You are not your work

One of the best things I learned in art school was the ability to listen openly to criticism of things I had made. Every two weeks I had to come to critique and put my work up on the wall for everyone to talk about. Classmates and professors all looked at it hard and tried to make it better.

Trying to make it better meant pointing out the places it had succeeded and the places it was failing. Actively listening to my critics meant acknowledging that nothing that was said was ever personal or meant as a judgement of my character. I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher and fabulous classmates who were all insightful loving critics. We were all in the same boat together, trying to make something meaningful that represented our vision of the world. We all agreed that criticizing each other’s work was the best and truest way to reach that goal.

Now that I work making software, I draw on this experience almost every day. Any team effort is deeply dependent on the ability to have an open conversation about ideas and work that’s being done. And often the hardest thing to get over is the way that people tie up their own ego and self worth in their having been right, having come up with the right idea, or chose the right implementation.

This is absolutely a two way street. It’s easy as a manager or decision maker to make people feel like they’re being evaluated poorly if they make a bad choice. It’s also easy to steamroll someone’s opinion or decision which has a similar outcome. It’s also incredibly difficult and frustrating to come against resistance to a different path which is based solely on ego and being “right”.