Calling Someone’s Baby Ugly

Ever since TypeScript was announced, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about public criticism and how bad it is.

Allow me a moment to be a hypocrite myself as I publically criticize public criticism.  Now of course I don’t believe I am actually being hypocritical, because the purpose of my post will be to talk about condemning someone’s work not making any kind of judgment about general classes of behavior.  But if you want to call me a hypocrite, go ahead, I don’t mind.

When TypeScript was announced it seemed to me that the Twitterscape became enraged with a blood thirsty fury and someone turned the snarkiness dial straight up to 11.

All kinds of friendly nice people that I like on a regular basis were spewing all kinds of hatred.

Now, I don’t think they meant to be mean.  I don’t think their purpose was to hurt anyone’s feelings or destroy someone’s work, but I also think not many people really think about what they are doing when they are spewing condemnation across the wire.

Everyone loves their baby

Being a recent parent myself, and having some friends and acquaintances who became parents recently, I’ve come to find out that people really, really like their own babies.

baby boy oliver thumb Calling Someone’s Baby Ugly

I couldn’t exactly tell you why.  I think it is perhaps a mix of quite a few things.  To some degree it is a part natural instinct.  But, I also think it has a whole lot to do with the idea of being part of the creation of something.  Being part of the creation of another human being makes that human special to us.

Now, I’ve definitely seen some ugly babies.  It is true that not all babies are cute.  But, I’ve yet to find a person who agrees with me that their baby is ugly.  Partly because I would never dare to tell someone that I thought so and partly because their eyes would be completely blind to my observation.

There are actually very few people who would ever have the audacity to call someone else’s baby ugly.  Just about all of us can recognize how awful it would be to state that someone’s baby was ugly.  We wouldn’t do it in person and we wouldn’t even do it on Facebook.

If you have kids or perhaps you have some family members or friends who have kids, you’ve probably seen or posted a cute picture of your kid on Facebook.  Imagine if when you did that you suddenly got everyone on your friends list and their friends lists all commenting on how ugly your child or friend’s child was.  How would that make you feel?

The truth of the matter is if you want to create the worst kind of enemy possible, say something mean about someone’s child.  You’ll likely create an enemy for life.

When you are criticizing someone’s work, especially if significant effort has been put into it, you are basically calling their baby ugly.  (And it goes double if their “baby” has some kind of mental or physical deformity.)

Why criticism is bad

I have to admit, I used to be a big criticizer.  If someone was doing something I deemed as wrong, I would immediately call it out.  I’d stand there on my high horse believing that the only way to make this world better was to purge it of all the stupid thoughts floating around out there.

I used to believe in negative reinforcement.  The idea that calling people out publically and shaming them would cause them to change.

Boy was I wrong.  I was so wrong that I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

wagfinger thumb Calling Someone’s Baby Ugly

A book called “How to Win Friends and Influence People” changed my life.

In that book, the author devotes a whole chapter to the idea of never criticizing, condemning or complaining.

The key is that 99% of people you criticize will not see themselves to blame anyway.

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

- Benjamin Franklin

It turns out that it is just not an effective way to convince anyone of anything or to change behavior.  It is demonstrated in animals as well as in humans.

It can have a horribly diminishing effect of destroying someone’s self worth and stopping a person from believing in themselves.

Worse yet, it may some day come back to bite you in the read end.  Whether you believe in Karma or not, the principle of it seems to still play out in our lives.

It is amazing how often it is you end up in a chair across from someone at a table interviewing you for a job you really need who happens to have worked on an open source project you publically condemned.  Whoops.

Bottom line is, if you are trying to change someone’s mind, criticism is not an effective way to do it.

Turning it around

If you’re not convinced yet, let’s turn this around a bit.

What would you do if someone called your baby ugly?

Maybe you don’t have a baby, in that case:

Do you remember the last time someone gave you a nice piece of stinging criticism?

How did that feel?  Did you like it?

Oh, but Anders is a big boy.  Anders created C#.  Anders can take it.  (The Anders I am talking about is Anders Hejlsberg lead Architect of C# and one of the key creators of TypeScript.)

Can you?

Do you really think he is any different than you?

Do you really think he didn’t go and check Twitter to see what kinds of nice things people were saying about his “baby” only to be confronted with streams of harsh rebuke?

Can you imagine how you would feel if you just spent 2 years of your life working on something, something that you were really excited about, something that you thought was good for the community and people would appreciate, only to find that a bunch of armchair pundits who never even gave what you created a chance were trying to kill it before it even got its first breath of air?

I don’t mean to be so dramatic, but someone carelessly blasting work that you’ve put your heart and soul into—well it hurts!  It hurts bad, it stings!  It doesn’t matter who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

There is still another takeaway here.  We cannot only decide to not criticize other’s work, but we can also decide how we should react to other’s criticism of our own.

When you criticize someone, what are you expecting to achieve?  Whatever it is, that is what you should try to do when someone criticizes you.

