Last week I wrote a short review of Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big: A Practical Guide for Brilliant Women Like you and I am now the proud owner of one well thumbed book sporting many post-it notes to take me back to key sections.

One of the chapters, Unhooking from praise and criticism really got my thinking about the role of praise and criticism in the lives of researchers, how we do or don’t deal with it and the impact that it has on us. The central tenet of the chapter is that ‘playing big’, (to realise our greatest potential) is based on movement, when we play big we are not static and stuck in one place, and fear of criticism and seeking praise constrains that movement.

No matter what stage you are at in your research career I am sure you will have developed a relationship with both criticism and praise but I wonder how often you have thought about the impact of that relationship upon you and upon your work? How do you respond to criticism or the thought of it? Do you play safe and stick with the things you know you do well and people praise you for doing? If so what impact does this have on stretching you into new areas of your work and life?

paintbox5_19An analogy Tara Mohr uses is one of a paintbox. It took me to that wonderful place of having one as a child, all those wonderful solid blocks of colour all lined up waiting to be used. If you imagine those colours as representing all of your potential when we play big we are painting with a full spectrum of colours. However when we try to avoid criticism or get hooked on seeking praise we rule out a set a whole set of colours and constrain our full potential.

As researchers we work in a culture of critique, we submit our work to others to be critiqued and time after time we are required to step into this space. Being on the receiving end of critique goes with the territory and is part of the culture of the academic community.

It may be in relation to an outline of a research project you are sending to your supervisor, an abstract you are submitting for a conference, a paper submitted for publication or a major funding application.  We stand up in public at local, national and international meetings to present our research and then wait for the response. We stand by our poster boards at conferences half hoping that someone (anyone) will come and talk to us to reinforce that our work is of interest and half dreading the prospect of a renowned expert in our field  stopping to ask a tricky question. Maybe this doesn’t sound familiar to you, in which case brilliant, but I suspect for many, some or all of the above will resonate.

If I look back at my experience of being on the receiving end of criticism (and I use that word because that’s how it felt at the time) it has varied from being the supportive and developmental kind to the no holds barred, take yourself off to a darkened room and lie down kind. Whilst everyone acknowledges that such experiences go with the territory there is very little discussion about the potential impact this can have or strategies that can be developed to support us. In my experience when the topic comes up in conversation it tends to be treated with much bravodo and ‘me too’ stories which, whilst perhaps being comforting and reassuring, is not the most helpful way of moving forward.

Conflating critique and criticism.

As I was reflecting on Tara Mohr’s work something which struck me is ease with which critique and criticism can become conflated so I looked up their definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something

Criticism: The expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes:

Similar and yet, oh so very different. The key words to reflect on here are ‘something’ and ‘someone’. It is so easy to turn the critique of our work (something) into a criticism of us (someone). Feedback from article reviewers which conclude unsuitable for publication becomes ‘you see I knew my work wasn’t good enough to be published’ or ‘I know I’m not very good at writing’. Rather than, OK, it doesn’t fit with this journals requirements. I can use the feedback to help me revise my paper and think about where else it can be submitted which may be more in line with my focus. 

The ease with which this happens is increased when the information we receive from a critique of our work  feeds our inner critic, the part of us which is great at saying things like: you are not good enough to be a researcher; who do you think you are thinking you can do a PhDyour idea isn’t very good, best to keep it to yourself’ ………….

Maybe it’s time to start exploring this issue a little more and, for those of you who are interested, you might find this YouTube video from Tara Mohr a good starting point. The video is aimed at women and focuses specifically on our relationship with praise and criticism.  It takes you through the reasons why women are hooked on fear of criticism and seeking praise, and, importantly, some suggestions for how we can redesign our relationship with both. It lasts for 30 minutes so is something you will need to make some time to listen to. But I found it really helpful in challenging how I think about this topic.