17 October 2008

The Value of Criticism

Wow. Found this in the WSJ of all places. Guess the Republicans or Conservatives (I'm not sure which Peggy Noonan represents) have conceded the election. It seems I was right. Let's savor this moment.

Ok, moving on. Sarah Palin is not ready for the job, and is so unready for the job that she derailed a strong presidential candidate. But are we being too hard on the woman? Was Noonan over the line? Are the Republicans right to vilify anyone who breaks party lines and criticizes the candidates from within? I don't think so. And despite the fact that I think Noonan is right in every point she makes, it was McCain who derailed his candidacy by tapping her. But what of Palin? She may well be the luckiest person in this whole scenario. Confused? Of course you are.

I am a woman who believes that women have the ability, the drive, and the chutzpah to lead and can and should move into leadership positions in this country. To the sisters. Represent. I used to think I was destined for greatness. Now, I realize that I rattled too many skeletons in my youth to actually be the next Joan of Arc. But trust me, I'd give my left ovary for a policy position at the national level. All I can hope for now is that somehow, I am able to use the talents I have to mentor, embolden, and develop those in whom I see such potential. I don't for a minute believe that we move any woman-advancing agenda forward by throwing our support behind the incompetent, the unprepared, or those who lack an appropriate temperament.

But everywhere I look, I see a sea of women who lack the skills to move into power positions. Case in point. There is one character trait that I earned, thankfully, early in my career that I think all great leaders (male or female) should have. I developed a thick skin. And trust me, you earn a thick skin. I believe there is only one real way to earn it. That is to receive constant, humbling, and piercing criticism. Whether from a parent who constantly criticized your worth, or from a jealous supervisor, or from the anti-intellectual on the street who thinks lawyers/scientists/politicians/doctors are all eggheads involved in a vast government conspiracy to give them HIV/autism/socialized medicine/interrupt Monday Night Football to address the nation in defiance of all that is holy. Power to the people, man. Look, I don't care where you earn your stripes, but your life is going to be a whole lot easier and a whole lot richer once you get there. And you don't just survive it, you must learn from it.

As a writer, I found that even people who can't even write a simple declarative sentence thought they were qualified to critique my work. That sort of criticism was easy to discount. But, I worked for a man named George Rabb, who was the most brilliant son-of-a-bitch I may ever have had the pleasure of knowing. Despite being a world-class herpetologist and quite possibly a genius (and who was ENTIRELY qualified to critique my work), he was really bad with names or so I thought because he always seemed to be under the impression that my first name was Goddammit. You either survived the outbursts, the yelling, the stinging critiques and lived to tell the tale, or you put your tail between your legs and got out. I chose to stay, and in the words of Robert Frost, "that has made all the difference".

When a brilliant person tells you your work sucks, what then? You'd do best to listen. You'd do best to go back and consider why they said that. You'll benefit from figuring out what is right and what isn't in their feedback. You get better. You grow. But does it have to hurt so much? The answer is yes, it does. Why? Because gentle criticism is too easy to discount. Gentle criticism is far too easy to ignore. When someone stands up and tells you that your work is so woefully inadequate that they will not subject the world to your inadequacy any longer, you can bet your ass that you are going to listen. And I'd bet good money that you are going to change your behavior.

For those who have (admittedly, as I did) consistently performed above average in their worlds and considered themselves immune to failure, painfully honest and pointed criticism is a rude awakening to the fact that "above average" is a much broader category than you may have thought. I'm often reminded of an incoming masters student who always seem to assume that he was the smartest one in the room. Oh, the day that he corrected his advisor in front of a class left me chuckling all day. He seemed to be a bit confused about his own intelligence, talents, and abilities. In graduate school, everyone is smart. Trust me. During his tenure, he got a big can of smack.

But I think that developing a thick skin is particularly important for women. No two ways about it. We are coddled in life. We are protected from strife, strong words, and difficulties. This is why I think that you see the differences in the reactions of men and women to the negative attacks in political debates. Women don't like confrontation. Women don't want to see it, hear it, and by god they sure don't want to be on the receiving end of it. I know women who crumble at the first sign of intense criticism. I'll give it to Palin. She hasn't crumbled. She does, however, seem to not used the criticism as a learning tool. She accepts all the blows but never seems to get that she lacks the background, talent, intelligence, dedication to service, and simple curiosity that a person of power must set as their life's driving force. And the criticism hasn't managed to make her take a hard look at herself and want to go back and rectify her inadequacies, but rather to make her more confident in her abilities. Instead of becoming introspective, she just stops listening. And I think I know why. It's because she's not trying to impress those who are smarter, quicker, more learned, better informed than her. It is because she only has to impress those who fall in the below average group. Palin does have talent in politics, but made the fatal mistake of aiming too low. She was given a gift and squandered it.

