PIPER KLEMM, PH.D
If you told me at 25 that I was holding myself back, I would have said that you were wrong. In fact, I did say that to people. I got defensive. I got angry. I continued to allow blame to hold me back and to think about all the barriers in my way, and whether other people liked me.
As we begin with a new group of interns each fall, I’m always surprised by the amount of blame that gets thrown around—and how that is not a good look in the workplace. “No one told me that” echoes daily through my email inbox. I hear apologies and excuses for normal learning stumbles. A discussion of intention in every email. If I didn’t think you had good intentions, you wouldn’t be here. If you didn’t have anything to learn, you wouldn’t be an intern earning $15 an hour. This is a learning environment. There is no blame, and when you are learning, there will be corrections. No one springs from the womb fully formed and ready to run a magazine without error. I certainly didn’t. Though I’m fairly fully formed at this point, I still have to correct and coach myself and find that others correct me daily, too.
It comes down to being coachable. Because I have always been rewarded for pushing to achieve at the highest, I never learned to be coachable when I was younger, either. Always self-analyzing and self-correcting, I have been able to deflect and (mostly) avoid disaster, but my quest for perfectionism has been a double-edged sword. It kept me on the right track most of the time, but paired with my perfectionism, I was never trained out of being overly sensitive or defensive over the most minor (valid) criticism. I saw comments in red pen marking up a report or tacit ‘do this differently’ statements as the end of the world. Critique was an enemy to vanquish.
As I started teaching in a formal setting for the first time in a while a few years ago, faculty told me that students reacted better to green or blue grading pen. Red was too harsh. I instantly got defensive in my mind. I will grade in red and make them tough and strong, I thought. I will make them better. Instead, I brought it up to the class as a discussion point and we made a group decision.
I explained to them that as a boss, leader, and adult, the easiest thing in the world to do is to cut someone out of our lives. Fire, dismiss, and ignore them. The easiest thing I could do in a classroom setting would be to give everyone A’s and not grade anything. That’s the best bang for my buck, the most financial payoff per hour of work.
Instead, I opted to do my job as educator, and thoroughly read, critique, and mark-up every paper. Every week, every time. Each one marked with a grade of performance and quality. Because every person in your life who ever chooses to take their time to teach you, to help you, to guide you—especially when they don’t have to or aren’t being paid explicitly to do so—they are worth their weight in gold in making you your best self. The class elected to have their work graded in red pen.
Saying this out loud to my students made me start to see it more and more in my own life. I stopped being defensive. I stopped trying to fight with people who were credentialed in the subjects on which they were advising me. I started to let things sink in instead of reacting to those who have so much knowledge to give me.
Most importantly, I stopped taking everything so personally. I embraced “red pen” in all aspects of my life. I stopped allowing comments on my performance to define me as a person. I took some social media comments that might have really upset me in prior years and was, for the first time, able to put them in a box where they belong. I’ve found myself crying less than ever, while taking more direction and critique than ever before. I have opened up new aspects of my life to let in more and let in people who I had shielded myself from in the past, knowing they would have the ability to hurt me.
Anyone who is teaching me or educating me for my own good has a free pass. I’m not going to be hurt or upset by criticism, nor will I take it personally. Instead, I’m going to learn and grow from it.
*This story was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!