Be Teachable, Be Command-able, Be Critique-able

Written By John Sonmez

There are three major reasons why I see programmers, heck people in general, get stressed out, fail and eventually burn out.

  • They can’t learn a lesson from someone else
  • They can’t take orders from someone else
  • They can’t take criticism from someone else

There three qualities together I classify as the “yielding” qualities.

The truth is people don’t like to yield.


We just don’t seem to be built that way.  Often ego tends to get in the way and it causes us to miss opportunities to grow and thrive.

I’ve been pretty guilty of it myself from time to time, especially early in my career.

It has cost me friendships.

It has cost me opportunities to grow.

Most of all it has cost me time.  Because the lessons we need to learn, we will learn, life makes sure of that.  It is up to us how long it takes to learn them.

These three lessons are all similar in that they are all about learning something.  We could quibble over whether or not being teachable and being critique-able are separate things or not, or even whether or not I can make up words like critique-able.

But, regardless here are my 3 lessons, not to say I am totally done learning them yet.

Lesson 1: Be teachable

Of all the ways this lesson applies, there is one that really sticks out in my head…

It is a bit of a strange scenario.

I was watching a live commentary on a Starcraft 2 match.  (Starcraft 2 is one of those hugely popular real time strategy games.  It has a unbelievable depth to strategy.  It is also unbelievably competitive.)

The commentator for the match was commenting on the play of one of the players, we’ll call him our hero.  Well, our hero was quite an experienced player.  His skill level was probably as high or higher than the person who was commenting on his play.

The commentator would say some very basic things that were fundamental to the strategy of the game.  He would make some point about how our hero should be doing this or that in this situation.  He would make even some basic points about what button our hero should be pressing and how he should be holding his mouse or hands.  Some very basic stuff that obviously our hero already knew.  As a matter of fact, some of the comments he was making sounded so simplified and almost demeaning to make to a player of that caliber.

What amazed me though, is how our hero responded.  He did not defend his actions or himself even once.  He completely absorbed and acknowledged everything the commentator was saying about his game.  He wasted no energy, no time, not a breath saying words either in his defense or confirming his prior knowledge of what he was being told.  He just let every word the commentator was saying soak in knowing that some of it might not have been useful, but being appreciative of all of it.

Immediately I thought to myself, “why can I not be as teachable as this guy.”  I thought if I could be that teachable, if I could be that egoless, I could really learn from anyone that had something to offer, not just those people who I perceived higher or more experienced than myself.

And that is the key to being teachable: learning from not just people who we think can teach us something, but recognizing that anyone can teach us a lesson if we can unbiasedly, undefendingly, uninterruptingly listen.

Lesson 2: Be command-able

It’s easy to be commendable, but difficult to be commandable.

Seems like no one wants to have someone else telling them what to do.  It is very unfortunate though, because there is a huge value when we can teach ourselves to march to someone else’s drum beat.

I’ll use another gaming analogy to illustrate my point here.  Those of you familiar with MMOs might be familiar with the concepts of raids.  As difficult as it is for me to admit, I was at one point pretty involved in an online game called Lord of the Rings Online.

If you are not familiar with MMOs and raids, the basic concept is fairly simple.  In these games they put some really nasty bosses for you to kill that have nice rewards.  The trouble is you can’t kill this boss by yourself.  You have to team up, and not with just 1 or two people.  For some of these raids you might have to team up with 20 to 30 other players.

I raided with a few different groups of players in this game, and there was a clear distinction between the successful groups the the unsuccessful groups.  There was one thing in common that the successful groups all had and the unsuccessful groups all lacked… the ability to be commanded.

You would think that skill level of the players, or the equipment they had, or even the number of players would make the biggest difference in the success or the failure of the raid, but you would be wrong.

Every single time I went out for a raid, I found the single biggest factor, more important than skill, equipment or any other factor, was the ability for the players in the group to be commanded.

The really strange thing is that sometimes the groups with too many skilled players would fare the worst.  Sometimes in those groups no one wanted to be told what to do and each person wanted to act independently.  In those cases we all became dragon snacks.

I know there are many of you out there reading this thinking that what I am saying only applies in wars and online battle games, but I would challenge you by saying every company, every business, every software project you are on is a war.

You might not be fighting against a army of invaders or an online dragon, but you are fighting competition, deadlines, internal and external politics and a whole host of things worse than undead dragons!

The bottom line is this: sometimes you just need to shut up, let someone else run the show and do what you’re told.

Often the ability to do this is the single greatest asset you can bring to any team.

Lesson 3: Be critique-able

Being critique-able and being teachable are pretty similar, but in my mind I think of being critique-able as more of taking your lumps like a champ while being teachable is about trying to gather knowledge out of a situation.  While you certainly can do either of these things in both situations, I make the distinction on where you put the focus.

We all screw up.  Heck, I screw up at least once a day.  If I make it a day without screwing up about 50 times, it’s probably because I spent all day sleeping, and that in itself represents at least 1 screw up.

A person who benefits from their screw ups though is someone who not only can recognize when they do screw up, but is willing to take the lumps for it that they deserve and even the ones they don’t deserve.

I do a bit of real estate investment on the side.  It’s my retirement plan.  One thing I can tell you about owning rental properties is that you need a good property management company.  I can also tell you about some bad property management companies; I have fired plenty of them.

I’ve finally found a property management company here in Boise, Idaho that I have no intention of firing and it is not because they don’t screw up.  They screw up, sometimes they screw up bad, but the thing about this management company that makes them different than the ones I have fired in the past is that when they screw up they admit it.

They don’t try and fight for their rights.  They don’t try and claim how they did the best they could.

I called up the manager of the company one day when I had an issue with one of the bills I was sent on one of my statements, and do you know what he said?  He said “John, I can see we messed up here.  What can I do to make this right?”

He has said these very words on several occasions when there was some kind of issue or dispute, and I am absolutely sure at lease a couple of those times that he believed his company had done exactly right and made no mistake at all.

Sometimes I have to remind myself to shut up, nod my head, apologize and move on.

Sometimes I really have to force myself to consider that perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps I did do something wrong and I have something to learn from it.

Sometimes I really have to remind myself that nobody ever likes excuses.  No one ever wants to hear “I am sorry, but.”  Justifications nullify apologies.  Not just for them, but for you.

As soon as you start to make an excuse for yourself, you take yourself off the hook.  You lose all possibility of learning from your mistake, because it ceases to become a mistake in your mind.  Instead it becomes an unfortunate circumstance.

My best advice: when someone critiques you, shut up, listen to what they have to say, acknowledge it, apologize and say you have no excuse.  It takes a bit of courage.  It stings a bit, but you’ll be a better person for it and you might actually learn something.