You may have many reasons for not pursuing your dreams and ambitions. Holding back for fear of criticism, though, is probably the dumbest of them all. Understanding how to take criticism well is a critical (pun intended) life skill. Read more to find out why. And while at it, why not learn how to be a good critic?
That Neil Armstrong
Here's an interesting story from the NY Times archives about Neil Armstrong. Yes, that "small step for man, giant leap for mankind" person who landed on the moon first.
In 1977, Armstrong was at the Sydney Opera House to give a talk. Someone there referred to a magazine article in which supposedly Armstrong had said (in jest) that he didn't exercise because he thought everyone had a set number of heartbeats and that he'd rather not waste any.
Armstrong then got up to the podium for the talk but said he first wanted to clarify something. Then, he took off his jacket, dropped to the floor for twenty pushups, and started his speech.
Funny? Yes. But also underscores one central point:
No one is immune to criticism. Not even the first human to ever set foot on the moon.
About criticism and its relatives
Criticism is a judgment of another's work. Typically, an unfavorable ruling. The word criticism has other siblings and word-cousins that essentially represent the same concept. For instance, the word review is a diet version of criticism, while the word critique is a more sophisticated form—criticism cloaked in posh clothing.
When you criticize, review, or critique someone or someone's work, you are essentially issuing a verdict — your opinion of the person or situation.
Criticism is as old as human-kind is. Unfortunately, while we've learned to finetune our use of tools over the years and improved our motor skills, we haven't made proportional advancements in how we react when criticized. It seems, in the thousands of years of human existence, we've neglected the lessons on how to take criticism well.
On the flip side, though, we've mastered the art of doling criticism out! It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that one of our key achievements in the early 21st century is our ability to trade insults on Twitter. Simply marvelous!
Why develop the ability to take criticism?
Good question. The answer is relatively simple. I'm sure we can all agree that the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing and go nowhere. Ever. Since that's rather hard to achieve, our next best bet is to make the best of what we have—to figure out how to take criticism well.
The ability to accept criticism, especially from the right sources, is a huge stepping stone to personal growth. Without this feedback loop, you'll keep doing what you've always done, without any improvement, while driving yourself and others around you insane.
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
To keep this article from turning into a book, I'll steer clear of the academic definitions of the different types of criticism—constructive/ destructive, explicit/implicit, personal/impersonal, etc.
Suffice to say that we can't control what type of criticism we're going to be subject to. But we can control our responses by learning how to take criticism well.
But before delving into the subject of taking criticism, let's talk about how to offer criticism.
We are all critics: every single one of us. Since we will dish it out, we might as well know how to do it in a constructive, positive manner. Because—Karma, baby!
How to give out criticism
A critic is a legless man who teaches running – Channing Pollock (American magician)
Did you know there is a Pulitzer Prize for criticism? I didn't, until recently—blew my breath away. That got me thinking about the people whose job title includes the word critic.
There are critics in almost every industry - movie critics, art critics, book critics, etc. It sure takes some level of self-confidence to have a career solely commenting on another's work. How does one even make that a career choice? Do they wake up one day going, "Hey, I don't know how to create a movie, but I do know what you didn't do right." Ballsy!
All that said, in their defense, it's not easy being a critic.
These professional critics have to get out of their glass houses before they start throwing stones. They don't just spout random insults but instead are expertly trained in techniques on how to critique correctly.
I figured we, armchair / amateur-critics, could do well to borrow the top three of these pro-techniques when we are ready to pass judgment on others.
Target the action, not the person
Make the criticism impersonal.
For instance, if you're unhappy with a design project, don't call someone a bad designer. If you redirect the criticism to the bad design instead of the designer, you stand a chance of being heard.
No good ever comes out of making criticism personal. Therapists have thriving careers taking care of people who were the victims of personal criticism. Let's not add to their burden.
Follow SMART goals principles
When giving out criticism, borrow from the SMART goal-setting practice.
Fair criticism is when you ask someone to improve upon something, AND you are doing it in a way that's SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely).
Be very specific and offer criticism only if it's relevant and can be implemented (achievable) by the recipient. Yelling at the customer service representative at the store because the store closing hours do not appeal to you isn't going to help. Your criticism is not relevant to the store clerk and not achievable since they don't have the power to change store hours.
Also, offer criticism in a timely manner. No point going on a tirade at a subordinate today for a report that was late last month. The subordinate's chance to rectify the issue has long passed, so other than feeling like you're somehow superior, you don't achieve much.
