On Critique

March 21, 2017

Chloe asks from in front of the oven, “What are these on the second rack?”

“I don’t know, sorry,” I shout back.

She pulls out the tin of cupcakes and pulls them onto the trash can and beckons me over. I am already sensing that this is related to me, and that I’ve done something wrong.

“Are these the vegan cupcakes,” she says. It’s not a question.

They’re incredibly black and shiny, but I’m not certain that’s wrong, per se. I’ve never really made anything vegan before. I’m not vegan. I did think they were awfully oily when I scooped them into the tiny little paper cups. Hm. Not good.

Chloe’s expression is unreadable — she isn’t one for small talk, doesn’t say much at all really, and I have the worst time figuring out whether or not she likes me or abhors me, whether she’s younger or older than me — and she says, “You forgot to add the sugar.”

She flips the tray over and dumps 24 cupcakes into the trash can underneath it unceremoniously. Cupcakes in trash bins look very, very sad. It’s a sight I’m getting used to.

Getting the job took no effort on my part, really. A textbook definition of “falling into [one]’s lap”. After months of talking about maybe getting a job at a bakery, or a coffeeshop, or something where I wasn’t sitting alone in my studio apart coding I appeared well situated to continue sitting alone in my studio apartment not knowing anybody while coding. Remote life is very strange.

Life had other plans: my husband, at a party*, happened upon an old acquaintance who was known in our circle as “the sweet girl who works at the bakery.” Having been actually listening to his wife of seven years who kept saying I want a job at a bakery or something went about getting his wife a job at a bakery. When he came home that night, triumphant, with the news that I had an in, the lazy girl lying in bed reading a book and eating cookies and who did very little menial labor these days went, Oh dear.

* I was too lazy to go out that night. I stayed in, read a book, and ate cookies. You know the type.

I’m not sure what you’d call my part-time job I do for three hours on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. Moonlighting? Do I moonlight as a baker, even though I work in the early morning? Even that seems to imply a certain degree of “I really love this work” fanaticism that I’m not sure I have for the bakery. I like baking for myself a great deal. I am normally tired at the bakery after I stumble out of bed at 6 in the morning, which doesn’t really scream “I LOVE MY JOB” in quite the way I’ve romanticized loving one’s job I have in my head.

My first day I work all day, on my feet, without eating. The woman who owns the bakery cuts me a check for $60 and says she’d love to hire me. I agree to the arrangement and keep the check in a drawer after I deposit it. It was exhausting earning that check, and I’m proud of it.

I’m a student again, still in university. I’m in a fancy coworking space with two men who have just started their design firm. We are having a “meeting” about a “client”. These are the words, I’ve learned, we use to describe doodling near the coffee machine because the area over by our desks is too cramped and the one meeting space is taken most of the time.

My drawings are, well… bad. I can see this the second I put pen to paper, and I’m reluctant to discuss my ideas because they sound so terrible. One of my bosses seems to be spitting out better looking, more logical designs with a blue ballpoint pen in comparison to the design microns that were required for one of my classes, which is discouraging.

Later we show our designs to the client and as three logo choices and the client agrees that he likes directions 1 & 2. “Option 3 is… intriguing, I’ll say that.”

Option 3 is mine, of course. I shrink inwardly into a small, wrinkled ball.

At the bakery, I know where to find soy milk, eggs, flour, sugar, gluten free sugar, gluten free flour, buttermilk, whole milk, and jam. That said, I do not know where the jam refills are, nor brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, graters, cornstarch, nonpareils, paring knives, the juicer, frozen molasses cookies, decorative sugar, cinnamon sugar, the blocks of cream cheese, nor anything else on seemingly endless list of things that Nicole, the baker I am sous-baker to, seems to have stored in her head are.

“Vegan. I hate vegan. Make one times coconut lime, prep bag’s out, and two times vegan chocolate, but chocolate are Mexican chocolate today so mix in just a dash of cayenne and cinnamon at the end.”

“Um, so — ”

I am a little further in, but for having been here as long as I have I feel like I ask too many questions.

These cupcakes I almost mess up beyond repair by forgetting to add grated coconut to the first batch and forgetting the cayenne and cinnamon bit for the others. Nicole catches the first mistake and I catch the second about a minute after the cupcakes have been put in the oven. I end up stirring tiny sprinkles of cinnamon and cayenne pepper into each chocolate cupcake individually with a teaspoon, trying not to spill them.

I’m fresh out of university and interning at an agency where they care about front end development, a classmate tells me. Because front end development I think is a thing I want to do, I apply even though I feel weirdly old in comparison to the other interns.

“We do code reviews here, so when you’re ready with the assignment create a pull request so we can review your changes,” a man is saying to me. I feel confident I understand the gist of that, even if some of the particulars elude me. Mostly, however, the idea that I am to write some code and have another human look over it for mistakes grips me with fear.

I finish the assignment within the hour but spend more than that time going over it again and again, blind to what I’m missing.

I’m going to be critiqued on this, is the blind panic going through my head.

Mistakes are found once I open the pull request, and then I fix them. I seethe inwardly. Ugh, you are an idiot! I think to myself. Those were so easy!

They were easy, which is why a second pair of eyes helped find them.

Strawberry streusel.

Strawberry streusel.

As the internship draws to a close the code reviews get sparser and sparser as my presence is either less exciting, or work gets busy, or people start to trust me — a little from column A, a little from column B, it’s hard to tell. Most people seem generally pleased with the work I do and start to leave me to go about my day.

