Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Constructive Criticism

My boss just told me, "For a very intelligent person, you are really good at taking constructive criticism."

It seems obvious to me that I am very intelligent because I am good at learning from constructive criticism. Nobody is born knowing anything useful. Almost by definition, being an intelligent person means that, at some point in the past, you were good at taking constructive criticism from somebody. 'Learning from constructive criticism' is basically the definition of 'education'.

I walked into this job with the attitude that my bosses and the other experienced people were my teachers, and I was a student. I treat them like I treated my professors in grad school, respecting and deferring to their superior skills and experience while being unafraid to add my own knowledge, ask questions, and make suggestions.

I consider it right and proper that my draft documents will come back to me with dozens of comments and edits. I am the apprentice, and they are the masters. My work will inevitably have problems until I learn the approach, techniques, and presentation that the organization requires.

Even when the people editing and commenting on my documents are not the masters of my profession, they will always know something that I do not, or have a perspective that I need to consider. I can only learn from them, or learn how to communicate with them, if I respect and react well to their criticism.

But it is not just my intelligence that is boosted by my attitude to criticism. It actually helps my creativity as well. In the process of creation, I do not simply copy what has been done before. I do what I know is right, not what I think they want. I do not self-censor. This freedom and creativity comes because I know that my work will be criticized and edited as necessary, and I do not fear this. I am not afraid of being told to change. It is far better to see someone else squash my creativity into a box than to unconsciously internalize a stifling set of boundaries and limitations.

The key to this process is to sever any connection between my ego and the first draft of my work. Being told that I need to make big changes to my work is no threat to me, and I do not react with any defensiveness or hostility. I know that at the end of the process, my work will be very good. It will contain much of my originality and creativity and skill, while being molded in ways that make its readers better understand and accept it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mental Strangeness

Today I was confronted with something that made me realize how different I am from other people. It was a list of security questions for password resets. I assume that they were chosen because most people would easily be able to give a consistent answer to them. But most of the questions involved concepts, experiences, or mental processes that are alien or unimportant to me. I will run down the list:

"What is the first name of your best friend in high school?"

I do not have 'best friends'. This concept is alien to me. I have friends, and I do not rank them. There are three or four people with equal claim to 'best friend' in high school and my mind refuses to decide among them.

"Where would you most like to live?"

I have never thought about this and my answer to the question would likely change quite often. It seems a waste of time to dream and fantasize like this.

"What is the first name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend?"

The definition of the word 'girlfriend' is a very vague and fuzzy one, especially in the modern world. I am not sure if the first woman I kissed qualifies as a girlfriend or not.

"What city would you most like to visit?"

Again, I have never thought of this. There are lots of interesting places in the world that I might go to, but ranking them in terms of desire is never something I have done.

"What is the name of the street your childhood friend lived on?"

How am I supposed to decide which friend this refers to? I had lots of childhood friends. And I do not remember the street that any of them lived on, because my parents were driving.

"What is your favorite food?"

Again they ask me to rank things. I like lots of things, and my preferences change depending on factors like the season, what I have been eating recently, what I feel like, what the occasion is, and who I am with.

"What would you like your nickname to be?"

I hate nicknames. I want people to call me by my real name.

"Who is your favorite cartoon character?"

The media that I choose to consume at any time depends greatly on my mood and the situation. How can it make any sense to make arbitrary decisions like this? The word 'favorite' is inherently problematic for me. The very concept of picking a favorite seems both ill-defined and senseless in a wide variety of contexts. What is the point? Cartoons do not compete like sports teams. Am I declaring that I would always or usually choose to watch a cartoon with that character over any other? This is dumb. Am I declaring my affiliation to a certain social group of people that identify with the character? This also seems like a silly way of dividing and separating people.

"If you had the time and money to pursue any hobby, what would it be?"

Not only is this another ranking or favorite question, it presupposes that I desire to do something with my life that I am not currently doing. This seems like it would be an unpleasant state of existence.

"In what city did you meet your spouse/significant other?"

I do not currently have such a person.

"What was the model of the first car you drove?"

I have no idea which car my parents taught me to drive in. It was long ago and they no longer own it.

"What was the second state or country you lived in?"

Finally, a legitimate question about a well-defined fact of my life.

"What is the first name of the cousin who is closest to your age?"

I have lots of cousins close to my age, and I am not sure which one is the closest. I do not keep track of the ages of people with such precision.

"What was the first concert you attended?"

I have never been to a concert.

"What is your father's middle name?"

The second proper factual question.

"What is your maternal grandmother's first name?"

The third good question.

"What was/is your grandfather's occupation?"

I have two grandfathers, and each of them had several occupations.

Out of all these questions, I can only give a reliable and consistent answer to three of them. Most of the questions presupppose that I have generated arbitrary and irrelevant, but fixed and stable, ordered rankings about the things in my life. Many of the others assume that my life and that of my family followed some narrowly defined script.

One of the facts that people often do not understand about me is that I do not instinctively judge most of the things around me. Life happens. I experience things. I decide and act based on the situation and the constraints I face at the time. It seems a waste of mental energy to assign the things around me to arbitrary categories, or to compare and rank them. Judgments should be reserved for important things, and not the petty details of my personal existence.