Being judged can be painful, depending on how you are performing and how your reviewer delivers feedback. I’ve learned a lot about making good use of constructive criticism, which I’ll share with you here.
Serving as a judge of others is not easy either, especially if you’re interested in being fair, constructive, and honest. When I say judging, I mean also the process of giving and receiving feedback more generally and not just formal judging.
Which Feedback is Most Valuable to You
There are two kinds of feedback you should delight in receiving: Feedback that comes from people whose opinion you respect and trust, and feedback that is true regardless of the source.
The corollary to these rules is that you can apply a healthy skepticism to all other feedback you receive. Just because someone is sitting in a position to judge you does not necessarily (a) make them better than you, (b) give them meaningful insights into your performance, or (c) mean they know how to give constructive feedback.
A person whom you trust and respect, however, does you a great service when they give you feedback. Even when, perhaps especially when, they tell you things that are painful, and where you have fallen short in your performance. This person is not trying to hurt you. Exactly the opposite. They care about you and are trying to help you get better. Treat this feedback like the gift it is, and thank them for it. Then think on it and turn it to your advantage. The best learnings I made over my career came from people who trusted me enough to tell me when I screwed something up.
What about people you don’t trust, whom you may suspect are trying to cause you pain or trouble? Here too, you can take advantage of the situation. You do so by knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and having a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-confidence. Ask yourself the following question: “Is what this person is saying true?” Even if their aim is to hurt you, by drawing attention to a real weakness, they have done you a service. And if you are confident what the person is saying is not true, you are well-positioned to dismiss the person and their criticism, preserving your peace of mind.
Why Perceived Effort is a Dangerous Benchmark
I have observed that we are each usually the heroes of our own stories. We know our intentions are good, and we believe in the correctness of what we’re doing. This is only sensible, and helps us get through hard times. But our natural human tendency can blind us to some objective truths.
Sometimes we don’t really put in enough effort to be successful in a project. We might be busy with other things, or not particularly motivated about this topic at this time. Or maybe we let emotions get the better of us. There are many reasons for not performing our best every now and then.
The thing is, work feels like work to us whether it is productive and on-task or whether we’re wasting our time. Work also feels like work to us without regard to the result. That is, the hours you spend negotiating a contract that fails to come to fruition are still hours of your life you will never get back.
Perhaps most relevant, the amount of effort we feel like we’re investing is subjective. What seems like a huge effort to us may be trivial to a colleague. Maybe you are not as experienced or skilled, such that the same task that they think nothing of completing seems herculean to you.
Just because you think you’re working hard does not mean you are performing well objectively. This leads us to our next learning.
Hard Work Doesn’t Make You a Hero
This one still bothers me, I have to be honest. For much of my career, I distinguished myself (so I thought) by working harder than most people around me. I worked mornings, evenings, weekends, holidays. I worked when I was feeling great and when I was feeling ill. I worked 100-hour weeks.
Later, much later, I learned why hard work is not only insufficient for success, but not the best place to invest your efforts either. Why not? Well, there’s a whole life philosophy behind the answers, which I’m sharing with you bit by bit. For today, let’s say it’s for two reasons: (1) the mere fact you are busy tells us nothing about the reasons why you are busy, and (2) the quantity of work you perform says nothing in itself about the results you deliver.
Some people are busy because of structural inefficiencies. For example, their department is understaffed and they are doing the work of multiple people. Or their company has redundant processes, like holding weekly status update meetings and drafting memos for people who don’t read them. Or the person themselves creates problems by letting deadlines lapse and then needing to respond to the resultant pressure in crisis mode.
This all creates stress and hard work, no doubt, but do we rank the people suffering under such structural problems as better performers because of it?
Now consider the hard work we all sometimes do that yields no result or a negative result. We worked like the devil, but didn’t complete the acquisition, or win the lawsuit, or sign the contract. We would like to be rewarded for our effort, but if we’re honest, effort alone is not worth very much. In fact, the person who delivers a result with the least effort is someone we need to watch.
(The obvious exception consists of people who take shortcuts in achieving their results. In most human endeavors the ends never justify the means, and a result obtained improperly is worse than a failed project.)
I once had responsibility for a major initiative in an area adjacent to my core legal work. The CEO gave me the task as a chance to develop and to see how well I could perform in new areas. And although I worked as hard on that initiative as I ever did anything, I had a string of poor performance reviews that I deserved. Why? Because despite my admittedly hard work, we did not achieve our objectives in the timeline we wanted. My results didn’t match up to my efforts. As you advance in your career, put aside the thought that you deserve a gold star for effort. What earns you kudos are results.
The Only Two Comparisons You Should Make
If you want to be happy in life, there is only one comparison you should ever make. That is, compare who you are today to who you were yesterday. Your goal should be to make incremental progress in the direction of your choosing. If you are making steady progress in this fashion, it does not matter your pace.
Learning to compare yourself to yourself is one of the keys to a meaningful life that Stoic philosophy offers. It allows you to be your own best judge of your performance. And if you are committed to your own improvement, the chances are excellent that you will improve your work performance as well.
Because I assume you want career success in addition to happiness, I will let you know the secret to your second comparison. You can greatly enhance your chance of success at work by choosing the best-performing comparison group. Compare yourself to the best performers anywhere in the company, not just among your direct peers on your team.
I reported to three tough graders over my in-house career. The thing that helped me most was being compared to the best performers in the whole company. These are the people driving significant value creation. What am I doing that compares? Not in terms of perceived effort, or hours worked, or even compared to other lawyers. But compared to the best that our superstars were delivering. I had years of tough reviews as a result, but boy did I hold myself to a high standard. I developed accordingly.
What Makes us Unique
Our living through hard times and our passion tell very little about our performance. Although it often seems like we struggle alone, each generation faces the same challenges, over and over.
Your accumulation of material wealth, no matter how much you amass, is not what distinguishes you. We discuss the dangers of wealth in this week's Moral Letter 087 On Living Simply. Although this is also a key Stoic concept, this letter explores the idea from the perspective of the Bible and those who have tried to interpret it for us.
The week's other Moral Letter 088 On The Best Course Of Study explains why a university education is not the path to standing out. Indeed, we discuss reasons why it might be the path to ruin, at least for some people, and what alternatives you may consider.
So, if none of these things are the answer, what makes us truly stand out in our times?
One good place to begin is with the impact we have on those around us. Do we consistently help others thrive? Are people happier after spending time with us? Will people say about us “She helps make the world a better place”?
When you find yourself answering yes to these questions, you are probably making your best contribution, whatever your current circumstances. You will be an inspiring colleague and leader. Through your inspiration you will have an impact far greater than any amount of individual work can hope to accomplish.