Criticism 6/14/19

By Richard Bleil

So this is it; my bicentennial blog post. I hoped to come up with something that would really wow my readers, but today is already tomorrow and I want to go to bed, so…criticism.

It’s a fair topic. I was speaking with a friend of mine tonight who told me that some of my posts are very good and others, well, maybe not so much. She tells me that my style of writing is often not one that particularly draws her in, and that I need an editor.

Fair criticisms.

To start this topic, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the two types of major criticisms. See, I don’t mind her criticisms. They came from a good place, an open and honest discussion from her heart, her intentions are pure and meant at least to be honest assessment, and perhaps to help me improve. This is healthy criticism and it’s how we learn.

It’s not always easy to hear healthy criticism. On occasion, we all manage to reach that next plateau. Working on a project (be it writing, music, art, science or anything), something just clicks and we hit a level of achievement that is not only a new height, but something beyond what we even believed to be possible for us as individuals. Then, along comes the critic.

I can feel it happen; my walls go up, my emotions begin to swell, and it’s hard to even hear. But, I’ve come to learn that if the criticism is from a good place on the part of the critic, there may be pearls of wisdom that can help me to consistently reach that higher level, or perhaps even advance further, if I can get past that defense.

My trick is to give up on trying to think about what is being said, and instead just listen. Listen, and remember. Smile politely, thank them, and remember. Later, when my emotions have settled back down again, when I realize that regardless of the criticisms I’m nonetheless happy with my own work and where it went, when I’m in the right frame of mind, I think about what was said. I sift through the comments and suggestions, and look to see which are comments with which I agree, and which I can discard.

That did not happen tonight. This woman’s heart is so pure that it cannot be taken negatively, but, neither will I necessarily follow all of her advice. My writing (especially in my books) tends to be sporadic, and it’s a style I do enjoy writing. I’m not convinced that I’ll discard that bit of advice altogether; I may start being a bit more cautious to develop each piece before the next jump, but I’ll likely still make those jumps (depending on the work, of course). She also suggested that I need an editor. Well, amen to that. I’ve felt that way all along.

But there is another kind of criticism, that meant to be hurtful. We’ve all come across hurtful critics, with no advice or intention to be constructive, but rather just intending to tear down the target. We’ve all had these critics in our lives; in high school, one of my fellow classmates (I would not even call him a friend) asked me, at the very end of our senior years, what my plans were. I suggested I was going to get a degree in chemistry, to which he replied, “You? A chemist?” He laughed and walked away.

This is an example of a hurtful criticism. There was no reason for him to say that, there was nothing helpful. “I think you might want to think about…” would have been constructive, or “I’ve noticed this that might hurt…” But, instead he laughed. Of course, this is the same person who said he wanted to be a veterinarian, and would brag about how he puts acid in fish tanks to watch blood come from the gills of the fish. I’m told he is a veterinarian today, but he’ll never touch my pets, that I can promise you.

It’s important to be able to take criticism, and not a skill that everybody has. Today I am sleeping in my “own” bed (I put that in “quotation marks” because it’s actually the guest bed of a friend who is letting me stay for a while until I get my own place) after being gone for about a week. I was in Texas, working with a company that produces a dietary supplement to set up an in-house quality control lab. The company has three full-time employees, the president, the receptionist and the “quality control manager”, a young microbiologist that recently graduated from college. Every time we pointed out something that was incorrect (like the way he was running their spectrophotometer), or a way to improve what they are doing (like the inefficiency of measuring out 13 individual masses of one of their ingredients only to recombine them for the batch), he would become defensive and try to justify the way he was doing it.

I was hired as a consultant because of my advanced degree, industrial analytical chemistry experience, years of teaching analytical chemistry, and knowledge in quantum theory (the foundation of spectroscopy). His defenses did nothing but interfere both with my work as a consultant, and his ability to grow and learn. Honestly, he did a good job getting as far as he did, but the inability to hear and consider criticism makes me doubt that anything I say will improve his performance.

Criticism and advice can be hurtful, but it can, if the intention is pure, also be a great way to grow. I’ve had to learn to listen to such criticism, and I’m a better person for it, and far more skilled than I would be because of my willingness to learn from others.

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