Criticizing Someone Else’s Work
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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”
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