Friday, January 31, 2014

Constructive Criticism, Inside and Out

Well, I was very excited to see that people commented on my “Weekly Question” topic. I’m also very happy because the answers illustrate, pretty nicely, a lot of points that are extremely important when it comes to teaching yourself, learning, and dealing with failure.

The question was “If a stranger stood behind me, and told me the same things that I tell myself, how would I respond?” And I really couldn’t have asked for more useful answers to lead me into this post, which is about criticism.

Criticism can take many forms. It can be mean-spirited, insulting, cajoling, reassuring, helpful, or useless. The most useful (as implied by its name) would be constructive criticism, criticism that clearly points out your error, why the error negatively influenced an outcome, and how it can be changed. So let’s break that down a bit.

First, it points out an error. In order for criticism to be constructive, it must be specific. It needs to point out a particular element of what you’ve done wrong, so that you know the area that needs improvement. “You suck and you’re bad” does not fall under this category because simply telling somebody they lack ability doesn’t help; they probably already know this, given that they aren’t getting the results they want.

Second, it analyzes the error. If you were critiquing somebody’s golf swing and said, “you are slicing the ball and that’s why you’re inaccurate,” you are specifically targeting an element of the swing. But it’s not yet fully constructive, because it doesn’t explain how the slice is occurring. So you might say instead, “you are slicing the ball because your swing’s arc is curving inside as you bring the club-head down.” Then the person can look and go, “oh, wow, that’s really what’s happening when I swing,” and now the error loses mystery.

Third, it explains how the error can be fixed. This is where you supply a solution or a fix to the problem that you have specifically pointed out and then explained. Now the person you’re criticizing knows what is going wrong, why it’s going wrong, and how to fix it. With each element, your criticism becomes more and more constructive and potentially useful to that person. If you are genuinely interested in helping somebody improve, the more you incorporate each of these elements the better.

Please note that I don’t actually include positive or negative language in this. I think it’s a highly valuable skill for us to evaluate the a message based on its content and not its tone; I don’t have much desire to put people down myself, but at the same time, not everybody will want to spare your feelings. When it comes to interpreting criticism, separating the advice--”if you open up your form it will make your shot easier, right now you’re too closed in and tense”--from the tone--”because you are an idiot, you idiot”--will be rather handy. It will keep you from ignoring useful advice just because it’s negatively worded, and it will prevent you from taking bad advice because it sounds nice.

So yes, you can be constructively critical while being rude, and just because you phrase things nicely doesn’t always mean that you’re really helping someone. Sometimes positive language just encourages people to do what they’re already doing. Unless they are currently perfect, that shouldn’t be your goal when constructively criticizing. Of course, the degree of criticism and constructiveness depends completely on how helpful you want to be. Maybe you don’t want to help somebody, and you hate them and want them to feel bad. At this point, “you suck and you’re terrible and dumb and ugly” is more up your alley. On the other hand, if you are bothering to give somebody useful information, you might as well take the extra effort to make your criticism more palatable.

Which leads us, rather nicely, into the next point.

The reason I asked the question (and directed it at self-critical people) is because there are people who really want to get good at the game. They really want to improve their skills. I like watching speedrun streams, and it’s surprisingly common for speedrunners to get mad and say, “ugh I’m bad,” or “I messed that up because I’m retarded I guess.” When you try to play to a high standard, you hold yourself to a high standard. The same is true of many competitors. When you care a lot, you will get frustrated when things stand in your way, even if that thing is yourself.

Obviously we want to know the error of our ways so we can get better. Our primary source for this are opponents, who will happily capitalize on your mistakes, letting you know that something went wrong somewhere; however, they rarely give you a written summary of what you can do to improve. Sometimes we have other critics, sometimes we have coaches, sometimes we have spectators, and sometimes we have to rely on ourselves.

So you have to wonder why, when people begin critical self talk, so many times it isn’t constructive. It’s despairing. It’s disparaging. It’s mean, something you wouldn’t say to anybody else, and if another person said it to you, it would probably make you mad. As reader 2shadez responded, they would “punch him in the face and run away,” and another said “I'd probably go off on him.” Nobody wants to just hear, “you suck.” There are some self-important folks out there who may need it as a wake-up call, but are you one of those people? Or are you in need of real advice and analysis?

