There are two ways I come upon new ideas. The first, the short way, is when I seek out interesting things that other people have shared, or written about, or told me about. The second, the long way, is when something I do is critiqued by someone else.
My first instinct upon being critiqued is to resist or explain. That isn’t what I intended. That isn’t quite what I did. There was context. There were other factors.
That isn’t me, please don’t think it is.
But I also believe that the core of a person is much smaller than we often allow it to be, and the rest of a person is much more malleable that we like to admit. Circumstance, society, desire, stress, unmet needs, intentions—all these things change “who we are” from moment to moment. It may be that we always express some of our core, but there is so much noise in that signal.
Is it any surprise that sometimes a critique feels like an indictment?
I suspect this is true for a lot of people: that it’s hard to sort out a critique of your choices from a critique of your self. For all the vaunted individualism of American society, I think we are not very good at being individuals. We lose track of where our selves end and our choices begin; of where our choices impact ourselves and where they impact others; of where others’ choices fail to reflect who they are. Our individualism is of the brittle, defensive sort.
I have come to recognize that sort of individualism as stagnation. If I wrap up all my choices, desires, behaviors, and thoughts in a bundle of “me,” it becomes very hard to tease them apart and improve them. They lock together in an impenetrable tangle, and then external critiques really do become critiques of myself—not of my core self, but of my rigid inability to change or grow. And that is very hard to hear.
The other sort of individualism, the sort I aspire to, is the sort where you create who you are. I want to make choices about who my core self will be, and how I will make it better. I want to be intentional about how I express myself, and to winnow out the influence of stress and circumstance and bias. I want to be able to hear tough critiques as opportunities rather than attacks.
So, when receiving critiques, I try to remember to bristle and think at the same time. I’ve tried to dampen the former and sharper the latter, and sometimes I succeed more than other times. Sometimes I remember not to confuse my every choice with my core self, and sometimes I can think carefully and deeply about how to make better choices.
And sometimes I’m going to fail. Sometimes I’m going to learn things by making a mistake, and affecting someone else with that mistake, and being critiqued. But I think that’s okay. After all, those are the critiques that stay with me. Those are the phrases I remember years later, that still influence who I am and choose to be today.
The things we learn best, I think, are the things we have to learn the long way round.