Handling Criticism

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Do anything, badly or well, and there is always a poor soul somewhere who feels it is their God-given right to tell you where you went wrong and how you should have done it! Because few people like to be thought of as judgmental (an even more polite euphemism for smearing someone’s efforts with the conceit of their self-promoting negative opinions) they call it “offering constructive criticism.” Don’t be misled; it isn’t.

Max makes an important decision.
Max makes an important decision

‘Constructive criticism’ – an oxymoron. Check out the dictionary definitions and you’ll get the overwhelming impression that criticism is destructive. It is an expression of the critic’s underlying insecurity, of their attempt to appear superior, wiser, cleverer – usually at the expense of your emotional well-being. Criticism is an easy virtue, it implies that the critic knows better than you and can do better than you without them ever having to prove the point. It is an attempt to behead the tall poppy because it is revealing how short the others are.

You won’t see ‘constructive critics’ on the pitch of any truly successful team. Criticism is the favourite occupation of the man or woman observing your performance from the stands – they’re not prepared to put in the effort, dedication and emotional investment you’ve made in order to play the game, so they stand ‘advising’ (or should that be ‘undermining’?) those who are giving their all in a worthy cause. The bigger the effort you put in and the higher the personal cost you’ve invested, the more sensitive you, the doer, become to the havoc wreaked by the observer, the ‘constructive critic’. It is almost certain that the critic has never succeeded in what you are attempting, and probably has never attempted it either.

And beware the critic in you. Those who have lived with a critical person for any length of time know how their negativity can be catching. Children grow up unwilling to explore new avenues of life or take on new challenges for fear of provoking the criticism of some inner perfectionist that sounds scarily like the voice of a parent or teacher. (In Powerchange we’ve considerable success in silencing those paralysing voices.)

My favourite quote on the critic was made in a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1899 in Chicago. I have carried it with me for years. Do yourself a favour and memorise it. It will be well worth it and protect you when you are vulnerable to criticism:

“It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or when the doer of deeds could have done 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 and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and 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. Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

That quote is an amazing gift to you and to every enterprising, boundary pushing, initiating, creative activist in the world from a gifted and passionate world statesman who knew what he was talking about. Criticism hurts (and is often intended to), there’s no denying that, but I’ve learned personally that it can make you very very strong as it inflames your determination to ‘spend yourself in a worthy cause’ and thus live a life you can be truly proud to own.

And remember, the very presence of criticism is evidence that you have succeeded in doing something that has grown big enough to be noticed and threatens the mediocrity of the status quo.

So keep doing it.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I am going for a job interview and reading this article inspires me to push through and apply regardless of my own or other people’s criticism.

    I too have been guilty of critcising those who have a go and who work tirelessly whilst I sat back in my critcical armchair deciding how it could have been done better. Notice the past tense.

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