On mining the gold, not the gravel

"The pan is the simplest instrument employed in the separation of gold from the soil.... It is partly filled with dirt and held under water. A gentle shaking aids in dissolving the dirt ... The gold dust and pebbles settle to the bottom.... The pebbles are thrown out, and the metal removed. An inexperienced hand loses considerable gold, but an expert in this process can make a good living...."

Charles Turrill, "California Notes," 1876

MY WIFE, Candace, and 8-year-old daughter, Phoebe, came to hear me play my first and only piano recital. I was reluctant to perform, but my teacher, Mrs. Jensen, burned with vicarious ambition.

The piece I played easily at home proved impossible before an audience. When my ordeal ended and I returned to my seat, Phoebe whispered to me, "You messed up, Dad."

Phoebe had already formed a crippling habit: the habit of orthodox criticism.

Though we all act as critics, we don't often think of criticism as a skill. We are all asked to give critique daily: disciplining our children, evaluating workplace performance, giving casual feedback. And we all engage, more or less continuously, in self-criticism. Our performance as critics largely determines our success in teaching our children, working with others, and learning new skills ourselves.

My awareness of criticism dawned when I began taking writing classes and receiving peer critiques. I vividly remember one session when a fellow student gave her opinion of my work: "Wrong, wrong, wrong," she said. She continued at length. Before she was finished, my senses had shut down. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn't hear her words. Though the term was only half over, I turned in no more work to that class.

In "If You Want To Write," Brenda Ueland describes the destructive power of this sort of criticism: "Yes, I hate orthodox criticism ... the usual small niggling fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, and results only in putting them in straitjackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, and weazening all vision and bravery.... It is a murderer of talent."

The antidote is not to stop criticizing, or to give false praise, but to rethink criticism. We tend to envision it as pointing out flaws, like an assembly-line inspector plucking out the occasional defect.

The critic's job is usually the opposite. A good critic is like someone looking over the shoulder of a beginning gold-panner. The beginner doesn't need to learn how to see the gravel, but how to spot the gold. Effective criticism doesn't focus on what's wrong with the beginner's work, but on what's good and how to build on that virtue. Good criticism is an exercise in building up, not tearing down.

In high school, I took a photography class. As I was sorting through prints at the end of the year, preparing my final portfolio, my teacher stopped to look. He picked up a print from my reject pile.

"That one didn't turn out too well," I said hurriedly. The print was a little out of focus.

"It's the best photograph you've taken," he replied, and handing it to me, continued on his way.

Looking at the print again, I saw it differently. It was still out of focus. But now I noticed that its composition reflected the lessons we'd studied that semester. I'd been worrying about the wrong thing. I put the photo into my portfolio, a little wiser in the ways of spotting gold.

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