The Truth, Bad or Good

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

There is a blog post titled "Look at Yourself Objectively", which opens strongly with a good motivating example -- of one of medicine's great innovators being persecuted. I don't agree with everything in the essay, but most of it is quite good, considering how difficult judging oneself can be.

Author Aaron Schwartz introduces his topic by considering the psychological dimension behind the persecution of Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered a way to eliminate fatalities in obstetrical clinics before the Germ Theory of Disease had been proven. Considering Semmelweis's advice as implicit criticism of physicians, Schwartz notes the following of his reception at the hands of the medical establishment:

[W]hy did doctors so stubbornly reject Ignaz Semmelweis? Well, imagine being told you were responsible for the deaths of thousands of your patients. That you had been killing the people you were supposed to be protecting. That you were so bad at your job that you were actually worse than just giving birth in the street.
Such a degree of evasion coming from people we hold in such high regard, both in terms of the importance of the appraisal and its consequences, certainly underscores the importance objective self-appraisal.

Not only is that skill important, it is also tricky, as Schwartz again illustrates:
Even if seeing ourselves objectively is the best option, all our natural instincts all point the other direction. Not only do we try hard to avoid bad news about ourselves, we tend to exaggerate the good news. Imagine you and Jane are both up for a promotion. You want it bad, so you stay late, you work weekends. Sure, some things still slip through the cracks -- but even those mistakes have really good reasons! Jane never does anything like that.

But if she did -- would you even know? We see the world from our own perspective. When we have to cancel hanging out with friends to do extra work, we always see that -- and feel the sacrifice. But when Jane does it, we see and feel nothing. You only get to see your own perspective. And even our mistakes make sense from our perspective -- we see all of the context, everything that led up to it. It all makes sense because we saw it happen. When we screw up, it's for a reason. When other people screw up, it's because they're screwups.
Again, I found the essay worthwhile, but I question some of the advice. For example, Schwartz gives an example of a friend criticizing a short story and cautions against the "temptation" to compare the negative feedback to that of ther friends. While, yes, this is can be a dubious tack for the reasons he gives, it remains possible that the negative criticism isn't objective, and even that it is an "outlier" because it's ill-founded. A big part of considering any advice is whether it is objective, and that depends on considering the reasons given for the advice.

In addition, the form of Schwartz's advice in a similar vein is flawed: "[I]t's important to find friends who you can trust to tell to tell you the harsh truths about yourself." What about the good truths? I know from experience that one can be as blind to one's positive qualities as to one's mistakes: I recall way back during a rough patch that a friend of mine tried (unsuccessfully at the time) to help me see that I was being too hard on myself about something very important. As Schwartz would agree, reality eventually won the argument, but it helped me even then to see that my friend was on my side.

There is a tendency in modern culture to think that, for criticism to be constructive or even objective, it must be negative. This is wrong, and I wonder whether a word of encouragement or a pat on the back from a friend might have helped one Ignaz Semmelweis survive the near-universal rejection he faced over a century ago.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Great post Gus. (example of positive feedback :) I agree with you whole heartedly.

‘I know from experience that one can be as blind to one's positive qualities as to one's mistakes’

Exactly. In fact, I believe people are more likely to fail to recognize their positive qualities. (And that is one of their negative qualities that they didn’t identify – ha).

(as an aside note how extreme the example was that the author used…sure I can see that but going from not seeing that you killed millions of people to not seeing that Jane works pretty hard is a rather big leap.)

I’ll use writing as an example since one of my ‘extracurricular’ jobs at work is as a writing coach. Someone I knew once distributed a piece of writing for the purpose of receiving feedback. It was a completely new project, something he had never tried before and so he set himself for what he was sure would be a storm of criticism.

After receiving only positive feedback he concluded the obvious; that everyone was softening their criticism so as to spare his feelings. So, he sent it to more people, hoping someone would point out areas where he could improve. The key to the whole deal was that he did get a few (slightly) negative comments suggesting they were trying hard but failing to really find anything wrong with it.

Eventually the horrible truth dawned on him (kicking and screaming, of course) – that when the best suggestion they could come up with was to use less commas, then maybe what he wrote was actually (heaven forbid) good…

This entire scenario (or something very much like it) has played out several times with several people and with multiple subjects so my example is not just an outlier.

Ignaz Semmelweis had only one thing going for him. He was right and his opponents were wrong. In his case though, I’m pretty sure he knew that.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Ignaz Semmelweis had only one thing going for him. He was right and his opponents were wrong. In his case though, I’m pretty sure he knew that."

And yet he succumbed to alcoholism. I venture to guess that he suffered, knowing he was right, from also seeing that it did not matter to anyone, as far as he could tell.