Responding to Criticism

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In 2006 I participated in NOLS’ Summer Semester in Alaska, a 75-day kayaking, backpacking and mountaineering course, which helps students gain wilderness and leadership skills.

A few days in I got my first review. I was a wreck. I packed my backpack as if I were paying homage to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The most palatable meals I cooked were the ones that were burned beyond recognition. I might have been able to properly affix a rainfly to a tent, but I’ll never know because nobody trusted me to keep their tent dry. You know that guy who played on your middle school basketball team who had great hustle and personality but couldn’t make a layup? The guy the coach wanted to do well, but would never take chances with in the 4th quarter? That was me at the start of my first NOLS course.

My second review provided a laundry list as long as the first one. “Is there anything I’m doing right?”, I fished. The instructor looked me squarely in the eyes and told me that I’m accepting and responding to their criticisms very well - certainly better than anybody else on the trip, and maybe better than any other student he’s had. If I were young and stupid, I’d have thought this was the most condescending thing he could possibly say to me. Oh wait, I was young and stupid, and that’s exactly what I thought. Miraculously aware that acting somber or exploding would be of no value, I swallowed and said “thanks.”

I later came to understand that my instructor had actually paid me one of the most gracious compliments I’d ever receive. Over the next week, my skills improved – not hugely, but demonstrably. I continued receiving feedback and making iterative progress over the duration of the course, and it eventually became clear to me, and to others, that I had more than paid off my skills deficit.

The reason I was so offended at first is that I thought that taking criticism was the standard of a student in a student-teacher relationship. To me it was like force-praising a bad teacher by saying “you do a great job showing up to class everyday.” That’s what you’d say to a teacher who had no teaching skills. But I quickly learned that my analogy was flawed. Taking criticism was a skill in itself. There were students who did not take feedback well. To this day I feel very sorry for them, because they lost out on 75 days worth of fantastic wilderness lessons.

And here’s why: nobody was willing to criticize these people after the first week because everybody knew it would lead to conflict. And so by the mountaineering section, when I was getting advanced critiques on navigating through a whiteout (very, very difficult), the more defensive folks were just trotting along, with the same navigation skillsets they had when they started.

Eventually I returned to civilization, and a while later I got my first job. I learned that people function exactly the same way in the office. I’ve seen people at work who take criticism well and respond with a thank you. They continue to get constructive feedback because people feel safe giving it to them. I’ve also seen people who explode in the way that I miraculously avoided despite being young and stupid. I feel sad when I see people do this, because I know that when everybody else is learning the advanced techniques for navigating their corporate worlds (very, very difficult), these people will be trotting along, the same as they were when they started.

Do everything you can to be in that first group of people. No matter how harsh or personal or crushing someone’s feedback feels, take it constructively and with the best of intentions. Show them gratitude for having the courage to help you in a way that was probably uncomfortable for them. If you don’t respond positively, they’ll never be honest with you again and you’ll miss out on a lot of invaluable learning opportunities.

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