Sunday, 29 April 2012

It Seems to Get Better

The results of Friday's poll are quite encouraging, I think. More than 75% say that they have gotten better at handling criticism, rejection, and failure with time. This is not to ignore the pain of those for whom it has gotten more difficult with time (or for whom it has always been difficult); nevertheless, ~77% is a hopeful proportion, even if it is based on a limited dataset in this case.

An interesting topic raised in the comments is whether dealing with criticism etc. becomes easier with time because there is less of it with time, as we advance in our careers. Some possible scenarios for how this might play out in the course of a career include:

- Reviewers etc. become more positive as you pile up achievements and other evidence for success in the relevant aspects of your career. This may because you are truly awesome and have an endless supply of excellent ideas that you express well, or it may because of the so-called "halo" effect; that is, if you reach a certain level of success, people assume even your stupid ideas must actually be great and you can coast on your reputation; or

- You may still get critical reviews, but the personal attacks that can appear in some reviews and other evaluations disappear or at least decrease with time; for example: "I don't agree with Professor X's interpretation of these data, and would suggest instead that s/he consider ...." instead of "Professor X is a total moron".  (a complication on this scenario is when the author list includes one or more students and one or more distinguished professors; what's a reviewer with a penchant for personal attacks to do in that case?)

- A combination of both: negative reviews and personal attacks decrease, but never go away entirely. This decrease, combined with an increased ability to deal with non-stop evaluations of various sorts, leads to a general feeling of being able to deal with criticism and rejection more easily (although there may be notable exceptions from time to time). I think this is a likely scenario for many of us.

Even for highly successful academics, criticism and rejection never entirely goes away. For example, the impressive scientist, person, and blogger Athene Donald wrote just the other day, "My first individual grant failed; my last one did too with a churlish email sent at some insane time of the night from our Research Councils ‘shared services centre’ only last week.  Clearly in between I have had occasional success, and for any individual receiving the sharp end of rejection it is well to remember Robert the Bruce."

Remembering Robert the Bruce might not work for those who are not citizens of the UK (and isn't he the one whose embalmed heart went on a Crusade?), so I am wondering if there is some other historic person for North Americans and others to think of in times of need. I personally just like to think about my cats when dealing with the sharp end of rejection (I do like that phrase), but perhaps I am not thinking big enough. Any suggestions?

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