Public Media Arts Hub

Author Esme Weijun Wang on prioritizing compliments over criticism


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: So, maybe you just had a performance review or shared something you wrote with a friend.

It's likely that whatever feedback you received, the negative comments are what stuck with you.

Esme Weijun Wang is an author, most recently of "The Collected Schizophrenias."

Tonight, she shares her Humble Opinion on why we should make an effort to listen for something else.

Esme Weijun Wang: When I was in the sixth grade, I was known for being an overachiever.

For sport, one of my fellow classmates decided to keep a piece of paper taped to her desk. On that sheet, she'd make a tally for every error I made in class. She'd call out, gleefully, drawing attention to whatever it was that I had done wrong.

I became sensitive to my mistakes. That sheet of paper on her desk loomed like no accomplishment of mine ever did.

To receive a compliment, in many cultures, is to demur. We are taught, particularly if we are women, to brush off a kind word, lest our heads grow too large. And, too, we learn that to focus on our weaknesses means that we will improve, so that come time for company evaluations, our focus is not on the seven pieces of praise, but on the single criticism.

For years, I kept my own records of what I had done wrong, and forgot the compliments. I received thoughtful notes and e-mails, but never let them stick, that is, until a friend suggested that I begin to keep a folder of the kind words said to me.

In went the best parts of my book reviews, the sweetest lines from people who love me. Now, years later, I have pages and pages of text messages and e-mails and tweets, because the world can be a brutal place.

We can be unrelentingly hard to ourselves, and under such circumstances, it's a shame to not let the world's light stick to us when we have the chance.

In my humble opinion, it is not enough to absentmindedly nod when someone says, for example, that the mix C.D. we made them kept them company in the winter of their bereavement, or when your student tells you that they had never loved poetry before your English class.

Write these things down. Keep a record. Stitch them together, and let them keep you warm.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.