This is a story from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. Digging deeper on these moments yields a lot of self-insights.
11.30pm. A Gmail notification from my boss. The subject was simply “Feedback”. I clicked. The first line was “ I would like to pose a few questions”, followed a list of reflective questions and thank you. The email was long. Long feedback emails that started with thank you — usually something not so good. I skimmed through and felt a shiver running through my spine. Serious feedback. Many bullet points. I also saw the word “disappointed”.
I paused and took a deep breath. My first thought was “Thanks goodness. Finally an emotional highlight for this summer.”
Strange response? Let me explain.
This summer was the first time I worked in the US. The nature of work varied: doing research, interviewing people, designing workshops. I can boast with my friends about how cool my work or internship was, but I knew the reality of many day to day work, at least for inexperienced youngsters like me, was mostly dull. You know, going to office, meeting people, chitchatting, writing, reading, social time, lonely time. Nothing too special. I felt flat, but then assured myself “It is good to be stable. Most people don’t even have that stability”. Yet secretly I was yearning for something to happen. Anything, good or bad, so that I would have something to remember — you know, that kind of memory that makes you quietly smile to yourself? I wanted the summer to be not only useful as a student exploring career paths but also fulfilling as a young adult growing.
I once asked my mom who had been working the same menial job for 26 years “How can you stick with it? Don’t you ever get bored?” She nodded in resignation: “What else can I do? What I needed the most at that time was stability”. I understood that sentiment. Growing up in a family ethics of hard work, I have been taught that most of my work will not be fun, but I have to do it anyway. I knew that the day to day work mattered and that I couldn’t expect every moment to be memorable, but that dreary, monotonous prospect of future work still scared me: boredom is the real nemesis.
Now you can understand why I could be excited seeing the feedback. I was mostly shit scared though — you bet. Yet somehow there was a subtle appeal to the email. For guys, remember how you felt in primary school when you were peeking into the female toilet as you passed by to get to your own haven? (if you didn’t, good for you…) It felt like breaking rules, a blurred mix of anxiety and excitement.
I dived in slowly, slightly cringing. After each paragraph, I paused to take a few breaths to internalize the feedback and to make it less overwhelming. I knew some feedback would be coming, but it was still tough to take everything all at once. After a month of casual chitchatting, this was like someone just poured a bucket of ice over me: painful enough to make me cringe but also refreshing enough to bring me into the moment.
I’ve been there; I knew how it felt to receive an email like that. My ego thought it was being attacked, so it rumbled in an attempt to defend itself.“Wow, I didn’t know my performance was that bad. Almost nothing positive! So many things behind the scene my boss didn’t know. I had to explain myself.”
After rereading the email a few times, I regained my perspective. Everything my boss wrote had a lot of truth in it. I would eventually need to provide my perspective too, but before that I had to acknowledge the frustration behind those lines first. It happened partly because of my unmindful actions. As I was drafting my reply, I asked myself “How can I be compassionate to the person who gives me the feedback and to myself?” With that question in mind, writing became a cathartic process. I went to sleep feeling wonderful, not because I have justified myself but rather because I have done something to alleviate our frustration.
We had a good chat a few days after. I was satisfied: summer work ended on a beautiful note.
A few lessons I relearned much deeper from this episode:
- Slowing down helps seeing things more clearly. The ego often gets in the way, but remember I am more than my ego.
- Being kind and authentic to myself and others can do wonder. It also feels good.
It is always a pleasure to see myself growing. I was open to the experience as it came and got a lot out of it.
Last fun story: My boss was the first female boxer I ever met (!) On the first day, I asked her “How did it feel like to be punched in the face?” She said “I felt in the moment. You know, the adrenaline rush. The game is on”. I told her afterwards when we met after that it was exactly how I felt receiving her feedback email. In a way, I got such a good punch in the face.
P/s: I shared with my boss this story. She liked it and commented on her own email that she asked the questions first because she knew she had something to learn as well, that there’s always another side to the story, and that questions up front are better than feedback. Learn first, share second. It was hard for her to write that email, just like I weren’t excited to read it. I’m proud and satisfied that we both did the hard thing with a purity of intention.