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The most useful criticism

Criticism is hard to take.  It usually means you’ve done something wrong.  It’s always hard to stomach and, done incorrectly, always seems to demean the person being criticized.

Except when they’re right.

That was the case a number of years ago when I was a records clerk in a Marine unit to which I was assigned.  I admit I was in over my head.  The training I had received was basically on-the-job by someone who really wasn’t that much better than me.  It didn’t matter.  He transferred out, I was in.

I didn’t know what I was doing, but rather than ask for help I skated during the day and felt I could “catch-up” in evening when there wasn’t anyone there.  Trouble was, I didn’t know what I was doing then, either.  And my work backlog grew to the point it became really noticeable (paper was hard to hide).

That prompted my first sergeant to one day call me into his office where we had “come to Jesus” moment.  He didn’t mince words.  My work was not satisfactory and I was very behind.  What was my problem?

I wasn’t sure what to say, so he continued.  

He told me that the United States Marine Corps had spent a considerable amount of money determining how long my job should take based on an 8-hour work day.  They had hired consultants who had done detailed studies and spent considerable effort determining the time it should take to get my job done.  The headquarters brass believed my job could be done in an 8-hour period, 40-hour work week.  The battalion commander agreed, the company commander agreed and, as the first sergeant, he agreed.  To further emphasize the point he told me I was the only records clerk in the battalion that seemed to have to work overtime.  So, he concluded, I needed to ask myself, “Is the whole of the US Marine Corps wrong or was I wrong?”


At that moment I realized there was nowhere to hide.  I had to come clean about my lack of knowledge.  There was no need to tell him what I’d been doing.  It had been obvious.

I got the training I requested (needed) and he had a few more choice words for me (this was the Marines, after all), but from that meeting I learned three valuable lessons:

(1)  You cannot hide ignorance or inability forever.  It will come out.

(2)  It’s great to try to figure things out, but when you finally reach the conclusion that you need help – ask!

(3)  Finally, sometimes the best help you can give someone is delivered in reasoned, blunt unfettered criticism – because you want them to remember it.  My first sergeant never raised his voice, but his criticism was delivered in a bold, matter of fact, unwavering and unyielding  tone that left the impression he was looking for.  I didn’t need to be coddled, I needed to “man-up” as they say and figure out how to get my job done.

In short, the most useful criticism is the criticism that changes you for the better.

It stung.  It hurt.  But the sting and hurt have long since faded as I applied that reasoning he gave me that day.

It’s been a few years now, but I still look at any job I have by the 8-hour rule.  Not saying I never work overtime, I do.  But only when necessary.  I make sure I use the automation and tools available to get my job done.  And I measure others by how they function regarding the 8-hour rule.

I think First Sergeant Lightfoot would be proud.

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