Why some never learn.
I saw something interesting at the ICSSH 2011 conference in Singapore.
It was at the end of the day, which had been filled with lectures of many academics. We had been having a spirited discussion of one lecturer’s work, in a rather informal way, since few of us were left. A fairly elderly man was sitting at the back, observing us. Suddenly, he piped up: “Hello...”, he began, a little unsure of himself.
“Yes.” We said, some with their tongues, others with their eyes.
“If you have time, do you think you can listen to my work?”
It was late and, to be frank, most of us wanted to go home, but we were polite with our fellow academic.
“I gave two presentations...but no-one said anything.”, he explained, a little mystified, “I just wondered if you could give me some feedback.”
The more outspoken of us, an academic from Brazil, nodded. “Five minutes...I am running late.”
So it was that we listened to his presentation.
It was a strange lecture. It had a lot of words, but seemed to have little meaning. What he was trying to do seemed elusive and not in any way clearly attained by what he presented. There was, perhaps, a decent idea in there somewhere, but he had not expressed it clearly enough.
What was interesting was the way he reacted to feedback. The Brazilian academic was direct, but polite enough. He pointed out that it wasn’t clear what was meant by “work habits”, because the type of work hadn’t been defined. (The lecture was aspiring to improve work habits).
Our academic friend fairly blew up. He defended his existing position and presentation vigorously. It was, in fact, quite funny...because he had invited feedback, but then refused to accept its validity when it came.
I found myself winking at a fellow colleague, as we watched the exchange with some amusement.
In about ten minutes of discussion, instead of listening to the feedback he was receiving, he defended everything about the way he had done things. Finally, he broke away from the Brazilian and turned to me and asked me what I thought. “I agree with him. You have written a lot of words, but it is not clear what you mean. It would be better to use short sentences, and perhaps some graphics to present your ideas.”
He went very quiet then and had nothing to say in return. He just didn’t know what to do when confronted not with one person pointing to problems in his presentation, but two. I think, in asking me, he had hoped for a different answer. He had been seeking confirmation of his own view, so that he might dismiss the first critic. I gave him no such ammunition. Perhaps, he was tired to argue in his own defence. He didn’t say anything more, so I don’t know if he finally accepted the feedback. I only know that he no longer had the spirit to defend himself further.
I found the whole exchange illuminating. Quite clearly, he was a man who hadn’t really been listening to the feedback he had received in his life, about his presentation style. Either that, or no-one had had the heart to tell him, that his work just didn’t work. I felt that he was stuck in a position of defending his work against all criticism, instead of really seeing it for what it was, and deciding to work on its flaws, to the betterment of all future work. He hadn’t yet reached a true understanding of his own output – largely, I think, because he refused to accept the validity of the viewpoints of others, if they were critical. He was being selective. I am sure that he would accept and believe any positive comment about his work. Indeed, something in him seemed to expect it. Yet, the outraged way in which he defended the way he had done things, was not promising. He was strongly emotionally attached to his erroneous approach. He just couldn’t let himself see that what he was doing was ineffective.
To my mind, he was a man who couldn’t learn to see himself truly. He had a self-image and an image of his work, that pleased him. However, they were not real. Everyone else looking at the same work, would disagree with him. In a way, I suppose it could be said that he was deluded about himself and his work. He saw effectiveness, where others saw emptiness and even folly. Yet, his own personal beliefs about himself and his work, were so essential to him, that he could not let them be corrected by any external voice – no matter how gentle (as mine was...I could have been much more blunt about work that was, basically, rubbish.)
In a way, the saddest thing about this was his age. He must have been in his late fifties at least – yet still he had not learnt to see himself or his work, truly. He had lived a life of personal delusion on the issue of quality of output, until the very day we had met him – or at least, it seemed so, from his behaviour.
I hope he reflected on what he had been told. I hope he went away, and sat down with his paper and began to draft it again. I hope he learnt something from our feedback. Yet, I can’t help but feel that he is likely not to have done so.
The question is: is it better to live with a personal delusion like his, about work that is really poor – or is it better to be able to see its flaws and then strive to improve them? I suppose it all depends on the strength of one’s ego. If one is strong enough, the truth is better to be confronted. However, if one is weak, perhaps mentally vulnerable, maybe the delusion is actually healthier and safer.
I don’t know the man in question well enough, but I feel, perhaps, that he might not be strong enough to face the truth of his work. Perhaps that is why he has done so for so long.
Even if he didn’t learn anything by our meeting, I did – and that is worthwhile in itself. To my mind, he provides a strong example of a man whose self-image is very different from his externally observed reality. So, funnily enough, in trying to teach him something, perhaps I taught myself something instead. At least, one of us was learning.
NOTE: It is possible that the man's presentation was a poor reflection of his actual paper. He may not have been good at summarizing his thoughts. It would have been his actual paper that had been submitted to and accepted by the conference. It could be that that work was adequate and interesting, but that the presentation of it was neither. I would have to do further checking to find out.
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