About a week back, I helped decorate the tree at my parents house. It is the same tree my family has had since 1991, and it is aging pretty well. I did notice it was shorter and a little more see-through than I recall — yet I still love to look at a Christmas tree on these long winter nights. It has to look a very certain way, though. I’m extremely particular about the type of lights: I can see the 60Hz flicker of LEDs (if you can’t see the flicker, try looking at them out of the corner of your eye) so I’m a staunch supporter of incandescent lights, the bigger the better. The fact that I notice, dwell on, respond to, take pride in getting these details right, things like color temperature, replacement bulbs, wattages, things that seem insignificant to most — I used to think that was a part of me to minimize, to downplay, to somehow outgrow.

But I love that stuff. I love the details.

Dentistry is a job that rewards extreme attention to detail: just ask anyone who casts gold about getting stone expansion right. Or any dentist who has bonded with a 5th generation system and not paid enough attention to dentinal moisture. I delight in mounting casts and checking their articulation with shimstock — I love thinking through how to build in negative error into restorations, I love how you can refine a tooth prep with different grits of diamonds. I love this stuff. The other day I popped on a rubber dam, preparing to do a quadrant of restorations, and I realized that I was in my happy place. How lucky I am!

So the turning point in accepting my detail-dwelling was reading the essay Hypercritical by John Siracusa, a famously particular software developer and technology writer:

But my scrutiny was not limited to my own artwork or the products of multinational conglomerates. Oh no, it extended to everything I encountered. This pasta is slightly over-cooked. The top of that door frame is not level. Some paint from that wall got onto the ceiling. Text displayed in 9-point Monaco exhibits a recurring one-pixel spacing anomaly in this operating system. Ahem.

But much worse than that, it means that everything you ever create appears to you as an accumulation of defeats. “Here’s where I gave up trying to get that part right and moved on to the next part.” Because at every turn, it’s apparent to you exactly how poorly executed your work-in-progress is, and how far short it will inevitably fall when completed. But surrender you must, at each step of the process, because the alternative is to never complete anything—or to never start at all.

Sircausa was describing exactly my life — and yet I had never ever ever had anyone at all to talk with this about, and suddenly here was somebody articulating my own personality back to me, more eloquently than I was able. So, he goes on to point out the value of this critical eye, and of course he’s right. The dearth of those so honed in on details makes them rare and their contributions valuable — as long as they figure out a way not to drive everyone around them insane.

2 comments left



I think an important part of tempering any extreme part of ones personality is maintaining perspective about its helpfulness—both to oneself and to others—and choosing how one communicates these ideas and preferences to the world. (You know, a “use your powers for good” kind of thing!) For example, my own personality tends toward the extreme of critical analysis and skepticism about everything. Why would I paint the room this way, when this other way seems more efficient? Is homemade pasta really so hard to make that we need to use dried? As a teenager, I made the mistake of voicing my analysis of almost every situation and decision that I and those around me were facing, and as a result, got pegged as “negative” and “never being excited about anything” by my immediate family. What I realized is that not everyone’s brain worked the way mine did and not everyone wanted to think as critically as I did about what they were doing and why they were doing it.

I finally realized (in my earlier 20s) that I didn’t need to make every critical analysis publicly known, and what mattered was that I was comfortable with the decisions I was making and my reasons for making those decisions. In fact, once I started doing this, my family members slowly began to recognize the value in the way I was questioning the status quo… and eventually began asking for my advice every once in a while.

I think the lesson here is two-fold: 1) People don’t like to feel judged. 2) Valuable choices made in ones own life will speak for themselves—and people will start to take notice. Would someone want to go to dinner with a person who’s constantly complaining about gummy pasta or flickering light bulbs? Nope. But when that same person talks about their experience installing a door in their own house, and the care they took to ensure that the frame was perfectly level—and why!—people can better understand the value of this attention to detail and begin to appreciate this quality in that person. It really comes back to what the Buddha says about right speech… something about speaking only when what you’re saying is true, useful, and kind. Lots of things are true; very few also meet the last two criteria.

Well, that got philosophical in a hurry… but I really do think it’s interesting to examine different facets of our personalities and why we are quicker to accept some and reject others. Relating to other people adds a level of complexity to our own understanding of ourselves and what is “normal”; I can completely understand finding comfort in hearing someone describe themselves in a way that resonates so strongly with you. :)

Alexander Micek +1

I do think it is interesting that you feel that you made the “mistake” as a teenager of embracing the critical† part of your personality. Rather than an error, such commitment to one’s personality, clearly made without malice in your case, is almost the prototypical example of what it means to push back on the world when one is coming of age. What else is being a teenager than establishing how one fits into the world? The terrible teens we take as a given part of the United States are really just capable human beings reacting against artificial strictures in society. The game is rigged against them for a few years, and they sense the stupidity of it. (But I am getting off track).

I don’t want to distract from the point: your realization of meting out doses of your critical thinking‡ beginning in your 20s— that is valid, important, & applicable, so I do appreciate you bringing it up.

What I hear you saying (I especially like the true + useful + kind) goes a very nice step further than finding one’s spot in the world: it is finding the way you can push and develop your gifts to make other people’s lives better. In that way, it goes beyond simply fitting into the world with the least amount of friction (meshing the teeth of your gears with those of the other’s) making the whole machine better, because you are not just another gear, you are a new part, and you can change the rules of the system to work for more people.

† By critical I mean “actively critiquing” and not criticism based on arbitrary, unconsidered standards. What you are describing is all about reconsidering that which has already been written off as established.
‡ And again, I mean “critical thinking” in the truest sense of the word and not the watered-down buzzword used in education standards discussions.

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