June 21, 2007

Failure, Criticism and "Saving Face"

Though I can't find the book I read it in, I once read something Benjamin Franklin wrote about a seminal experience of his youth. It went something like this:

An older acquaintance of his came up to him one day and said (more or less, as I'm recalling it): 'You're arrogant and stubborn. You won't listen to anyone, and because of this, you're unlikely to ever know any more than you know now.' Young Franklin took this to heart and started listening to people, and he learned a great deal in the years following.

I read that and have tried to apply it with varying success. Sometimes, I'm just not ready to hear something. Sometimes, I am. But I try to remain teachable, to never get to the point where I think no one can tell me anything. I try. And more importantly, do try to make myself do new things. Even though I know I'll be bad at them, because, duh!, I never did them before. So it isn't the end of the world if someone says, 'Um, you know, you could be doing that better.'

No one can be good at everything. It seems obvious, but it's one thing to say that and another to know it, to feel it to be true. The implications of really knowing it mean everything for your relationship to the world and other people.

And I'm thinking about this in part because I had my final evaluation for my internship today, and there was some constructive criticism of some aspects of my participation. It simply happens to be true that I did a better job at the written communication aspects than at the cold-calling for the organizing efforts. I could have been very upset about that, and some years ago, I might have been. But as my supervisor said, it wasn't defining, just something to pay attention to and consider. I've been good the last few years at managing my environment to leverage my strengths, and this is a way in which I hadn't pushed myself for quite some time.

Then yesterday, I'd linked to and written about the Pandagon post about the "surrendered wife" phenomenon. It caught my eye because my mom had bought, and had me read, a similar book when I was a teenager. I guess she might have thought I'd have issues with blindly following authority.

The discussion in the comments following that post centered a lot on men's greater sensitivity to 'losing face.' Parallel to that, the question was raised why women should be any less concerned about it, the relative invisibility of criticisms leveled at women, and the implicit connotations of rank and status involved in society's extending to men the blanket right to criticize and considering it demeaning to be criticized by a 'mere' woman.

Clearly, as was discussed, it's wrong to humiliate people who are close to you in public. Yet when it's coming from a woman to a man, it's often the case that even neutrally stated disagreement or a suggestion of how to do something better will be treated as though it were a mortal insult. Because I suppose some men find it insulting when the women around them aren't idiots, but I'm guessing, because I don't spend much time around those sorts of people.

As Robert Anton Wilson, RIP, might have put it, there are a lot of men to this day who put all women in the category of people that they don't have to listen to. Who classify women as people who have nothing, by definition, to teach them. Ever.

It's unfortunate for the women they encounter, but also for their own personal development. How can a person expect to ever know very much more than they know now if they can't listen to someone with whom they spend most of their non-working hours with? Not that a female partner is any more infallible than a male partner, but still, she might know something that would be useful. It's just a guess.

And then, a guy might have to realize that he'd done something wrong. He might even ... Oh. My. God. ... have failed at something. Like criticism, failure is not the end of the world. Not generally. There's only one Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Usually.

In light of that train of thought, it's particularly amusing and humbling at the same time to have come across my permanent record from high school last night while sorting through my things. Bwahahaha. If I actually cared, it would be great blackmail material. I was a terrible high school student, utterly hated it, and tested out in the middle of the 11th grade. Get a load of this:

9th grade, 1st semester:
D - P.E.
C - Adv World Hist
D - Adv English
D - Intro to Algebra 1
C - Spanish 1-2
F - Clothing

9th grade, 2nd semester:
D - P.E.
B - Adv World Hist
C - Adv English
D - Intro to Algebra 2
C - Spanish 1-2
C - Foods

10th grade, 1st semester:
D - Beg Mod Dance
A - Algebra 1-2*
C - Phys & Earth Sci
D - Typing 1
D - Soph Eng 1-2
F - Traffic/Health

10th grade, 2nd semester:
F - Beg Mod Dance 1-2
C - Algebra 1-2
B - Phys & Earth Sci
B - Soph Eng 1-2
B - Guidance/Health
B - Word Processing

11th grade, 1st semester:
D - US History I
B - Mod Lit Comp
C - Geometry 1-2**
C - Biol Bscs
D - Art 1-2
C - Word Processing

* My mom unwisely promised me $100 that semester if I managed to get an A in something. She never thought she'd have to pay up. To everyone's surprise, this worked rather better than telling me that I needed to get good grades because, though I was never expected or encouraged to get a degree, my school performance was an embarassment to the family among our friends at church. The experiment was never repeated. It continued to be my position that since I wasn't intended to do anything but get married and participate in church activities, there was no reason for me to substitute the repetitive dreck that constituted most of my schoolwork for the pleasure of curling up with 3-5 books a week.

** I should totally have flunked that class, but I got a B on the final. My teacher figured I must have learned something and took pity on me.

Now, I will tell you, it isn't as easy as it looks to get Ds and Fs in art, sewing, P.E. and driver's ed., but I managed it. (Kids, don't try this at home. My life would have been a lot easier if I'd bothered putting in a little more homework time as a teen. Bear in mind that I'm not *only* saying this because otherwise, your parents would have to hunt me down.)

After this train wreck of a high school career, I went to community college for a little while, but then stopped going and didn't make it back to school until sometime around 2002, nearly a decade after leaving high school. When I became an honors student. The grad school I've been accepted into this Fall has offered me a full scholarship and a TA position.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to learn quite a bit more than I knew in high school. And thank goodness. But that never would have happened if I hadn't also learned the non-academic arts of taking honest criticism, refusing to give up after failing the first time, or several times, or of assuming that suggestions made about how I could do better meant that the person offering the suggestion thought I was a lost cause.

Really, when someone thinks you're a lost cause, a failure as a human being, they just won't tell you anything. It isn't a sign of affection. It means they think you'll never wind up knowing much more than you know now. And presuming that the other person is acting in good faith, the real loser in that situation is probably your face.

Anyway, I hope all the navel-gazing lately has been all right. My time to follow the news is limited right now, and will be until I get settled in my new place next week. Then, back to business!

Posted by natasha at June 21, 2007 11:04 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Your high school grades are very similar to mine (Class of 79).
I hated school with an undying passion because I was too damn smart. It bored me to tears.I 'graduated with a 1.2 grade point average. Also like you, I went back to a community college ten years later and flat out smoked 'em.Who's Who in American Junior Colleges, Deans list, Phi Theta Kappa and a 3.73 grade point average.It makes a huge difference if you are actually interested in something, plus, High school to me was a glorified baby sitting service.
Congratulations and I hope it takes you far in life.

Posted by: Bustednuckles at June 21, 2007 12:10 PM

You had a class called Clothing? What on earth was that?!

Seriously, this was such a great piece. I think it one of your best and quite inspiring. Thanx for sharing yourself so openly.

Posted by: Scott at June 21, 2007 06:17 PM

I didn't do homework, but somehow I got much better grades -- probably because I could BS like nobody's business. And I still read 5 to 10 books a week.

But I knew I was never, ever getting married. The entire idea was totally alien to me.

Unfortunately, I was wrong about the last point. If I'd had any brains at all I'd have stuck to saying no to marriage.

Posted by: Scorpio at June 21, 2007 10:43 PM

I wish I had more time to reply, but high school performance is clearly not a direct corollary of future success.

Oh yeah, and clothing=sewing.

Posted by: natasha at June 22, 2007 06:46 PM