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.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.
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.
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.