Edit: My first version was really harsh on the idea of praise. But after Julie Moronuki shared some wisdom with me, I realized praise can also be quite effective at helping us improve.
The first time someone tells you your code sucks is the hardest. You poured your heart and soul into it, it’s a part of you, it contains pieces that you never showed anyone and someone is treating it like it’s nothing. It feels like a metaphorical stab in your very real heart. Your coders heart. And then you get over it, start thinking you learned something from the whole ordeal and go on to feeling the same way when it happens again. And it will happen again. Hopefully it will happen constantly. Because the only way we know we’re progressing at all is by getting feedback. And receiving feedback is hard.
It’s not you, it’s your code
The first thing we must learn in order to get better at receiving feedback is that we’re not our code. We’re human beings, whose fingers were used to type the letters, words and sentences that we have on the screen. But we’re not the code we write, that is only a snapshot of our mind and conditions on a given particular day. And our value, both as a professional and a person cannot be judged that way.
I learned that we’re not the outcome of our work the hard way. Back in the university I had an amazing professor that helped us learn how to take feedback. The class was called 4D Design, and was about the basics of animation and the presence of time in things that move. After every big assignment, there was one entire session dedicated to the critique. All the students would sit and watch the work of others multiple times. Then, some of us were asked at random to say something about what we had just seen. The first time this happened, everybody was full of kind words. And then it was our teacher’s turn. I’ll never forget it. His critique went something like this:
First off, you’re all liars. I asked you to give feedback, not praise. I asked for your opinion, not for kind words. The words I’m about to say are not kind. And they’re not supposed to be, because no-one has ever gotten better by only being praised. But be aware, that everything I’ll say applies to the work we just saw, not to the person who did it.
And it struck home. On all of us. All of a sudden we were able to give and receive feedback. Real feedback, not just kind words. Feedback that hurt people’s feelings sometimes. But made them better. Stronger. Because while praise helps us identify things we should keep doing, it’s just not enough. And often, people are afraid to hurt us and will praise things that shouldn’t be praised.
I will always be grateful for all the harsh words my work got that semester, and all the harsh words I’ve been able to receive over the following years thanks to that person’s wisdom.
I truly believe that constant feedback is the biggest driver of improvement. And I also believe that we need to get better at it. Collectively. Make it explicit that you’re not criticizing the person you’re giving feedback to and tell them the truth. And be prepared to hear some hard words about your work. They’ll make you stronger.
P.S: Here’s what we learned to do that semester, in case you’re curious.