What is "constructive" input?

It seems like a lot of folks are confused about their relationship to Elm.

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, and I am sharing some subset in a relatively unfiltered way.

I’m not looking for feedback. I just want to share a mixture of facts and feelings to help contextualize an experiment in increasing the amount of moderation we do.

Core People

At this point in time, the set of core folks includes at least:

  • Evan
  • Richard
  • Aaron
  • Brian
  • Luke
  • Ilias
  • Noah

These are people who make actual choices and sacrifices to participate in Elm in serious ways. In some cases, it means changing jobs, often taking quite significant salary decreases to do so, sometimes living in cities we do not like. In some cases, it means doing hundreds of hours of organizing work, outside of normal work. In some cases, it means spending N weekends in a row doing something important for Elm at the expense of doing anything for yourself. All of us make choices like this because we have a personal relationship to the work and each other that makes it worthwhile.


We all get some sort of pretty extreme joy from the work we do, but there are parts of being in a “community stewardship” roles that make us question if it is actually worthwhile overall.

I think for most of us, the absolute worst part is constantly having people (who do not care about us) tell us how to do our jobs better. I think the people who do this think it is “tough love” or “constructive criticism” but let’s put those words in another context:

Mr. Helpful is working out at the gym. He has read a books on fitness and can squat one plate. He sees The Gymnast come in with a pretty nice physique. It is not perfect though. He goes up to the guy and says, “Wow, your calves are really underdeveloped. Do you do any calf exercises?” The Gymnast tries to explain that he is not a body builder, and in his discipline, there is a totally different value system and process for improving. He obviously does not understand how bad his calves are…

Mr. Helpful is very insistent though. Next time he sees The Gymnast, he shares his advice again. And the next time. And the next time. At some point, the conversations start going quite poorly. The Gymnast is so ungrateful that he says “Please stop giving me the same advice every day.” Mr. Helpful replies “I’m only saying this because your physique is so good, and I know it can be better if you only worked out smarter. Why are you not accepting my help? I’m doing this because I care so much. I’m just worried about you.” Mr. Helpful is hurt. He gave valuable advice. He was persistent, spending a bunch of his workout time talking instead of doing anything himself. And in the end, The Gymnast did not accept the advice. Must be self-conscious about his bad calves, or maybe it is some deeper issue… Something bad in his childhood…

Is that tough love? Is that constructive criticism?

Or is it a series of very uncomfortable interactions in a public place? Anyone who knows The Gymnast is probably advising him to just go to a different gym.

This is not a perfect analogy (obviously) but I hope it is clear enough. I know some folks do not take hints here though, so to be extra clear, please try to review your past behavior and see if it resembles this story at all. Are people just not listening to your excellent and repeated advice? Do you think they heard you the first time? Or at least the fifth time? Why are you spending so much time of your life on this?

Credible Sources

It is possible that Mr. Helper was giving the exact same advice that a professional coach would give. The coach might even do it in a harsher way. So what is the difference between a coach saying it and Mr. Helper saying it?

Well, Coach is a very specific role. If The Gymnast were to get a coach, he is not going to pick just anyone off the street. Or even someone who did gymnastics. Or even someone who competed at a really high level. Or even someone who trained five gold medalists. The Gymnast would pick his coach based on asking:

  1. What is the track record of the coach?
  2. Do my goals align with the coaches strategy?
  3. How well we get along?

Point (3) can rule out all sorts of people who are totally qualified to coach. They may even produce the best results in the world. But if you actively hate that person, maybe it will not be the best for you.

The point is that there are a lot of factors that go into being a good coach, and you don’t get to be a coach because you want to. You can coach if people respect you. And the personal relationship there is one of mutual respect and shared goals. In that context, “tough love” and “constructive criticism” are called coaching or mentoring to indicate that both parties actually agreed to the relationship.


  1. There is a core group of people who make actual choices and sacrifices to try to make a nice thing here. Part of that core group is that we actually like and respect each other.
  2. Infinite unsolicited advice from strangers is the part of this job that makes us want to quit.
  3. The fact that you think things does not make you a coach that we choose.

The obvious response here will be the “just delegate” brigade. I cut a whole section from this post about that. I will post it separately instead.

To all the folks who did not need me to spend my whole day writing this, I’m sorry the online forums currently allow the Mr. Helpful types to suck so much time from the whole community. We will be experimenting with ways of curtailing that outcome. If you see things that are wasting time in pointless/rude/tiring/repetitive/offtopic discussion, please start reporting it. I sense that a lot of people feel as tired as me, and it would be helpful to know about it.

I’ve never had to say “just be nice” in such a elaborate way, and while it obviously won’t be effective on its own, perhaps it will be helpful to share some of the emotional downsides of our work.