My mentor — who had been busy for most of the internship with real work and notably absent from my day-to-day — looks over the application and gives me a bunch of notes:

This isn’t going to fly, he says. Without all of these things done, you’re never going to be able to do this as a real job. It looks way too unpolished.

It is so left-field from the small, incremental advice that thus far available that for the first time I’m defiant. Where was this critique when it was actionable? Why was I only hearing about it at the very end? Why were these small visual tweaks suddenly so important that they were preventing an entire career? I don’t push the point: I politely write down his points, and on the way home that night I throw them in a trash can. I’m upset about it for months, but: I get hired to do this stuff as a real job, so.

I’m at the bakery Easter weekend and it’s busy. I’m making “Pearls”, the cupcake the bakery is known for that has a notoriously challenging meringue icing loaded with coconut flakes and topped with a tiny nonpareil. I hate making these cupcakes with a passion. Making the icing takes stirring forever manually and I’m tired. I’m staring at the clock.

I wanna get out of here by 10, I think to myself.

The owner of the shop looks over at what I’m doing — icing the 18th Pearl and packing coconut flakes into it — and says, “Those aren’t gonna work. Re-do them.”

A haggard more experienced baker comes over and helps me save the three dozen cupcakes I had ruined because I was too caught up in finishing to point out that the icing seemed runny. I leave at 11:20 feeling bad, but also redeemed. At least I fixed it. And people were oddly kind through the debacle, as if it was expected to happen, or maybe that everyone had made this mistake at one point — they are notoriously challenging cupcakes — and as such, they place any blame with the lofty idea of the cupcakes in general, as they had done it in the past themselves and thus it wasn’t worth taking the time to worry over, really.

Or maybe not. But I was becoming the queen of midday power naps after challenging sessions such as these.

The days are becoming whirlwinds of small corrections that are adding up to something larger.

“Just a couple minutes longer,” says a baker after testing some of my icing.

“We’d like the background a little darker, but we’re loving how things feel like they’re floating,” a client says.

“First order of business is to get your site launched,” a mentor says.

“So what are you going to work on this next month to get that finished?” a friend with his own startup asks as I start to get distracted.

Lemon ricotta cake. Ugh so good.

Lemon ricotta cake. Ugh so good.

I start using some of the tips from the bakery in my home baking. I buy icing bags, which I had never known how to use before. I realize you get richer flavors subbing milk for buttermilk, so I start incorporating it into certain recipes. I make scones for the first time, which I’ve never made before. A friend and I bake, and I direct her for some reason, even though there wasn’t any order originally. I just know where everything is.

After years of being afraid of critique, of actively avoiding it, of hating it when it was given, I find myself surprised to have surrounded myself with it, to enjoy it or to be unbothered by it, to be improved by it. The critique pokes and prods, but in a good way, like the sun telling a small plant, Go this way toward the light.

I come back home late one night from studying and stop to chat with the night guard. He tells me, “You and your husband should have kids soon. In my culture, you’d already have kids. Take my advice, maybe one more year of fun, but then you should have kids and settle down.”

After months of good critique, advice, of useful, actionable steps that the people I have surrounded myself with have given me to improving myself, my craft, my business, my hobbyist skills, I’m taken aback by the bad critique.

You’re doing it wrong, this person is saying. If you don’t do it this way you’ll never be able to be a real \_____._

Critique has always been this stalwart entity of good design; code reviews, the stalwart of good programming. There are guides about how to give good advise, how to critique your students, how to run effective code reviews, how to critique your direct reports, and yet so, so few on how to take that critique. That advice is and always has been immeasurably, frustratingly vague. Buck up kid, you’ll get better. The pain you’re feeling you’ll grow hardened to. Develop a tough skin, you’re going to need it.

Which, if you’ll excuse me, is only useful if the advice being given is actually any good.

Good critique is painful because it is true. Good critique helps take the bad drawings in your sketchbook done around a coffee machine and make them better. Good critique can sting because moving yourself toward “better” is a tough process.

You know vanilla cupcakes are done because the sides are brown and there’s no wiggle to them anymore, says Nicole. These need to bake a little longer, next time don’t take them out quite so soon. Two more minutes.

The reason critique is terrifying is because offering your work up for critique can be a crapshoot. You don’t know what kind of critique you’ll receive. It could be the good critique that moves you toward the better you you want to accomplish. It might be the bad critique that moves you backward. The hardest thing you will ever do is learn to receive critique, and what kind of critique is worth taking note of. Half of the game is understanding what you do with it, and knowing if the critique was of value. Finding the people who can move you forward, give you good critique, is a process you’ll continue until you decide you want or need to stand still.

I don’t tell him much in response — there’s a lot running through my head about how I suspect my family’s culture of forcing children out of the house post-school is a must unless you want tons of guilt is probably foreign to him, as are the Céad Mile Faílte plaques that plaster our walls and the obsession with pretzels and the belief that Sunday mass should only, ever, last an hour. But I don’t want to beleaguer the point; he didn’t ask for the advice, so it would be rude to give. Instead I tell him it’s time I go to bed, and to have a good night.

As I take the elevator up I think about the good critique that informs my tomorrow, and throw the bad critique in the proverbial trash bin with 24 vegan chocolate cupcakes, made without sugar.

My favorite cake recipes, you say? A toss up between this almond coffee cake and this lemon ricotta cake. When it comes to cupcakes I’m a fan of a good ol’, make-your-teeth-ache-it’s-so-sweet Magnolia cake.