One response to the question, from an anonymous poster said, “I would turn around, clasp their shoulders, and shout "WHY, AND HOW DO I IMPROVE." Besides implying that the person tells themselves “you suck” when they make mistakes, it also (clearly, in all caps) says that they want information that will make them un-suck. We don’t want to know that we’re bad, we want to know why and how to make it better. This poster was actually pretty elaborate on the subject, so you may want to back to the original post and find the comment.

That is exactly the point of the question. When you give yourself self-talk, are you being constructive towards yourself? Are you making excuses to feel better, or lambasting yourself to the point you want to quit? One of the posters said “only I can say mean things about myself,” but the real question is why do you want to? Why bother? Is it constructive? Surely there is a way to motivate yourself without also bombarding yourself with extreme negativity? Earlier I said that we want to be able to separate the content from the tone of the message, but if you have control over the things you say to yourself, you might as well leave out the part where you call yourself stupid and inadequate.  One poster said “I would most likely get frustrated, mess up even more, and then eventually leave if the guy continued.” And these are words that would be coming out of his own mouth if he were standing behind himself. It doesn’t sound motivating or useful at all.

As our elaborate responder said, sometimes people will “respond with comforting dismissals or look-on-the-bright-sides,” and without constructive elements those don’t do us many favors either. They might cheer us up, but they also might encourage us not to change, to feel good about bad performances. You don’t benefit much from telling yourself “no I’m good I’m doing just fine” if you’re in the process of getting bodied. But you also don’t benefit from telling yourself “god, you suck” with nothing constructive attached. Which, if you check the reader answers, you can see is implied heavily in most of them.

I would say I spent the vast majority of my life hammering myself with negative self-talk. If I messed up, I sucked. If I made mistakes, I was stupid. Surely, for making these errors, I was garbage, trash, and an idiot. On the other hand, I was incredibly sensitive to criticism and other people telling me that I was bad. Because deep down I wanted to be good, and I felt like I was letting myself down with each and every mistake. Even now I get pretty annoyed if somebody implies I’m not good at something (even if I know that I’m not). So my answer to the question is this: if somebody using my own words had been standing behind me, given that I’m non-confrontational and an introvert, I would have grown more miserable until I just quit and walked away. Funnily enough, with nothing but the influence of my own thoughts, I did so many times. The only thing that kept me coming back was a mixture of masochism and stubbornness.

Over time I began to realize that I was frustrated because I played badly and made mistakes, but the frustration and anger caused more of it. It did the opposite of help; it only made me play worse. It put me in a crappy mood, and did so without the benefit of giving me something constructive to work with. I couldn’t dispassionately dissect my own game, so I always set my controller down angry. When it came to both improvement and enjoyment, I wasn’t even on my own side. If you can’t be your own ally, how can you expect to improve? One of the responses said, “sadly, you can’t run away from your own thoughts,” but I’m not sure how sad that fact needs to be.

Thanks for reading. I really liked receiving the different responses and viewpoints, so I’m definitely going to have another question next week; I’ll see you Monday with another weekly question, and Tuesday with a standard blog post. Take care.


  1. I got to say that seeing the weekly question, and then having this followup post was perhaps among the best reads I've seen on your blog.
    Some of the best posts have been so successful because they pose a relevant question and then delve into the topic in hopes of helping the reader answer the question for themselves.
    Giving me a few days to mull over the question before reading your own thoughts I feel as though the entire experience is elevated.
    Good work as always.

  2. Rob,
    I didn't get a real chance to comment on your blog when I saw you in Jersey, but I am highly impressed with the quality of the content and high degree of introspection that your writing induces, which is entirely the point, in my mind, of a blog aimed at competitive gamers. I am definitely a fan of the question/answer format you tried out this week, but I am also still quite eager to read more of the original, more traditionally-styled posts. So, at the risk of sounding unhelpful, keep doing what you're doing, whatever you think that should be. Thanks for thought-inducing words, from one "English Professor" to another ;)

  3. I needed this so much thank you so much

  4. It's nice to see another person's viewpoint on my own thoughts. Seeing you quote the posts, especially seeing my own, really puts into perspective the dangerous habit I've picked up.

    Even knowing this, however, how would I go about constructively criticizing myself if when I mess up, it's because I don't know any better?

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