Day 134: “No, I don’t want your critical feedback right now … or ever.”

A few nights ago, I overheard a conversation about people proudly giving merciless feedback to one another in a writing course, and it actually made me sick to my stomach.

As a teacher, education community builder, and (I think) a generally decent person, I think giving anyone feedback that’s anything BUT positive, constructive, or just baseline respectful is a deplorable thing to do.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

Academia is awful (with apologies to my wife, the academic)

I started graduate school in the field of anthropology with a notable disadvantage: I’d never taken an anthropology class before that. I majored in sociology while at Yale, and even then I’d like to think I knew more about my core passion of film. In short, I was a complete novice and completely vulnerable to those with advanced degrees from top-tier schools.

That first quarter of 2008 was one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my life. Students questioned my intelligence and even competency in the field to the point where I had to seek counseling. After submitting my papers, I recall spending four days de-stressing by playing Gears of War 2 at my friend’s apartment, contemplating whether I should drop out of the program.

I’m grateful that some professors noticed my frustrations and reached out to let me know that I’m actually doing better than I think (perhaps even better than the haters were, too). One professor told me to stop focusing on others because everyone has their own journey — I wish I paid more attention to that advice long after I left the ivory tower.

In the spring, I wrote a paper re-thinking the structure of the proseminar course’s quarterly themes as extensions of the Peircian semiotic triad. (I’ll have to break that down for you another time). Two professors from Harvard and MIT lauded me in an email to the whole department. Some of the students were jealous. I finally felt like I deserved to be in the program.

Ultimately, though, despite publishing a book review and speaking at multiple conferences on my work in Vietnamese cinema, I left the academia world. The chief reason: the toxic culture compromised my health. Creating safe, enabling, supportive environments for people to learn mattered so much more than I realized.

In fact, I decided to start a company motivated by this concept.

The startup world can be awful, too

While working on my startup Scholar Hero, I encountered a similar dilemma: I was a non-technical founder working on a technical solution to academia. I barely knew HTML, much less all the languages, libraries, and frameworks to create tech that would revolutionize education. Good luck.

Of course, there’s a lot more to any business than developing the product, but even then, I was just getting started, acquiring most of my knowledge from Startup Weekend. I recruited the first person I knew who was technical to join me, and together we prioritized building a great project.

(By the way, if you decide to start a company, do NOT do it this way. Go talk to 1,000 people whose problems you want to solve because you genuinely care, and if they all have the same problem AND you happen to know a clever solution to it that they’d pay you to use, then you have a potentially good startup idea.
Heed this advice, and you’ll save precious time and money. You’re welcome.)

Often my partner would condescend to me about how little to nothing I knew about code. One time, he joked that I’m not at all allowed to touch any code in front of the entire development team. Suffice to say, I was not happy about how he compromised my position and esteem as the company’s CEO and perpetuated the usual tension between business and technology.

I’ve been told that “coders are just like that,” just as much as “business people are greedy pricks,” but that’s patently false on both fronts, and I refused to be one the latter. I’ve worked with great friends in Pittsburgh and beyond who were just terrific about explaining challenging concepts to me in a way that didn’t make me feel stupid. Around them, I was able to grasp the basics and become more comfortable to the point where I could deploy full-stack apps.

“You can be brilliant and gifted at the same time — it’s not binary.”

My colleague and I remain friends, but it was apparent that there wasn’t enough mutual respect to continue professionally, and we parted ways. Although Scholar Hero is no longer in operation, it taught me the importance of knowing one’s craft in technology, yet it’s possible to improve these intellectual cultures once you gain their respect.

That’s what has lead me to the work I do now.

“Just ‘man up’ and take it, Lee.”

Am I being too sensitive?

I’ve been told that I am, and I don’t deny that. But maybe — just maybe — you are being too inconsiderate. There’s a lot of political power in telling people something that could change their behavior. That’s why whenever I facilitate events with mentors, I notice three kinds:

  • The casual adviser — here to help but don’t care if you take their advice
  • The megalomaniac —they love to hear themselves talk, not listen
  • The opportunist — they get directly involved and want acknowledgment

(Hm, I should write a post about the dangers of mentoring… )

I don’t believe in standing on people’s shoulders just to make you feel tall. I don’t think you’re helping as well as you think by saying brutal, nasty truths that might actually hurt someone. While I’ve done a lot in my life that I’m quite proud of, I’m more proud of what I’ve done to help others to get where they need to go. That’s why I’m a teacher and why I’m in education.

We have a responsibility to communicate with real compassion when someone bares themselves before us. Work on giving better feedback — you’ll be a better person for it.

— Lee

PS: Apologies if you’re reading this because it might be indirectly about you. Hope you can appreciate the constructive feedback.