Apparently the British Ruby Conference has been canceled because people complained about the lack of diversity in their speaker lineup on twitter. It seems that the complaints prompted sponsors to pull out of the conference and hosting it was no longer financially viable. No doubt certain people will be angered by me saying this, but they’re the same people who are always angry with me, so I’m going to anyway: this totally reminds me of Hostess.
I’m immensely troubled by the idea that anyone who attempts an endeavor should be rewarded for attempting it, and that whatever steps they choose to take to make it a success, no matter how ill-informed, should be applauded simply because they are in service of the endeavor. That is goddamned nonsense. Your endeavor means shit without the risk of failure. Success is not a measure of your luck in managing to get it perfect the first time, it’s a measure of how well you deal with small failures and ensure they don’t turn into bigger ones or, even better, turn them into assets.
Apparently this is epidemic, this notion that suggesting anyone can do better is an attack on the very core of their character. Unlike our business failing or our conference shutting down, it’s not entirely our fault. We’ve been trained to think this way. Everyone gets a trophy just for showing up and all that. Nonetheless, that shit is poison.
I believe every person on the planet should drill this into their well-intentioned little noggins: every word of criticism is like a pound of gold. The more criticism you get, the greater your potential for success. And I do not only mean quality criticism. I do not only mean gently-worded criticism. I mean all of it. Here is my comprehensive and scientific breakdown, based on my own very important opinions:
kind, thoughtful, constructive criticism from your peers: OMG how did you find that? Pay that person to sit by your side through everything you do and never let them go because they are probably not actually human and in fact your guardian angel.
kind, thoughtful, criticism from outsiders: Easy to take, easy to ignore. In matters of marketing and perception, very useful. In matters of day-to-day operations, something to store in the back of your mind but probably not immediately act on.
nasty constructive criticism from your peers: The hardest pill to swallow, and probably the most crucial. If your peers feel you’re not listening to them to the point where they give up on civility, you need to pay attention and act fast. Do not dissemble. Do not argue about tone or motivation. Say this, even if it hurts every fiber of your being to be the bigger person: “Thank you for letting us know. We’re looking into it right away. If you have suggestions how we can fix it, we’d be very grateful.”
nasty constructive criticism from outsiders: Either a sign you’ve taken the above category too lightly, or a miscategorization of the type below.
nasty non-constructive criticism: Actually safe to ignore completely! If someone starts talking about your family, your appearance, or anything else unrelated to The Endeavor, they’re just trolls. HOWEVER. Do not mistake for trolls legitimately upset people who just don’t know how to get through to you.
criticism after-the-fact: Incredibly painful. If the channels of communication are no longer open so that you can make a meaningful response and it’s too late to fix anything, all you can do with that is improve next time, and that just sucks, valuable or not.
By now, you may have realized something: I am completely talking out of my ass. I have never run a bakery corporation or a conference and have put my highly scientific methods into practice in either context exactly zero times. That is a completely valid criticism. See how we’re all growing as people? I have, however, taken a lot of criticism, of all of those kinds. I’ve taken enough – and continued to solicit it – that I’m pretty good at recognizing which type is which. And while my personal successes are nowhere near the level of Hostess or BritRuby, every one of them is due to making mistakes and learning from them, just like everyone else’s. I’m saying this not as an expert but as a bystander frustrated at seeing opportunity wasted.
Nothing anyone does fails because people on twitter say mean things or workers go on strike. The failure begins long before those symptoms appear. It becomes terminal when they’re not treated with the respect that should be given any chance, even a last-minute one, to correct the situation before it all goes to hell. I see the same denial of responsibility in BritRuby’s cancelation announcement that I saw in Hostess’ insistence that their bankruptcy was due to workers demanding a living wage, and it upsets me. If you’re going to do a thing, do it. Don’t point fingers when it doesn’t work out. Any endeavor is an invitation to criticism, and any successful endeavor learns to benefit from it.
Finally, I have an example to make this all a little less vague. Over the summer I tweeted something about my disappointment in conferences that had one or zero women speaking. I didn’t call anyone out, there just happened to be a bunch of them on my radar at that time and I was like, “Still??” Pretty much immediately I got a tweet back from the organizers of LXJS saying that they’d asked all the women they knew, been repeatedly shot down, and did I have more suggestions or would I come and speak. A lot of people would decline an invitation like that because a lot of people don’t want any implication that they’re a token. I’m ok with being a token (somebody always has to go first), but it was their seriousness and sincerity that made me really want to be a part of the conference, and I’m incredibly glad I was because that same level of effort was evident in every aspect of it.
This is the crucial thing to me: my criticism didn’t mention them and they could safely have ignored it. Instead, they took it as an opportunity to say, hey, we’re frustrated, we tried everything we could think of and it didn’t work, and we genuinely want your ideas on how to do better. They sought out criticism. They engaged their critic and asked for the same level of responsibility for my statement they were taking for their conference. It impressed the hell out of me, and I hope anyone starting up a conference or anything else takes a look at LXJS and all the other brave organizations like it who seek out their critics and make them fans and tries to emulate that.