously don’t expect (or deserve) a serious response — I get surprisingly little constructive criticism from trusted sources.

I’d like to think that’s because I’m doing such a fine job, but I know the real reason: people are super shy of issuing serious criticisms because they’ve been burned! Because it rarely goes well.

And so, every time someone does take that chance with me, I treat it like a precious opportunity, and I trust they have been satisfied with the results.

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