Failure to develop a thick skin, failure to learn from criticism--this is a failure that can hold back people in nearly every avenue of their lives. I'm not going to lie. I've shed more than one tear over criticism. I have harbored ill feelings. I have cursed the George Rabbs of the world under my breath and not so under my breath. But somehow, I managed to look fear in the face and grow and improve. My advice to women who really want to change the world is to get out there and dare to take everything they're dishing out. And when they smack you down, listen, learn, improve, and come right back for more. IMO, it's the only way to get ahead.


  1. "No two ways about it. We are coddled in life. We are protected from strife, strong words, and difficulties."

    Ooooh, would you get an earful from my Mom. =] I think I see your point, but I disagree with the statement as written as a general proposition.

    To avoid getting in deep into the whole thing -- I've gotta get my day off started because I just got criticism on my 3rd chapter to the effect of "What are you doing? What is this? Go back to when it was good and show me by Sunday" -- there is of course the perverse incentive that women who rise to the challenge of aggression are punished, normatively speaking, but being excluded from promotions and getting ahead. That's the institutional trap of sexism, and what makes it impossible to overcome in terms of purely self-initiative, without a political agenda of change (not that that's what you're suggesting). Women who are not aggressive enough get passed over because they don't have "killer instinct". Women who do rise to it and defend themselves and their opinions are equally likely to be evaluated more poorly -- by men and women -- for being a "bitch." Bitches may get ahead more often than meek women, but either way, getting ahead is as much luck as talent when the simple fact is that there isn't a good US cultural template for women leaders. Strike that, I mean, there's not a widespread-accepted template for it, being that you're too meek, or too mean.

    A thick skin is essential. But, until we fix things politically, a strategic mind to "play the game", or the good luck and talent to be able to overwhelm people such that you don't have to play the game (it helps being model-hot in that case) is as necessary as a thick skin, and that's just unfair patriarchal bullshit.

    If you had to choose, which of the countries that have already had an elected female head-of-state would you emigrate to? Ireland's already had 2 female presidents, if I recall -- AND they're getting into being a multicultural society. I'm just spitballing at this point.

  2. "Ooooh, would you get an earful from my Mom."

    Point 1. Your mom and I probably have had very different experiences in life.
    Point 2. I'd probably like debating with your mom as much as I do you.
    Point 3. I was talking about girls in childhood. Although I do think that girls (white girls anyway) in general get some version of the fairy tale upbringing (or maybe this is me generalizing my experiences to the greater whole). The workplace is an entirely different story. The workplace is where we are thrown in to sink or swim with little to no preparation. Or at least, I was. However, I still say rare is the little girl who is prepared for the harshness of the real world. When I look at how wet behind the ears my college students are, I can certainly say they have not arrived prepared.

    "I've gotta get my day off started because I just got criticism on my 3rd chapter to the effect of "What are you doing? "

    Chin up little camper. It's the process.

    I think you are sort of missing my point. I wasn't really delving into the perceptions of women in the workplace (which would rightly bring up ideas of institutionalized sexism), just in the value of developing a thick skin. My real point was that most of the world, and women in particular, seem to have no stomach for the mudslinging, name-calling, inuendo-laden half-truths that pass for political campaigning these days. My feeling is that Obama and McCain can take it without flinching, not because they have extra-human powers, but because they have developed thick skins. Obama's apparently is much thicker than McCain's. =)

    I'm just saying life gets easier once you get there. After working for 12 or 15 years, I came back to school. When I came here to interview, I asked the grad students, "who is the scariest professor in the department?" Unanimously, they said the chair. I've met the chair. I liked him so much I put him on my committee. I work for him. I have no idea what these kids were talking about. He's a cupcake compared to what I've been through. To them, he's just this big powerful scary guy. I stared down George Rabb. The chair doesn't scare me. I sorta like him.

    It seems unfortunate to me that undergrads can get through college without developing thick skin. In fact, I think grad students could too were it not for the hazing that is qualifying/comprehensive exams. And even then, I don't think those are tough enough to do the job right. And my department has THE toughest comprehensive examination that I have ever heard of.

    So you can tell your mom that I may be have coddled and protected as a child, but I am damn sure able to handle my own these days.

    Keep writing.