The importance of embracing criticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately. How we hear it, how we respond to it, how we absorb it or repel it. My current life partner is a rather critical person, in general. He has a lot of strong opinions on how people should improve and grow, and he is not afraid to be rather harsh in telling them so. Sometimes, I get annoyed by his almost constant stream of criticism. However, I also know that I used to preach that embracing criticism is the most important tip that someone can take for life success and growth. Not just accepting criticism, but embracing criticism.

Back when I taught cell biology and metabolism, I would tell my students that how we handle criticism is SO important, that I would tell them to “eat that shit up and ask for seconds.” It tastes like shit. It feels shit. But it can actually be a superfood, IF you metabolize it correctly. But how you metabolize it is key. The fact is, with criticism, it can either poison your mind, or it can make you grow stronger. And only you get to decide what it does.

I will note that the ability to truly embrace criticism despite how uncomfortable it feels was so instrumental to my initial success as a scientist.

When I was younger, in college, if someone was critical of me, I thought that they were the one with the problem, not me. When there would be an exam, and I thought that I totally knew the material, but then the exam questions wouldn’t actually test what I knew. Or, I felt that I clearly answered the question, but then the instructor didn’t think so.

I didn’t realize, then, that it doesn’t matter what you know, or what you think you know, or what you think you say. What matters is if you can understand what other people are asking for and you can answer them accordingly.

I didn’t realize, then, that if I didn’t understand what was being asked, then maybe that was something that I needed to work on. That I need to be the one to improve.

It took me awhile to figure this out – that I needed to embrace criticism. But once I did, and focused my efforts on that, it was one of my most powerful strategies for success.  

I didn’t really figure out the importance of embracing criticism until grad school (2001-2008). That’s where I got my ass kicked. I’ll tell you one of the most influential moments for me. It was my second year maybe, and I had prepared a presentation to share with my lab. This group, with all these MIT scientists, they were so intimidating to me. But, for this one presentation, I had worked so hard, I had awesome data, I put together my best presentation ever. And as I was giving my presentation, my faculty advisor interrupts me halfway through, and she said, “Laura, your thinking here is trite and simplistic and unsophisticated. You need to do better than this.”

Oh my God – I was mortified. I was embarrassed. I was devastated. I didn’t start crying right there in front of everyone, but I did cry in the bathroom after the meeting. At the time, I was so upset at my advisor. I thought, how dare she say that to me in front of everyone.

The next day, after I calmed down, I went into her office, and I said, “I worked really hard on that presentation, and your words to me yesterday were not an effective way to help me improve as a scientist.”  

And she looked at me intently and said, “Laura, I apologize if what I said hurt your feelings. That was never my intention. But you have too much potential and you need to be challenged to grow. And I will help you do this. That is my job.”

It still was kind of harsh what she said. But I am so grateful that she did. I will always be grateful. It toughened me up. It challenged me. And it shaped me to be the scientist that I became. There is almost nothing that will help you grow more than working on your ability to embrace criticism.  

That being said, I will admit that it can be so hard at times. For example, I am rather experienced at accepting criticism for my scientific work, but it is much harder for me to accept criticism in my personal life. It definitely triggers some old wounds about me not being “good enough.” But I am working on that. Right now, I am working on embracing the criticism to see what I can gain from it, to see how I can grow, while at the same time, not letting the criticism negate my sense of self-worth and self-love. That’s my journey, right now. And my current partner is definitely helping me work on that.

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