Get Out of Your Comfort Zone and Embrace Criticism

Jeff Skilling, former CEO of Enron and current inmate 29296-179 at a federal prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama taught me a valuable life lesson.

Readers under 30 may barely remember Enron, but when the company filed for Chapter 11 in December of  2001, it was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history (since eclipsed by Lehman Brothers among others). The complexity of Enron's accounting fraud made it a hard story to understand, but in a nutshell: the company's profits were the result of accounting trickery, the stock price eventually collapsed, thousands lost their jobs, and millions of people lost tens of billions of dollars when their portfolios got whacked in the fallout. 

Before all that though, Enron made at least one legitimate contribution to the economy by helping create the forward market for natural gas. Skilling, then a young partner at McKinsey with a bright future, was the originator and driving force behind the idea that revolutionized the industry. But the first time he presented it to the executive committee at Enron, he got shredded. In Conspiracy of Fools, Kurt Eichenwald describes Skilling being so dejected after the presentation that he had to be consoled by another Enron executive who encouraged him to keep working on the idea. He did, and eventually the plan was implemented. A small success story amidst an ocean of greed and fraud.

It's a weird story to single out; I don't know why that scene has stuck with me. Maybe Eichenwald did a great job of capturing that emotional low that comes with professional setback. Maybe I was surprised that McKinsey partners and future white-collar criminals get their feelings hurt like everyone else when their ideas get trashed. Whatever the reason, I've remembered that scene when my own ideas have been trashed, and it’s pushed me to keep iterating.

So, I guess...thanks, Jeff?

The Virtue of Getting the *%^& Kicked Out of You

I'm not one to extol the virtues of failure. I get annoyed whenever people talk about “celebrating failure.” That said, there are some benefits to getting your ass handed to you every once in a blue moon. Two stand out in particular:

  1. It toughens you up. Unless you’re an other-worldly genius and a gifted communicator, some of your original ideas will be rejected by your peers. It's not easy to see your work savaged by others after investing your creative energies into it and getting excited. The bolder the idea, the more likely you are to encounter hostile feedback. But facing that kind of adversity not only pushes you to be better, it sharpens the instincts that tell you when to drop an idea and when to keep iterating. 
  2. It makes you more empathetic. Nick Bilton, a journalist who has written extensively about Elizabeth Holmes (another once-inspiring fraudster) and Theranos, received some valuable wisdom as a young reporter at the New York Times. Then-executive editor Bill Keller remarked to him that, "I wish that journalists were not allowed to write about other people until they have been written about themselves.” Keller wanted his reporters to understand the life-changing impact their words could have on people. You’ll review others' work countless times in your career, and you'll be a better colleague if you remember what it's like to have your own ideas brutally rebuffed.

Conflict is inevitable as you advance in your career, as is disappointment. You have to be able to take it in stride without it consuming you. But how do you practice something like that? 

Make Yourself a Target

In my opinion, the best way to toughen yourself up is to put your ideas in writing and offer them up for scrutiny by your peers. Most people prefer to talk about ideas rather than commit to them in writing, so be different. Put some skin in the game and share a big idea in a structured memo or presentation. Get out of your comfort zone and invite criticism.  

This blog, for example, is pretty safe territory for me. People aren't here unless they want to be, and so the comments I get tend to be positive. It's helpful for me to remember that lots of people don't agree with me though. That forces me to think about something through different perspectives. Writing for other communities is a good way to encounter those divergent viewpoints, even when they’re harsh.

Redditors, for example, are generally forthcoming with their opinions:

Not to be outdone, this Quora user took issue with a post of mine:

And of course, there's the good old-fashioned tactic of signing up for an email list with a string of expletives for the admin to find later. I don't think this address is real...

Come on, man...

Come on, man...

I’m not a confrontational person, and harsh criticism always makes my blood pressure spike a little bit at first. While it’s often not friendly, it forces me to at least consider viewpoints I hadn’t considered. Sometimes I reject it on the merits, but other times I take away things I can use the next time I’m making a point on that topic.

It's too easy to live in a bubble all the time nowadays. Invite criticism now and then, and you’ll be better off for it.


(and if you're in the mood to provide some feedback, come check out UserMuse and tell us what you think!)