On accepting criticism

I just submitted the first two chapters of my thesis yesterday. Initially I felt quite good about it, and the meeting with the advisor went well — in fact it never went bad because my advisor is someone who is very knowledgeable and very diplomatic, and most of the time he trusts me to work on my own as long as I provide monthly progress and talk to him if I have some problems, which I often do. However, I felt I am somewhat taken aback by his comment during this meeting.

He said, “What happened? You have been slow.”

I walked out of the meeting trying to reassess why the comment made me uncomfortable. As with many criticisms I have received, my initial reaction was to never take things personally and check myself. I was reminded of working days and nights, and sometimes weekends, and I could not remember if there was a time that I didn’t think of my research, which sometimes sent me whipping out my Moleskine out of nowhere to jot down random notes. The only thing which I hadn’t done much last year, and to be honest only having found the courage to start significantly this year — is writing. And I think of academia (in fact, other industries as well) measure one’s success less by progress and quality and more by one standardised yardstick, which is often output/writing/research and the quantity of them. I think of how many times my university colleagues were complaining of their papers being rejected multiple times, as their motivations wane.

Walt Whitman, in Leaves of Grass wrote that criticism could be stronger than praise:

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you?

Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

Besides, artist, human rights activist, and authority-provocateur Ai Weiwei also had been saying:

Criticism and finding trouble is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.

As I sat down and contemplated this, I learned that I should not dismiss criticism entirely and take it something I can learn, and probably take it as a challenge? My advisor’s challenge to me is to finish the thesis this year, which has been in my plan already — and one that I am ready to embark on.

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