How to take a punch like a Stoic in academia

Doing science is about researching and then going public with your findings. If you keep your findings to yourself, you are just privately musing, but not doing scientific research. However, going public with your research can be daunting, especially for PhD’s. What to do when you are scared to show your first piece of writing to your supervisor? When you dread nasty questions about your presentation at a conference? Or when you feel ready to quit because you just received stinging criticism from a reviewer on that article of yours with the top results of your research? Here is a bit on how to face criticism without letting it take you down.

When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly

writes Austin Kleon in Show Your Work (p. 149ff). He has a list of strategies on learning how to take punches. While he focusses on artists, I think most of his advice is very applicable to researchers. Additionally, what I like about his advice is its very Stoic undertone.

  • “Relax and breathe”. Imaginative people, such as artists and scientists, are good at picturing the worst that could happen. Fortunately, a bad review is not deadly. Translated in a Stoic framework this would amount to something like this. Letting yourself become a complete emotional wreck because of criticism is often a matter of misjudgment of what is really bad. Happenings in the outside world are just what they are and not in themselves good or bad. What is good or bad is what you let happen inside your psyche. Hence Kleon: “Take a deep breath and accept whatever comes.”
  • “Practice getting hit”. Go public with your work and let people have a go at it. “The more criticism you take, the more you realize that it can’t hurt you”. Something can only hurt you if you let it upset your peace of mind and inner calm – a Stoic maxim.
  • “Roll with the punches”, as Kleon frames it. See criticism as an opportunity for new work. You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you react: perfectly Stoic, as the maxim above.
  • “Hatch and protect” your baby chickens if you have work that is too sensitive or close to you to be exposed to criticism. On the other hand, if you always avoid vulnerability, “you and your work will never truly connect with other people.” I have written before about vulnerability and courage. Without connection to others in fellowship or familiarization (the technical Stoic term is oikeiosis) you miss the essence of human nature. There is a very readable article about Seneca’s conception of this idea by Katia Vogt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • “Keep your balance” and put the vicious critique into perspective. Kleon: “You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.” For researchers as for artists this can be really hard to accept, especially because of their often highly intrinsic motivation. I have seen many feel freed once they fully realize this.
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