I busted my left knee a little more than 15 years ago in a skiing accident – torn ACL, meniscus tear, the works. I was on ski vacation with 20 people I didn’t know, the guest of a member this big group. The first morning, I awoke groggily at 7am to a foot of fresh snow piled on the window sills. But most of the group slept in, and between putting on snow tires and getting ski rentals for nearly everyone, we only made it to the top of the mountain by noon. Young, eager and frustrated, I soon pitched myself past a sign marked “cliff area.” Three turns in, I discovered a side of mountain without a lick of snow. Crash! It’s amazing I didn’t do more damage.
That was in 1993, and over the years I’ve quietly eliminated one high-impact sport after another in deference to my ailing knee. A year ago, my knee started acting up again, and with it went the last semi-high-impact activity – squash – that was left in my repertoire. The good news is that, thanks to a good (if gruff) orthopedic surgeon, a successful arthroscopic surgery and some rehab, I’m back on my feet, and slowly making my way back onto the squash court after a one-year hiatus.
As the excitement of getting back on the court has waned, I’m smack in the middle of ample opportunity for self-criticism – all the things my squash game once was and is no more. And this has gotten me thinking: how can I fix the things that I need to fix on the court without spending all my time thinking, “I’m terrible! This is awful! That’s an easy shot I just missed!”? How do I grow without all the self-criticism?
Which of course is connected to my professional life.
I’m a firm believer that the best jobs are ones that offer real opportunity for growth. People often take that to mean jobs where you can take on more responsibility and get promoted, but I think that’s only half the equation. The other half is finding an environment where people give real, constructive criticism (positive and negative) about what you can do to grow into the leader you want to be. Work environments that encourage and nurture this kind of feedback are rare. Rarer still is having the professional trust and personal confidence to be able to take on this kind of criticism, hear it for what it is (constructive), and integrate it in a positive way.
Which brings me back to the squash court, and all the games that I used to win that I’m currently losing. And it’s forced me to ask: why is it easier to acknowledge a criticism on the court than it is at work?
I think the answer is that, on the squash court, (self) criticism is about what you do. “Don’t stand too close to the ball.” “Anticipate the next shot sooner.” “Take your racquet back earlier.”
At work, self (or external) criticism feels like it’s about who you are. So when someone gives you feedback on how you run meetings or speak in public or what you put in emails or the way you go about analyzing problems, you first reaction might be, “How dare he say that about me?”
“About me,” not “about what I do.” This is where you might trip yourself up.
The trick is to remember that both situations are the same. Both are about what you do, and how doing some things differently, some other things more, and another set of things less, you can be more effective.
Separating yourself (the actor) from the things that you do (the action) might just give you the space to hear the criticism for what it is: an act of support; an offering by someone who wants you to succeed, showing you what you can do differently to be the leader you want to be.