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.

8 comments on “On Criticism
  • I have a different take here. Criticism often is not hurled for it to be well received. It is possibly to register a different, if not unique point of view that crossed the critic’s mind. Now is that a sin ? Should such person necessarily have “shared experience” ? I don’t think so. Writers choose to publish their work not because the public asked for it. They felt their imagination and / or accumulated knowledge deserves to be read and owed it to the world. They also seek to gain popularity and royalty that follows from such authorship. Can they expect only kudos and no brickbats on such a voluntary submission? Then they don’t have a right to be in the public domain. A wider public interface is an upshot of the author’s lust for recognition and social stardom and criticism is merely a consequence of that lust. Prescribing qualifications for the source of criticism betrays cowardice. What if literary communities prescribed qualification for authorship ? (Hey, don’t give us stuff that sucks!) Just as the choice of buying a book lies with the customer, the choice of accepting or ignoring criticism, shall always rest with the receiver. The only gracious way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can’t ignore it, top it; if you can’t top it, laugh at it; if you can’t laugh at it, it’s probably deserved.

  • My best friend read that Roosevelt quote as part of her salutatorian speech at our high school graduation. Love it.

    Tucker Max: Narcissistic much? Sounds like someone who believes he is himself pretty close to perfect (like most narcissists). People with healthy self-images can consider criticism on a case-by-case basis, rejecting and taking on board as they feel appropriate (and obviously not always getting it right). They do not attribute criticism as a general problem of hateration or envy.

    Regarding his very odd concept of perfection, Adriana Lukas and I were discussing this tonight. The more you live, the more you accept that – duh – nobody has their shit totally together. Even those who appear to be perfectly balanced have their demons and issues. Or, as I hear in a certain place I hang out a lot, “don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides”. Only a narcissist would compare his internal and external selves to others and find themselves near-perfect or perfect. This is the view of a giant toddler, not a mature, well-adjusted (yet flawed) adult.

  • “The only gracious way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can’t
    ignore it, top it; if you can’t top it, laugh at it; if you can’t laugh at
    it, it’s probably deserved.”

    That’s quotable, Krishna!

  • Are you equating criticism and feedback? Do they overlap? I think of criticism as more philosophical and feedback as more behavioral.

    In any instance I’m far more interested in feedback…and it takes exceptional skill to learn from it, whether positive strokes, negative and developmental, or toxic.

  • Serious question: Do you know the definition of hate, and how it differs from hatred?

    If you find yourself explaining away criticism by saying, “Oh well, guess I’m just too close to perfect for some people,” you have bigger problems than your critics can give you.

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