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On Building Up and Tearing Down

I had a friend tell me recently that what she appreciated most about her advisor was her ability to provide strong feedback. This advisor could, she told me, always point out to her what was wrong with her work and her ideas. I wasn't as impressed by this trait in her advisor as she thought I would be. The truth is that the easiest thing in the world is to point out what's wrong with something. The much most difficult task is putting your finger on the not-yet-visible diamond in the rough.

This, after all, is what academics are trained to do. We are trained to spot every little inconsistency, every potential inadequacy of an idea. We may attempt to build up arguments in our own work. But our mode of interaction with the work of others is almost always to tear it down.

There is something to be said for this kind of critical edge. It is a skill worth having. Perhaps one big problem we have right now is that we live in a society where people are insufficiently critical of their own ideas. We are so often unable to spot the inconsistencies. If we could, we'd probably spend a lot less time standing in certainty of our own positions while telling others to think what we think and a lot more time trying to fortify our own positions against their weaknesses. There is also undoubtedly a lot of merit to truly constructive and incisive criticism. Yet the fact remains. Our natural inclination when presented with someone else's ideas is to point out every way in which it is flawed, wrong-headed, or just ain't gonna work. We jump at the opportunity to tear down what another person is trying to build.

The opposite mode is not to ask what's wrong with an idea, but how it might be right. In which ways or under what circumstances might what this person is saying be true or useful? This mode is about building up rather than tearing down.

To again look at academia, there is almost no precedent for this mode of evaluation. Perhaps one is lucky enough to have an advisor who can be presented with a nascent idea and reliable looks at what might be worthwhile about it rather than why it won't work. But the norms of the academy are against it. One of the ways to see this is in anonymous peer-review. When academics receive a draft of a paper-in-progress and have a chance to provide their professional opinion from behind a veil, what do you think they devote most of their feedback to? Anyone who has been on the receiving end of this process will know that the majority of it is about picking through the flaws. In this case, there's no doubt that many papers have improved after being subjected to this unadulterated scrutiny.

But what about the more general case? The truth is that it's hard to create anything worthwhile. It's hard to make something that's truly good. There's never going to be a shortage of ways you can think of to improve your work -- whether they occurred to you on your own, or were proposed by someone else. We should all be seeking to improve, in the long time, push ourselves to transcend our initial limits. But the way to encourage yourself and others to get there is not through a constant barrage of attempts to tear down. It is to join them on their process of building up.

And so when I am presented with an idea, I don't ask what's wrong with it. Plenty of other people will happily point that out. I try to ask what's right about it. If this other person really believes what they are saying, there must be a core of the idea that is worth wrapping my head around. They may need help figuring out what it is. They may need help finding a way to articulate it. But more likely than not, there's something there worth trying to see from their perspective. Just because its value isn't immediately obvious to you doesn't mean it's not there. The easiest thing to do in this situation is explain why you don't see the value. The much harder thing to do is to actually look for it.

This inclination toward is something we should encourage in one another. Which community would you rather be a part of? One who constantly finds ways to tear one another's work to shreds? Or one that does everything it can to encourage others to find the best in their own ideas? These impulses can work hand-in-hand. But in many ways, building up comes much less naturally than tearing down.

It's important to surround yourself with a healthy mass of people who are serious about taking on a constructive mindset -- whether in providing criticism or in polishing just-unearthed gems. It is also important to cultivate this in oneself. It is an area which we can all improve. And if we do, our communities will be better for it.


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