Monday, 5 October 2015

Taking Criticism

Mark Twain once claimed that he could live two months on a good compliment, and whilst your landlord might not accept compliments instead of cash to pay the rent, practically everyone enjoys receiving compliments (even if the receiving is awkward).

That's because at the core of every person is some play on the desire to be valuable and the desire to be valued. In other words, we want to feel like we are worthwhile and we want others to consider us worthwhile. Compliments act on both by boosting self-esteem and making us feel like we are being valued and recognised for our virtues.

From experience we know that it is much better to received a more measured compliment, however; neither generic niceties nor something obvious. By obvious I mean things that are positive but say nothing insightful. It is certainly true that Einstein was good at physics or that Cesar Cielo is a fast swimmer, but neither of them is likely to be over the moon if you told them - they were already aware. If compliments feel good based on how much they achieve those core desires, this makes sense: generic compliments and obvious ones fail to help us feel valuable because we either find them insincere or we are already comfortable in that area. Generic and obvious compliments fall like water off a duck's back because they seem to lack insight into ourselves. Nobody had to pay much attention to Cielo (the current world record holder in both the 50m and 100m LC freestyle) to realise he was a fast swimmer, but a comment on his business wisdom might make him smile. You'd have to know a bit more about him to say that.

If all that is basically right, then it follows that there should exist a spectrum of pleasantries from measured compliments being the best through obvious/generic ones to measured criticism at the far, unpleasant end. In our pursuit of a self-and-other-valued life, criticism detracts. To be criticised carefully is to be examined and found lacking. The failure to live up to scrutiny is the worst outcome.

In the pool, however, I have never found this to be the case. My value as a competitive swimmer, if we are being honest, is measured to the hundredth of a second by high precision touch pads or stop watches in competitions. For example, Adam Peaty was a better swimmer than Cameron van der Burgh in the breaststroke events this year in Kazan at the World Championships. Peaty knows that. Van der Burgh knows that. I know I am not even close to being that good because I can compare my times to theirs. All compliments directed my way about swimming are either going to seem false to me (because they contradict the clock) or obvious (because the clock already told me). I am far from claiming that the clock tells me my value as a person - but in the narrow domain of competitive swimming, the timepiece is king.

Criticisms, on the other hand, are supremely useful. A good, constructive criticism exposes why Peaty swims faster than I do. Once I know that, I have a fighting chance at narrowing the gap. Careful criticism of every element of my being as a swimmer - from technique to aerobic fitness to strength and power - allows me to improve. It is not true that being weak makes me strong - but without knowing my weaknesses, I can never be stronger. Criticism makes me excited because it means opportunity. Is my work ethic poor? Maybe if I change that I can be faster. Do I need stronger forearms for a better catch in the pulling phase? That could drop a whole couple of seconds from my personal best.

The reason I find criticism so positive is that I have a goal I want to achieve. Being told I had a poor work ethic if I was comfortable where I was in life would just sting because it would mean that there is yet another thing wrong with me. Criticism only becomes opportunity when it is reformulated as clarity: the path to achieving what I want to achieve is clearer now that I have been criticised. I always knew there was going to be obstacles, now I know better what they are.

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