In many cases, we are just trying to make sure our opinion is heard.  We want to hear how smart we are for discovering why someone else’s thinking is wrong or flawed.  Don’t worry, its human nature, we all operate to some degree in this manner, I know I do.

So what can we do about it?

When someone criticizes us, we can acknowledge what they said and pay careful consideration to it.  You don’t have to assume they are right, but you shouldn’t assume they are wrong and stupid either, no matter how ugly a package they deliver the content in.

Everyone seeks validation, so give it.  And everyone could use some advice, so take it.

After all, they could be right.

Disagreeing kindly

Now I’m not suggesting that you give false praise, also known as flattery, to any idiot who throws up a project on the internet.

That would be insincere and just as pointless as blasting him a new ahole with your twitter snark-blaster.

You can still disagree with someone or dislike some work they have produced without being a jerk.

The key rule here that I have learned from many, many, many mistakes to the contrary is “you can never be too kind.”

I’ll say it again!  I’ll bold it, I’ll italicize it, I’ll put it in quotes.

“You can never be too kind”

helpinghand thumb Calling Someone’s Baby Ugly

If the whole world would just realize this we could probably all ascend to some higher plane of consciousness and float through matter and all get along singing Kumbaya.

Whenever you are typing out words to the screen or contemplating what to say or thinking how stupid someone is, I suggest you remember that you can indeed never be too kind.

There is a big difference, you see, in attacking someone and comparing and contrasting ideas.

When you attack someone, you present only your ideas and tear down theirs.  This tends to put someone on the defensive, and unless they have Ghandi like stoicism, they are likely to attack you right back.

When you are comparing and contrasting ideas, you are presenting their side of the argument as fairly and as objectively as your own.  The idea is that you are attempting to win them over by letting their own reasoning determine that when presented objectively, your side of the equation is a bit heavier on the scale than theirs.

Notice the difference here.  Nudging along someone in the direction you think is correct by their own mental faculty rather than shoving it down their throat, because they are a “stupid idiot and don’t know anything.”

It takes practice, I’m no master of it myself.  You can probably look at my blog posts and see how I am failing at it.  Although, I am trying.

I’ve found that I am most successful and effective in stating my own opinion when I do it in a way that is courteous and respectful to the other person.

I often try to start off by recognizing that I could indeed be wrong.  This is very hard to do.  The problem is that it is very difficult to realize that you could be wrong, because if you had the knowledge required to make that assessment, you wouldn’t be wrong in the first place.

Ergo, just assume you might be wrong and don’t worry if it makes sense.

Secondly, I try to listen first.  No one is going to hear you, until they know they have been heard.  So make sure you hear the person you are trying to convince.  If they invented something new, that means you have to try it first.  You can’t just sit back and make pontifications about something you haven’t tried.

Along this same idea, it is good to not talk about problems without offering up solutions.  Doing this is called complaining.  Nobody likes complaining, even people who agree with you are frequently irritated by complaining, because it serves no purpose.

If you truly altruistically feel the need to correct some abomination that someone has brought into the world, you better be willing to help, otherwise you probably should just be quiet about it.

I’m no saint

I’m not trying to get up on my high horse in this post.  I am certainly no saint myself.  Not only am I absolutely guilty of everything I have talked about above, I still continue to make these missteps from time to time.  Although, I sincerely hope it will be something that continues to diminish in my life and interactions with others.

When all else fails, just bite your tongue and think happy thoughts.

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

- Proverbs 17:28

  • Martin Cohen

    Many years ago I read Stewart Emory’s book “Actualizations”. I only remember two things from it, but I have found these very useful: (1) Only complain to someone who can actually do something about your complaint. (2) Don’t get upset about someone doing something that you would have done in their place.

    • http://simpleprogrammer.com jsonmez

      That is sound advice.

  • http://twitter.com/davidk01 david karapetyan (@davidk01)

    This is all good advice but I think you’re wrong about Anders not being able to handle all the criticism. Pretty much all criticism on the internet is 99% bullshit and anyone who has ever created anything knows this. You just don’t go to the internet for any kind of valid criticism and feedback especially if the criticism is coming from programmers. Bjarne Stroustrup once said, “The major cause of complaints is C++[‘s] undoubted success. As someone remarked: There are only two kinds of programming languages: those people always bitch about and those nobody uses”. You can replace “C++” by anything else and it would still be true. Just look at JavaScript. People moan and groan about it all the time and yet it doesn’t stop people from doing awesome things with it. The same will be true of TypeScript and anyone who has ever worked with C# knows that Anders and his team do quality work so TypeScript is more than likely going to be hugely successful.

    • http://simpleprogrammer.com jsonmez

      Yeah, you are absolutely correct on this point.

      I’m just cautioning those who read my post, not to be part of the complainers. Every software developer is a business today and in my opinion, being mean is just bad business. :)

  • http://obxerve.com obxerve

    Amen. I wish more and more people adopt your attitude.

