May 22, 2015
Have you ever built something you’re proud of, only to have it torn to shreds when you show it your audience? Get burned in a code review? Rejected after a job interview? I know I have. Today, I’m going to write about some strategies to deal with it.
If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed. ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One of the most underestimated soft skills of the modern software developer is the ability to take criticism well. This is an industry where things change so quickly that there’s no way to be perfect. There is always someone who knows more than you and even if they don’t know more than you, you can certainly learn from them.
Besides being bad at taking criticism, most developers are not good at giving good criticism. Anyone can slag another person’s creative output, but how often can someone say something that helps the person they’re critiquing? Being able to deliver a useful critique is almost as valuable as taking one. Software development is a complex craft and being able to help others is essential.
One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn't upset me. - William Irving, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
I’m going to define criticism broadly. To me, criticism includes any comments you receive on your creative work. It includes well meaning advice, sharp attacks, and trolling. It also includes situations when you don’t get picked for the job, get passed over to speak at a conference, or lose a contest. Call it criticism from life. Regardless of the source and intent of the criticism, the following tips apply.
Don’t take it personally.
Even if someone meant to harm you, you choose how you respond to criticism. You can choose not to interpret it as insult. At the end of the day, all criticism is information. Treat it like any other data stream. Some data is higher in quality, some data is lower in quality, but it’s all just data.
The reality is the people who sling insults are not doing it because of you, they’re doing it because of their own issues. You can’t control them, but you can control you.
Mine for actionable feedback.
When someone criticizes your work, even if they were trying to hurt you, look for things you can improve on. For example, let’s say your users throw some scathing criticism your way in a product review. While it’s easy to get angry or frustrated, try to figure out the root cause of their pain and use it to improve the product. If you get rejected for a job, try to think of where you went wrong and fix those things in future interviews. Remember, failure is temporary. Learning is everything.
Sometimes, you are going to get comments that have no useful information. Trolls excel at leaving useless criticism. If you can’t find actionable advice, then disregard the comment. Remember, people being mean is their fault, not yours.
Consider the source.
Like in the quotation above, it’s important to consider who is criticizing you. Do you respect them? Are they considered experts this particular area? Do they adhere to the same philosophy as you? Use these considerations to weigh comments. Do you think that Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil and others like them care one shred about what luddites think about them? I doubt it.
Giving good criticism is almost as important as being able to take criticism. Being able to deliver useful feedback to your peers helps them grow. Being able to do it in a way that doesn’t make them hate you is good too. Here are a few tips to help you with that.
Be mindful of other people’s egos.
While it’s easy to say that you should make all criticism into dispassionate feedback, actually doing it is hard. I still have a ways to go myself. Because of this, you should make it as easy as possible for the person you are critiquing to turn what you say into useful feedback. An important way to do this is by being mindful of their ego.
Software development is a tough craft. People invest their time and energy to get good at it and a well timed insult and can trigger all kinds of pain. If you want to see how fragile people’s egos are, Google “imposter syndrome”.
To help preserve ego, start with compliments. For example, I attended a session last year that had some content issues. When asked how it went, I started off with the good things about the session. I complemented the presenter on their topic selection and presentation style, which were both excellent. Then I made a point about how they tried to do too much for their time slot. This gave the person something they could use without hurting their feelings.
Remember that negative feedback has more weight than positive feedback. Start off on a positive note and try to achieve at least a 2:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. (if possible)
Focus on giving actionable advice.
Telling someone “that sucks” does nothing useful for either party. You don’t get a better product/employee/code and the person being criticized doesn’t learn anything. Additionally, you’ve angered the person you are critiquing, which benefits no one. Instead, focus on making things better. Try saying “This would be better if…” or “These X things would improve your product because of Y reasons”. Using direct, but non personal phrases focuses the attention to where it needs to be. Remember, there are no bad people, just bad ideas.
The key lesson for this post is to always look for value in criticism. When someone criticizes you, focus on extracting useful information from the experience. Use it to fuel your abilities to the next level. When critiquing others, try to focus on making it easy for them to find value in your comments. Help them get to the next level. Remember, criticism is just data. You choose how to use it.
Image: Roman Emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius Photograph by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT