Lessons Learned: How to Deal with Criticism

by / Comments Off on Lessons Learned: How to Deal with Criticism / 45 View / March 8, 2015

I’ve written a newspaper column for over 25 years, and published in professional journals as well. To the many people who’ve shared how much benefit they’ve received from reading my work: I’m deeply grateful for your kind words. To those who’ve been critical of what I’ve written: thank you for helping develop an appreciation of wine.

It’s amazing how vulnerable we are to the critics in the world. Our mind is prone to dwelling on their disparaging comments, flooding us with self-doubt. But I’ve learned to bounce back after I’ve received negative feedback, mainly by repeating my mantra of “no mistakes, only lessons.” Although dealing with criticism is a skill that I continue to develop, I want to offer a few lessons I’ve found useful.

Always consider the source. Who’s the person handing out the criticism? What is their educational background? Are they knowledgeable enough to make constructive comments, or are they seeking to bring people down to their level? Do you learn something from the input, or is it just a put down?

Not all criticism is valid. Denunciations aren’t necessarily true just because someone utters them or writes them online. Do they identify themselves, or do they snipe anonymously from the sidelines? Does the critic have a biased perspective based on their need for self-promotion? Will they benefit financially from your failure? What is their intent – to make your efforts better or to destroy them?

Some people are immature – like a toddler coming along to knock over your stack of blocks. They’re not trying to help – they’re just being mean.

When I need inspiration to rejuvenate my efforts to make the world a better place, I’ll read the 1910 speech Teddy Roosevelt delivered on his way to pick up the Nobel 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.”

The key is to be able to differentiate between critics who self-aggrandize and supporters who seek to help make what you’ve created even better. Surround yourself with wise people whose opinions you trust and whose perspective you respect. Engage in enlightening conversations with them. Listen to them. Ignore the others.

As mind expanding as these conversations might be, they mean nothing unless we act on newly gleaned insights. Even when our work is being legitimately challenged by trusted colleagues, we have a natural tendency toward fight or flight. But we can sidestep those tumultuous reactions by separating our ego from our work product. Rather than defend our wounded pride, we can grow by taking action to incorporate the lessons learned into an improved contribution.

But the newly revised work will still be imperfect, of course. Meaning more criticism is on the way. If you aren’t generating some friction, you’re not changing the status quo. It’s hard to make improvements in a well-established system because new ideas make some people uncomfortable as expectations are elevated and routines are changed. If there’s not some push back, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.

The 80/20 rule is helpful for assessing how well new initiatives are being accepted. If 80% of people experience some benefit from your work, you’re on the right track. And some of the negative feedback from the 20% will be helpful as you make adjustments to the new strategies you’re trying to implement. Always ask someone who levies criticism what solution they would suggest to improve the outcome. If the critic’s comments aren’t helping you make progress, let their words pass.

Instead, focus on people’s positive comments and constructive input. It can be helpful to keep notes regarding the stories individuals share with you about how your work has improved their life. On the dark days when negativity has knocked you down, reread those success stories.