Making a Life Change? Find an Honest Mirror
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”
- Frank A. Clark
Think for a moment about the most valuable feedback you’ve received. Maybe it was a professor telling you that you had a brilliant knack for computer programming. Maybe it was your first boss boasting how you taught her how to lead a team meeting. Or maybe you’re like me, and the most valuable feedback you’ve received wasn’t a compliment at all. Maybe it was a blunt, bare bones critique.
“You can’t write.” No joke. That’s what my favorite mentor told me one afternoon as I sat in her office twenty years ago. I was a post-doctoral research assistant, applying for jobs and I’d just been offered a dream opportunity with a famous researcher. I’d be working in a prestigious lab, writing scientific articles and research grants.
I thought this would be an easy conversation. “Take the job!” my mentor would say with a big, proud grin.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” is what she said instead. I withered in my chair. “It might be confidence, it might be that you edit too much. I just don’t know. I know it’s not a problem with your research ideas because they’re some of the best I’ve seen for someone your age. But whatever gets in your way, you don’t finish your writing projects. Until you figure out how to write, you shouldn’t take a job where that’s what you’ll be doing all day.”
I was disappointed and embarrassed and avoided her in the hallway for days. But she was right. I didn’t deliver when it came to writing. I missed deadlines, I wrote and rewrote paragraphs and made excuses for why things were never quite ready. Draft after draft sat on my computer, unseen by anyone but me.
Why was this the most valuable feedback I’ve received? It came from someone I trusted and respected. She had established over the four years we’d worked together that she wanted me to succeed and be happy. She’d shown that she believed in me. She cared.
I took her advice to heart. It took me a few years to learn what my problem was (fear of rejection) and how to overcome it (write with other people and accept that every first draft will be shitty.) Did I learn to write? With a lot of hard work, yes. I published my second New York Times article and my second book recently, something I couldn’t have imagined sitting in her office, head down, all those years ago.
But I learned something much more important. I learned we need honest feedback from people we trust and who knows what it takes to succeed. And if we haven’t been getting that feedback in small doses all along, we need to be sure we seek it when we’re making an important decision.
If you’re at an inflection point, if you’re at a crossroads in your career, take a moment to identify someone you trust and respect. Who knows you well and could offer a unique perspective? Once you’ve picked someone, let the other person know you’re looking for an “Honest Mirror” not a “Supportive Mirror.” Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen use these terms in their book Thanks for the Feedback (2014) because all too often, we’re asking the people close to us to be supportive mirrors, hoping they’ll say reassuring things to show they’re on our side.
When you face a crucial decision, let the other person know that the best way to show they’re on your side is by being an honest mirror. Ask, “Is there something about me that I’m not seeing?” No one likes to hear negative feedback. And maybe you won’t get any. But if there’s ever a time to brace yourself for it, it’s when you’re deciding on your next big adventure. That’s feedback you’ll be grateful for in twenty years.
A photo of the #HiddenNoMore delegation attending Dr. Huston's presentation at The Riveter Fremont on October 19, 2017.
Therese Huston, Ph.D., is changing how we talk about women at work. Therese is a cognitive scientist at Seattle University, and The New York Times calls her new book, "How Women Decide" “required reading on Wall Street.” With scientific data and powerful stories, she challenges popular myths about how men and women make decisions. She’s written for the New York Times and Harvard Business Review. Last fall, she gave her first TEDx talk. Her work has been featured in Forbes and the Financial Times, and she’s been interviewed on NPR. Microsoft, Amazon, and Harvard Business School have brought Therese in to lead workshops on how to create more inclusive workplaces for women.