Whatever we do in life can and will be subject to somebody’s criticism. At school, whenever we venture out of the stiff curriculum and its set of rules, we get scolded. When we decide to climb Mount Everest, there will be voices wondering why we’re willing to risk our lives like that. The art we produce will resonate with some people and make others negate our talents. For this reason, the sooner we learn how to distinguish negative from constructive criticism, the richer our lives will become.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing”. — Elbert Hubbard
Where It Begins
Our rigid education system teaches us how not to make mistakes in order to pass tests and exams. Can we learn how to think without trial and error? No, and that’s the point. We’ve been shaped into what Seth Godin, author and marketing guru, calls cogs in the machine of our economy. The industrial system has conditioned our brains to be obedient instead of trusting our gut and designing our reality. Criticism at school in the form of bad grades reduces the entirety of who we are to a single letter or number. It trains us to fear external disapproval.
Instead, the lesson should be: focus on doing bad work to learn how to do good work. Then, do good work to learn how to do brilliant work. This is the true key to learning, progress, and turning pro at anything.
All criticism is not the same. The first step to distinguishing between useless and useful feedback is to evaluate where it comes from. The truth is, a lot of people will criticize someone or something out of boredom, bitterness, lack of knowledge, or simply because they can.
Social media is an example of the level of toxicity unlike anything the world has ever seen. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and online anonymity makes it easy to voice judgment with little to no consequences for the commentator. Should you lose sleep over a random person’s Internet remark? Never.
Then, we have those with crushed dreams and broken hearts. It’s difficult for them to see someone succeed at something that, for some reason, proved to be their failure. Empathy will help you understand where their pain comes from, yet it does not mean you should take it into account.
Last but not least, there are people who never made the slightest attempt at accomplishing anything and are led by fear and envy. Tune their misery out. Your happiness and ambition makes them feel uncomfortable in their own skin but it is not your responsibility to save them from themselves. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
The Toughest Decision
Our families and closest friends care about us and we care about them. This is why rejecting their unfounded criticism can be difficult. They mean well, they want what’s best for us, and their fear of our failure can be hurtful and confusing. Our support system wants to hold us back.
Ask yourself this: do they know where you’re going, what you want to accomplish, and why? Can they relate to it on a professional level? Or is their only advice for you to get a real job? Consider the mindset of your friends and family, is it fixed, or are they willing to grow? Analyze their criticism from all possible angles (there’s still a chance that you might be wrong). The reason they’re worried about you is love. The toughest decision is to love them back but trust yourself.
Without some form of external evaluation we risk mediocrity. Criticism is necessary for growth, as it can nudge you out of your comfort zone and level you up from your “weekend warrior” status to a pro creating distinctive work. Useful words of critique and guidance are gold.
When somebody sees you for who you are, recognizes your strengths and weaknesses in a supportive and compassionate way, offers solutions aligned with your values and mission – this criticism is constructive. When a person is genuinely interested in what you plan to accomplish and how, when they take time to mentor you and uncover more efficient ways to unleash your full potential and make your dreams come true – this is useful criticism.
You have no obligation whatsoever to open yourself to unhelpful feedback. Filter through the noise to get to constructive guidance that can aid you on your way to greatness. This is the only criticism that matters.
How To React
Receiving useful advice is easy. We say thank you, take notes, and experiment with applying what we learned to our work. We only really need to brace ourselves against negativity.
First of all, you bear no responsibility for other people’s feelings and lives. Your evolution and success might aggravate a few individuals but it’s their problem, not yours. Smoothing ruffled feathers is not your job. Make your wellbeing a priority. How?
Focus on what you can control. Unfollow or block rude people on social media and turn off comments if you feel it’s impossible to have a civilized conversation. Be assertive, learn to say no to anything that can disrupt your inner peace and distract you from your work. Look negativity in the eye and bid it farewell.
Also, never tailor your standards to somebody else’s needs. Stay unique and true to yourself. React to negative feedback with cast-iron self-esteem, especially when it’s your work that’s under attack. You are not your work. You can change what you do without changing yourself.
And above all, stay calm and collected. Useless criticism can only affect you if you let it. Meditate, do breath work, take a walk in nature, journal, or talk to a friend. Turn unfavorable words into cobble stones in your path to happiness.
Keep Your Eyes On The Prize
Listening to one-star criticism will never make you better at anything. Everything we do is not for everyone. There is no magic trick to please the entire world. Choose your audience wisely, tune into constructive feedback, and treat the outside noise like an illusion. You are in the arena doing all the hard work. Keep your eyes on the prize.
"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." ― Theodore Roosevelt
(excerpt from Citizenship in a Republic, a speech given by former President of the United States at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910)