Most of my work has been low stakes. When I work on programming projects, it’s very often because it’s a personal project, or I’m doing something with my friends for fun. When I’m writing for the admissions blogs, more often than not, I can write whatever I want and post it without a second thought. I write math handouts and make web apps and stuff, but no one criticizes me for them.
No one goes up to me and says, well, the app is okay, but you should refactor this code into its own class and move it to a different file. No one says, this is a very personal blog post, but the pacing was weak and could benefit from a stronger cohesive vision for where it’s supposed to go. No one does code review on my commits, no one heavily edits my blog posts, no one quality controls most of the things I do.
So when I do get criticism, it’s painful.
My longest post yet, Two hundred puzzles, fifty weeks later, took me two weeks of work and several dozen hours to finish. Before I posted it, I sent it around my team to get some criticism. Now, it wasn’t like they were my boss or anything. They just wanted to make sure the blog post was good. Yet when the opinions and the corrections and all that stuff came in, it was… tough, reading it all.
Yes, they made the post better. But I wished that the edits magically just got made without me doing it. I wished that I didn’t have to read all of it. No matter how many “it’s a wonderful post” or “I loved it, by the way”s it was wrapped in, the criticism still stinged.
When I took 21W.755 Reading and Writing Short Stories, I absolutely hated listening to critiques during class. My story was the very first story we critiqued, and that was terrifying. I heard the same words over and over: “It was kind of confusing what the wind represented”, or, “I was left wondering more about Melvin”, or, “I wanted to see more detail about Melvin and Justin’s relationship”. Every single other person in the class, all eleven of them, said their very kindly phrased, very constructive, well-intended critique.
And it was deeply uncomfortable. My general impression was that people actually liked the story. And the edits they suggested were great, and I’m proud of the end result. But it still hurt.
It’s worse when the criticism is negative, when the thing I made wasn’t well-received. This year’s Galactic Puzzle Hunt is happening, and I’m the main author of one of the puzzles. It’s my debut GPH puzzle, so it’d be understandable if it was bad, right? And I knew, coming into the hunt, that it wasn’t a particularly fun puzzle. The testsolvers rated it pretty badly, and I had to agree. It’s not a good puzzle, and my innumerable edits only raised it from “absolute trash” to “barely acceptable”.
I knew that the puzzle would be poorly received. Yet no amount of mental preparation equipped me for the things that people wrote about my puzzle. It’s pretty much the only puzzle where the average rating considered it more unfun than fun. It was “tedious” and “awkward” and “annoying”. One person wrote “Please stop writing these kinds of puzzles.” It was difficult not to read that as “Please stop writing puzzles.”
None of these comments were directed to me, personally. No one outside the team even knew that I was the person who wrote that puzzle. But it’s difficult to detach myself from what I make. I pour a bit of my soul into every single thing I create. Sometimes I wish I could just separate myself from my work, and to not take criticism of my work as criticism about me.
This difficulty with taking criticism goes beyond getting emotionally hurt when I receive it. I think it even extends to being unable to look at my work’s flaws and see them for what they are, or at least admit them to myself. I tell myself that “it’s bad”, and “whatever, ship it”.
And when I ask myself, why is it bad? The answer is never because the organization sucks or because it’s missing detail about so-and-so. It’s always of the form it’s because I’m bad. It’s easier to reduce my insecurity about my work to my lack of self-esteem, because at least that, I know how to handle. But gods forbid if I’m supposed to face, head-on, the actual flaws with my writing or programming or whatever, rather than just writing it up to me being a bad writer, bad programmer, bad puzzle author.
One of the things that I strive to do is blog every week, or at least something close enough to that. I justify it in the sense that, having a regular writing schedule forces me to keep writing, which is the only way I know to get better at writing. But sometimes I wonder if it encourages me to post work that I know isn’t great. That this is an intentional handicap, of posting things that are half-polished, so that if people come and say it’s bad, I can say, well, I didn’t put my 100% effort into it.
And I wonder if this goes beyond that. I wonder if I’m unconsciously holding myself back, if I’m afraid of showing myself off to the world fully, because then I’d be even more vulnerable to criticism. And it doesn’t have to take the form of, oh, I’m not going to give my best—it can be something so subtle as to take more and more responsibilities so I don’t have the time to give everything my best. Maybe that’s the reason why I spread myself so thin.
It feels contradictory that I take criticism so heavily, but praise just bounces off. I get very nice emails from people who read my handouts, my website, the admissions blogs, saying that my posts are deeply relatable, that reading so-and-so post made them cry, that my vulnerability is seen and appreciated. I save each and every nice email I get. I don’t know why I save them; it’s not as if I read them again.
Despite this, I still feel a deep-seated need to be seen and appreciated. I keep telling myself that all I want is for someone I respect to tell me that my work is good. But that’s already happened. Several people, people whose writing I like, and people I respect, have emailed me and messaged me and commented on my posts saying they’re good, they’re good, they’re good. Yet the need still feels present. Is it really a need to be seen and appreciated for my work, then? Or is it a different kind of need, one that goes beyond my work?
Alan suggested that maybe the cause-effect relationship is the other way around. That instead of the criticism making me feel bad about myself, it’s because I feel bad about myself that I’m unable to deal with criticism. That maybe I’m projecting my need to feel appreciated to a need for my work to be appreciated.
So that’s where I’m stuck. Celebrating my achievements feels difficult. I want to be seen, but I want to be ignored, because I’m terrified for the world to see my flaws. It’s the same kind of paradoxical tension, of holding the views “I’m here in MIT because I’m accomplished”, and “I’m a complete impostor and the admissions office made a mistake” simultaneously.
And the thing that makes me feel even worse about it, I guess, is because to other people it seems to come so easily. Maybe GPH is just full of overaccomplished people, who are great at writing and solving puzzles and have jobs and research things that they actually like and are generally satisfied and don’t feel bad about themselves. I want to tell myself that maybe some of them are in a similar situation but just don’t talk about it, but that just doesn’t match up with what I see from them. So yes, I’m jealous.
And I’m jealous about many things! One of the things that’s been on my mind, especially, is that all of my friends have cool internships when I’m struggling to even get callbacks. Hells, I’m even jealous of people I don’t even know. I get a lot of calls looking for someone named Juanita, saying they found my phone number on a listing at some job website. They’re informing this Juanita of an open position, a medical technician or a nurse, at Allston or at Boston. I get maybe three or four of these calls per day. I feel bad that Juanita gets more callbacks per day than I’ve had my whole life.
Maybe I should just apply to more internships, maybe I should be applying to a hundred instead of a dozen. Maybe I should just put myself out there. My mind instinctively reacts in pain, complaining that it’s too much work. Maybe it’s too much work.
Or maybe I’m just afraid of putting more effort into an internship search, because if I actually did and didn’t get any results, then that says something about me, right? Maybe I’m just afraid of putting more effort into the things I do, in fear that I’ll get rejected and criticized even more, and that’s why I’ve lost all motivation to do anything that’ll get criticized ever. Maybe that’s why I can never become a writer, because I’ll never get an editor who’ll put up with my inability to accept criticism. Maybe that’s why I’ll never be a software engineer, because I’ll never make it through code review without hating myself a little more afterward.
Or maybe, and this’d be even worse. Maybe this difficulty taking criticism isn’t real, and just something I’m holding on to so that I don’t have to work too hard. Maybe I’m just making this all up so that people will say more nice things about me, so that people will write their nice comments and send their nice emails and I’ll feel a bit better about myself, for a few seconds, before I sink once again.
Is that a bad thing? I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Maybe I don’t want to know if that’s a bad thing.