18 Dec 2009

It's what you say, not who you are

Over the past few months, I have had several reminders of an unfortunate problem: People confusing criticism of their work as criticism of them.

For example:
  • Students worrying that their bad grades are a sign of stupidity (or the converse, that they are smart, so they should get good grades).
  • Authors of books I review getting upset at my reviews and deciding that further contact and conversation is not worthwhile from such an "unfriendly" guy.
  • Pundits, readers and bloggers who take my criticism of their ideas as ad hominem attacks on them.
On reflection, it occurs to me that my sharp words reflect my own background. I attended a Montessori school to the end of 6th grade. By the time I got my first "F" (in 7th grade, for an essay on Rome that consisted of "Julius Caesar"), I was already aware that I was not good or bad, according to my grades. Although I still cried at my failure and had very strong emotions over the years (I ran and hid when I let someone score off me in soccer), I regained perspective when I was working for a start-up, one that ultimately failed. In that process, I learned to say "I am not my job," and that has stuck with me. (It made grad school so much easier :)

It seems to me -- trying to understand how people react -- that many other people have not gone through this process. They've been trained to feel good with an "A", a gold star, a promotion or a bigger salary, and bad with their opposites. Unfortunately, this system creates personal (and interpersonal) tension at the same time as it drives effort, and it's difficult to keep the two apart, to not take failure personally.

And so it seems to be this dynamic that upsets people when I criticize their work. Although we may be able to agree that my critique is not of them, such a superficial understanding or comment may not be able to overcome years (or decades) of feeling good about yourself when someone praises what you do.

[My mother's] Bottom Line: We are all doing the best we can. Although we may be punished or rewarded for bad or good work, we should not forget that we are all equally good humans.


  1. "Acting more like children,

    than children."

  2. Just read Shop Class as Soulcraft. Makes sense to me. Wonder is any of us could rebuild the engine of a '63 Beetle.

  3. This is a profound post that goes beyond immaturity or "childish" ways and speaks to something closer to the heart of American society, human nature or both. Finding a solution to THIS problem could, I believe, change the world. The nobel prize would just be icing on the cake.

  4. As a university professor, I would take issue with your Bottom Line. Some are working as hard as they can, some aren't. Some are working at tasks or in fields different from their talent. I have a list of students that were mismatched and despairing about the fact that they weren't doing well in the field that I teach. And, I have a shorter list of kids who changed fields with happier results.

  5. Freakin' tree-huggin' pinko hippie.


  6. Thank you, David. I enjoyed this and sent it to my son Seth in SoCal who is a school counselor.

  7. @FC -- "doing the best you can" does NOT mean working as hard as you can, but it's useful to ask why they are not doing THAT. As you note, they may be in the wrong field. Then what? Are they *bad* humans?

  8. Part of the puzzel here is the different temperaments people have. Guess what, there is not a single type of person. David, based on your writing I assume you are one of the Rational temperaments (as defined by Keirsey Temperament Theory - KTT). This makes you prefer strategic and abstract thinking and more interested in ideas than people, things, or power. (But this does not mean you are not friendly, it's just that ideas have a special interest to you.) As you point out, your harsh words are generally reserved for ideas, not people. Fuzzy thinking likely drives you crazy, and clear thinking, precisely communicated likely makes you happy.

    For those unaware of temperaments it is difficult to understand someone with a different temperament. A little understanding goes a long way.

    Bottom Line: In economics, temperaments mean individual utility functions are different. (This is why I am skeptical of aggregate models, and why I think understanding individual incentives is so important.)

  9. @Jay -- great comment, and I think you're right (more or less) about me :)


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