On Criticism

A few thoughts and quotes on criticism.

1. Seth Godin says ignore your critics (you can never make them happy) but also ignore your fans (they don’t want you to change and change is often necessary). I say, Listen to a few select critics and a few select fans — the informed, thoughtful ones — and ignore all the rest. Let me know if you figure out how to do this.

2. Tucker Max muses on haters and worshippers and thinks worshippers can be as dangerous as your critics. He says ignore your critics who are usually fueled by envy:

No matter what, someone is going to try to put you down or tell you that what did sucked, or that it’s not good because of [insert spurious logic here]….You cannot be all things to all people, and no matter how great you are, someone will hate you. Even if you are perfect–literally perfect, with no reason for anyone to do anything other than love you–some people will hate you simply because you ARE perfect. Such is envy; it is all about how the envious person sees themselves and ultimately has nothing to do with you.

3. “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” – Franklin P. Jones

4. “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

5. If you feel too tied up in the good or bad opinion of others, perhaps it’s time to declare your own independence day.

6. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

7. We value feedback more when it comes from someone who knows what you’re going through — whose face is also marred by the same dust and sweat and blood. Basketball players respect criticism more when it comes from a fellow player. Authors respect book criticism more when it comes from fellow authors, not because another author is necessarily going to be more perceptive but because a fellow author has an appreciation for the effort and the process and as a result delivers the criticism with due decency and empathy. Most bloggers, when entertaining broad criticism about their approach or style or rigor, probably value less feedback from those who do not publish themselves — people who are not putting themselves out there in a public and permanent medium every single day, not putting forth half-baked ideas in pursuit of the whole idea, not writing just reading, not engaging just lurking, not joining the conversation in the ring but rather shouting from the sidelines whenever they happen to feel particularly irked or impressed.

The lesson, then, seems to be that if you’re giving criticism to someone do so in areas where you can relate or have credibility or shared experience — if you don’t, and most of the time you won’t, then precede your critique by proactively acknowledging your distance to the matter. Then you needn’t feel like you must water down the critique itself. The chance your feedback gets listened to goes up exponentially.

You almost always need to do this when giving criticism to a self-styled “busy” person. Busy people — yes busyness is as much a matter of identity as it is a matter of time availability and schedule — tend to think they are uniquely, extraordinarily busy, and that this busyness affects all aspects of their life. Proactively say, “You must be really busy in ways I don’t understand,” observe the knowing nod, and then get to the criticism.

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