Use the Hamburger method
Just like how buns on either side flank the meat in the hamburger, cushion your criticism (the meat) between other positive/encouraging messages (the buns).
The recipient will still taste the meat, but it won't be as stark and raw.
Yeah—same principle for veggie burgers too.
How to take criticism well
Now, what if you're at the receiving end of criticism?
Firstly, remember that not everyone that criticizes you is trained in the fine art of critiquing correctly (or has read this article).
So, how to cope with criticism without turning into a raging maniac or a hot teary mess?
I like criticism, but it must be my way— Mark Twain's Autobiography
I doubt anyone will disagree with Twain. But since most people that criticize us won't do it our way, here are five tips on how we can put up with their way.
Before I get into the specific tips, understand that there's a difference between merely being thick-skinned and the ability to take criticism gracefully. You ignore what's being said and continue your merry way with the former, whereas the latter is truly a great skill that helps you grow as a human.
Take five (or ten)
Trust me; no one likes being told they did a crappy job. Or that it could have been done better. Our egos are too fragile, like delicate dinner-table china. Any adverse comments can crack or break us quite quickly, especially when they are unexpected.
The first thing to do when receiving criticism is to acknowledge the criticism but then give yourself a break before you form a reaction (positive or negative).
Allow the criticism to sink in, and give yourself some space and time to figure out how you feel about it. Maybe it's not as bad as it sounds now, or perhaps it is unwarranted. How would you know if you haven't even processed the comments?
Acknowledge the criticism with an "okay" or a "thanks" and then take a break. Go for a walk. Talk about other things—anything to not dwell on the criticism for a little bit. Of course, this is much easier when you're not face-to-face with someone. But even then, it's still possible to pause and reflect—change the conversation, talk about the weather.
If the criticism is negative, taking some time off will help prevent a bad situation from worsening. Most people's response is to get defensive and lash back at the critic immediately. Pausing allows you to control that response.
Even if you receive positive, warranted criticism — a break will help you appreciate the feedback.
Listen. Really Listen.
Understand what's being said. Don't just hear; listen instead. If people take the trouble to criticize you, there may be some nugget of wisdom in it, especially if the criticism is constructive. Think of it as free advice, one you don't pay for, but one that will help you get better in the long run.
Avoid getting defensive
If you keep insisting you are right and the other person keeps pointing out flaws, you both are essentially walking around in circles and asking who's following whom. This game can last forever. Stop the cycle.
Instead of defending your actions, reflect on what's causing the difference of opinion. There may be a growth opportunity right there.
When my family complains that there is a same-oldness about dinner, I should stop retorting with "Fine – why don't you make dinner then?". Instead, I should try to figure out if making a huge pot of pasta on Sunday and serving it for dinner four days in a row may be a bit boring to some. (High-maintenance? I know.).
Whether I act on it or not is irrelevant to this discussion, but I can quiet the automatic defense mechanism.
Take the higher ground
Some critics tend to be like petulant children. You can argue and reason with them, but you are wasting your time. Filter trolls out. They are not worth your time.
If there is nothing positive to be gleaned from the experience, ignore the criticism, and walk away. No harm, no foul. Resist the urge to get even or lash back. The higher ground is a fun place to be because it's less crowded. Very few people make it and stay there.
The moon does not stop for barking dogs.
Be grateful for criticism
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, we ought to be grateful to have people in our life that disagree with us. Having sycophants who flatter us every step of the way is a sure-fire way to end up in delusional hell. It helps to remember that some people who offer positive criticism are interested in your welfare.
Ultimately, do the right thing. Some criticism stings but for the right reasons. If you took a short-cut and it backfired, someone may point it out to you later. In this case, the criticism is warranted. Do the right thing and accept the criticism gracefully.
Rarely do we make online purchases without reading product or service reviews. We seldom ignore the comments section on online articles or social media posts. Wonder why? Because opinions matter. That's where the action is.
As humans, we are bound to have differences of opinion. It is natural and healthy. The world would be too dull a place if we all thought and acted the same way.
Therefore, it's okay to stop hiding. Feel free to put out your authentic projects into the world. Yes, you're going to subject yourself to some criticism. Once you know how to take criticism well and treat right, positive, and well-thought-out criticism as free consulting advice, you're on your way to being a better version of yourself. That's worth something.