‘Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.’ ~Bertrand Russell
If you’re going to do anything interesting in the world, criticism is an unavoidable fact.
You’ll be criticized, because you’ll make mistakes, because some will be jealous, because people have opinions about anything interesting, because people want to help you, because some want to drag down those doing anything different.
The trick to navigating the icebergs of criticism is to figure out which are helpful, and steer clear of those that aren’t.
And above all, do it with grace.
Criticism on Zen Habits
Once Zen Habits started to take off — I had 26K subscribers at the end of my first year in 2007 — I received all kinds of criticism. Many of them were from new readers, who were mostly incredibly positive and encouraging, but who sometimes would leave scathing comments on a post.
I learned a tactic that worked extremely well. If a comment was mean, I’d take a minute to calm myself down, and then ask, “Does this person have a point (despite their rude tone)?”
Then I would respond and thank the commenter for his criticism. I’d acknowledge their point without being defensive. I’d respond with my reasoning, if I felt I had a point, or if the critic was right I would agree and let them know I was going to change things. Either way, I was grateful for their criticism.
This had a startling effect: the commenter would often respond very positively. Thanking the commenter and acknowledging their point is disarming. People who leave rude comments don’t expect you to listen to them, much less be grateful and empathetic. I had many of my critics become friends after doing that — I’ve never seen a tactic have better results.
I’d also get criticism from other sites. My usual response has been to ask myself (again, after calming down), “Does this person have a point?” If they do, I’ll see what I can do to change. If not, I’ll move on.
I’ve learned that criticism is a fact of the game. I can respond with anger, or let it stop me from doing things, or I can let it help me. Or accept that it’s there and move on. I choose the last two.
How Not To Handle Criticism
Criticism can bring you down if you let it. People get discouraged when faced with criticism, and just give up. That can be understandable, but why let the words of someone having a bad day (or month) stop you from doing something great? What would have happened if Shakespeare had stopped writing the first time an audience member jeered one of his lines? Or if Gandhi had given up just because the Brits weren’t happy with his ways?
Often people will instead respond to criticism with anger. They’ll lash out, attack, become defensive and aggressive.
If you haven’t read this now-infamous comment thread for a review of an indie book, I highly recommend it. The review is fine, but the comments left by the author of the book are simply incredible. She’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.
This is how not to respond to criticism. It was the worst way to react. If you’re angry, you do not tell people to fuck off. You do not attack them, blame them for your mistakes, deny that you made any mistakes, and feed fuel to the fire by compounding your mistakes with more mistakes. It would be so much better just to stay silent.
Do Amazing Things
Don’t let criticism stop you from doing anything. If someone tells you that your writing sucks, keep doing it. Make it better. Study people who do it well and rip them off, then make it your own and let your voice infuse what you do. Be great by being honest, by seeking the truth and telling that truth when no one else will.
Create amazing things. Contribute to the world, make the version of the world you want to see.
Go out and do something different. Don’t do things just because everyone else does it. Here’s a secret:
If you find yourself swimming along with all the other fishes, swim the other way. They don’t know where they’re going either.
Do something amazing, and share it with the world. Criticism can be necessary, but often it is just dragging down the people trying to do amazing things. Don’t let it stop you.
How to Handle It Gracefully
Calm yourself down before responding. Always. Responding to a critic in anger is never, ever, ever a good idea. In case I didn’t make that clear: don’t ever ever ever respond in anger.
Ask yourself why the criticism was made. Is the person trying to help, to make things better, to help you avoid making mistakes, to suggest positive improvements? Is the person just in a cranky rude mood, having a bad day? Is the person just mean, or jealous? Is there good reason for the criticism?
Regardless of the motivation, ask yourself if there is validity in the criticism. Sometimes there really is, but instead of letting that get you down, let it help you improve. Admit that you’re not perfect at what you do (though you are perfect), and that not everything you do is exactly right, and that you want to improve. I, for one, certainly make mistakes all the time and have a lot I can improve.
Thank the person offering the criticism. Sometimes they’re coming from a place of wanting to help you. That takes courage, and is a very generous thing. Be grateful for that. Even when they’re not trying to be helpful, they’ve taken the time to respond to you — and trust me, getting a response is better than absolute silence. Provoking a reaction means you’ve done something interesting — and for that, you should be thankful. Either way, thanking the critic will help lead to a positive exchange.
Respond rationally and calmly. Instead of being defensive, be honest. Share your reasons, acknowledge the other person’s points if there’s any validity, and come to a rational conclusion rather than jealously guarding your way of doing things.
Or stay silent. If you can’t respond with grace, then just don’t respond. Silence is a much better response than anger or defensiveness or quitting.
Carry on. You’ve responded gracefully, now get back to doing your amazing things.
The Art of Handling Criticism Gracefully was originally posted on Zen Habits on 3/31/11.