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  • http://twitter.com/WillCulpepper Will Culpepper (@WillCulpepper)

    The level of nerd meanness out there makes me think playground bullying wasn’t entirely unprovoked. Not justified, but not unprovoked. Look on some of the Stack Exchange sites to see what I mean. Caffeine-driven irritability + chronic sleep deprivation = serious ass-hattery.

    • Corndig

      You deserve a Nobel Prize for that equation. Culpepper’s 1nd Law of Ass-Hattery.

  • Tom cpp

    You know, given a little bit of information theory it’s perfectly obvious why negative reinforcement doesn’t work. You may have noticed that Darwin entirely avoids the issue, by just killing off whoever does something wrong. There are some damage control issues to prevent death on simple mistakes, but if you keep making them for even a relatively short time (relative to a lifespan), or if you make a very original mistake, death will follow. That’s how evolution provides negative feedback : it doesn’t attempt to find it’s mistake, just boom, bye-bye.

    Your brain is essentially a function, with internal state “i” and external stimuli “s”. And it calculates signals to put on your nerves “o”, which then proceed to stimulate your muscles and affect the environment. So simplified your brain is o = f(i,s).

    Now let’s look at what you’re ask the system to do if you were using a really, really tight feedback loop providing positive or negative feedback.

    Positive reinforcement can be expressed as “given i and s do p”. Now this is the sort of feedback the system loves. It has direct application and it’s and example that tells your brain how to modify itself (look at the backpropagation algorithm to see an example of this, even though it’s not applicable to our brain, it works). Do this with your kids and they’ll worship you.

    Negative reinforcement is “don’t do o”. Okay … so now we have zero information. We roughly have 297 muscles in our bodies + a couple dozen in our face and eyes. That means you’re telling it that one option out of 2^350 is wrong. Great … now what’s the system to do ? Try a random new one ? (in general it will be replaced by a random response. If you’ve ever written a control algorithm you know what a random response effectively amounts to : smash something nearby. This is not an effect of someone’s personality, it’s just the control algorithm not having any good options at all. Generally you won’t appreciate the results of smashing something, so this is likely to result in further negative feedback).

  • Tom cpp

    The cost of positive feedback actually goes both ways : you need to know what went wrong, analyse the situation and suggest a better option if you want to deliver positive feedback.

    Negative feedback consists of just pointing out that the boss is angry, or that the rocket blew up. A 3 year-old can do it (in fact my 2 year old regularly does it).

  • http://visionofarun.blogspot.com Arun

    There is no such thing as constructive criticism. Criticism is always destructive.

    • Brandon Blais

      First of all, I think this was a great refresher on “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In reference to Proverbs 17:28, it’s amazing how much wisdom was recorded in the Bible centuries before “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was published.
      Secondly, I do think that criticism can be constructive and is often necessary in order to arrive at the best possible solutions.
      I think the general principal is don’t be critical…I know there’s a subtle (but I think important) difference there. It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

  • Nobby

    People you like on a regular basis? Sounds… promiscuous.

  • http://www.editormichael.com MichaelEdits

    Yeah, but all babies are still ugly.

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  • Rod

    This is the best programming blog. Period. Thank you.

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  • http://www.mattjcowan.com Matt C.

    Right on. And your baby is awesomely cute! My second just turned one. Babies are awesome!

  • http://caigengyang.wordpress.com caigengyang

    Not trying to be disrespectful, but what if the baby REALLY was ugly ?

    • Jeff

      Simple. keep quiet. You always have the option not to look. lol

      • Martin Cohen

        I read somewhere that an astute politician used to say “My, that IS a baby, isn’t it!”

  • http://whatannasaid.wordpress.com What Anna Said

    What an insightful post. I haven’t read How To Win Friends and Influence People but it is one of those books I feel I should read…and this has just made me want to read it all the more!

    I guess on the point of “calling someone’s baby ugly” that’s quite difficult to criticising an essay someone’s written or something like that. I think constructive criticism is OK, to a point, as long as you have a valid reason and you don’t do it in a gobshite way!

    However, when I’ve read this book, I might be back to change my mind.
    Ax

  • http://twitter.com/Wimmo WL van Geldrop (@Wimmo)

    Stupid blog!
    ;)

  • http://ceomgmt.wordpress.com ceomgmt

    There are no ugly babies, right?

  • http://twitter.com/DMartin_3 Dan Martin (@DMartin_3)

    Great post! Dale Carnegie’s book is a must read for pretty much everyone. Especially people in our industry.

  • http://MarkFreedman.com Mark Freedman

    Great post. And I agree about Dale Carnegie’s book being a timeless and MUST-read.

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  • http://celwk.com Soul Clinic

    You should investigate into Vanity from inside human beings.
    Human beings are much too selfish that lead them to be unwise or stupid.

    The solution is love.

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