How should we go about dealing with critics?
A momentary incident in a strange town one afternoon caught me off guard. I was doing something that stuck out, so maybe it was inevitable that someone would say something.
But it got me thinking – any time we venture out of our comfort zones, it can feel like we’re sticking out, vulnerable to criticism. Someone is likely to say something. So how can we deal with the criticism when it comes?
Apparently I’m an Idiot
“You are all idiots,” she said.
I’m not sure I disagreed with her in that moment.
From her perspective, I’m certain it all looked pretty foolish. The road roasted in the afternoon heat; the humidity hung in the air like a steam bath. And here I am, out for a run, soaked in sweat, while most of the people in town had found shade. She was walking slowly down a tree-lined sidewalk, going in the other direction as I slow-broiled myself in the sun.
Maybe she had somehow read my mind a few minutes ago. I was trying to recall a quote, something about “Only mad dogs and Englishmen run around in the afternoon sun.”
“You are all idiots” she had muttered, loud enough to be sure I heard, but without eye contact. It seemed the comment was almost as much for her own benefit as mine.
My sweat-sodden running shoes made a squishing sound with every step. But even over the noise of my watery footfalls, I heard what she said.
I ran on, but her words stuck. Could it be true?
Dandelions and Nails
It was too warm to think much more deeply about it just then. But after a cold shower and a tall glass of water (or two), her comments came back to me. Why would she feel the need to say something like that?
I think part of the answer has to do with defining what an idiot is. Merriam-Webster tells us that it’s a “foolish or stupid person.” Simple enough, but that leaves a lot of room for judgement – who gets to decide who’s behaving foolishly? The Greek roots of the word suggest it’s a person lacking in common sense, and I’ll extrapolate from there to say it’s someone who doesn’t do what most everybody else (the sensable) would do under the circumstances.
That certainly fit me – not too many other runners out and about just then. I’m sure I stuck out.
But that’s what happens. Whenever we dare to do something different, to step out of our comfort zone, to achieve something new, we risk exposing ourselves.
Like the lone tall dandelion on the front lawn, we invite attention, and not necessarily the good kind. And if others have appointed themselves grounds keepers, they see a bright yellow plant that makes the rest of the lawn look bad. Maybe they feel that it makes them look bad.
That weed needs to be cut down.
It’s like that Japanese aphorism: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Deviation from the norm is often frowned upon. If we dare to be different, we can expect resistance. Criticism.
People will say things. But why?
One reason might be transference. They ask themselves if what we’re doing is something they would do, and if it isn’t, it must be dumb. But of course, they aren’t on same journey as we are.
Maybe it’s a play for the attention we appear to be stealing away.
Or maybe simply because it is easier. It takes a lot of effort and risk to put yourself out there, to act. It takes almost none at all to criticize.
And whether they realize it or not, acts of criticism seem to punch well above their weight class as we talked about in Bad vs. Good in Leadership. Being critical can make the critic seem empowered, knowledgeable, and positioned above the struggles of the one daring to do something more.
The judge sits above the judged. You can save yourself some sweat and feel superior all with just a few critical words. Who wouldn’t jump at that deal?
But Teddy Roosevelt had something to say about dealing with critics in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech in 1910. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” The part of his speech that doesn’t get quoted quite so often goes on to refute the idea that criticism comes from a position of strength:
“A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”
OK, great, I’ll sign up for Teddy’s view on the actors vs critics debate, but not everyone got his memo on the topic. There’s no shortage of criticism out there, and any of us who attempt to behave “idiotically” are liable to attract a goodly portion of it. What to do?
Dealing With Critics
Consider the credentials. If it comes down to judging, not everyone with something to say is necessarily qualified to say it. Have they been where we are, done what we are attempting to do, made the effort themselves? If so, it might pay to listen to what they have to say, then apply The Stink Test to see if it is relevant to us. If not, let’s not be too quick to give them credence just because they scoffed. Who are they to judge? They are not on the same journey as we are.
Let them opine. Opinions are fine, and most people will have them. It’s good that there are varying views of the world out there. But most of the time, confronting those lacking the credentials to comment will have no effect other than to cause them to entrench even deeper. If you’ve ever bothered to read political debates in the comment sections of social media, you’ll probably agree.
Don’t make it a thing. I could have stopped to explain to the woman what I was trying to accomplish, but what would it have achieved? Would she apologize, change her opinion, or decide to become a runner herself? Not likely. And in the meantime, I’m not getting any closer to finishing what I set out to do.
Turn the tables. To some degree we are all prone to a little jealousy when someone else stands out. Let this moment on the receiving end remind us that it’s not pleasant, encouraging, or easy to hear. Instead, let’s check ourselves for any out-going negativity and shut it down. Find something positive in what others are doing. Look for the inspiration instead of the flaw. Share that.
Remember the Why. It never hurts to revisit our “Why” from time to time to reinforce the reasons for doing what we are doing in the first place, and make sure it still makes sense. If the Why is big enough, it will overpower the negativity and allow us to keep running on.
Let actions speak. Instead of focusing on their negatives, we can just focus on our positives, and take another step.
Dealing With Critics – The Takeaway
What was I trying to do, exactly? What was my “why?”
I was chasing a dream. In one weeks-time I will be running down that same street in that same town at about the same time on what is sure to be a very hot humid afternoon, just like today. But then, the street will be lined with spectators, it will be the final mile of a marathon at the end of a very long day, and my goal is to finish* upright and smiling.
To be able to do that then, I have to be willing to prepare now, by doing crazy things like running in the heat, sticking up like a weed or a nail, exposed to the ridicule of others who are on different journeys and may not understand.
Maybe it will help to think of standing out in this way not as a weed on the lawn, but as the first plant in a garden; not as a nail to be pounded down but one to be lifted up as the first step of tearing out an old plank to make way for something new.
If we have a big why, and are serious about trying to achieve it, we have to be ready to expose ourselves. We have to be ready to step out of our comfort zones, to leave the shade, and be willing to run in the heat of the day.
Even if others call us idiots.
When it comes to dealing with critics, maybe don’t listen so much to the words that they say as to what they actually mean: we’re making progress.
So smile. Focus on the road ahead. And keep running.
*The Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.