Here is my favorite quote about criticism:
To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.
I saw the quote for the very first time last week. Someone posted it on LinkedIn, linking it to Aristotle. I loved the quote, so I did some digging. That’s how I learned about its proper attribution.
Why do I care about this quote?
Because it has taken me a long time to respond to criticism in a healthy way. I haven’t faced a ton of criticism in my life. But when I have, it’s felt like the end of the world. Part of the reason I worked hard in school was to avoid criticism in the first place.
Then, in graduate school, I learned I couldn’t avoid all criticism. Even when I put in my best effort, I always could have done a bit better. Admittedly, a lot of that criticism was self-criticism. But I was ruthless.
It took nearly until the end of graduate school for me to get a handle on criticism. I finally accepted it as an unavoidable part of life. I realized some criticism was fair, and some wasn’t. I relied more on my self-awareness to ensure I learned as much as I could from the helpful criticism. I also worked hard on mindfulness, to help myself move past the unhelpful criticism.
What does the quote mean to me?
I think part of the reason I respond so strongly to the quote is I see it two ways. First, I respond to the notion that the quickest way to avoid criticism is to shut the hell up. Facing an avalanche of unpleasant feedback? Slow your roll.
More important, though, is the second way I see the quote. Criticism is one of the few signs that I’m doing something meaningful. I might be messing it up, sure. But someone cares. Someone cares about me, and the work I’m doing. Admittedly, the motivations might be unhealthy. But I can start by knowing that at least one person is paying attention to what I’m doing.
That was one of the steps I had to take, in building a healthier relationship with criticism. What’s worse than criticism? Nothing. Doing a lot of work, and hearing only crickets in response. That’s painful. It’s humiliating. It’s demotivating. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take.
Criticism isn’t the worst outcome. And this quote from Elbert Hubbard helped cement that idea in my head in a particularly powerful way.
At the same time, don’t get carried away
There’s one big risk with any catchy quote you find: it’s easy to take it too literally. It’s easy to get carried away, and to adjust so much that you do equal damage in the other direction.
For instance, in this case, you don’t want to just run your mouth willy nilly. You don’t want to be immune to criticism. Do your best to know what you’re talking about. If you’re confident, express your confidence. If you’re not confident, express some uncertainty. Be fair in your communication. Don’t wear criticism as a badge of honor just because it’s criticism. You may very well be in the wrong.
I think most people, myself included, err in the opposite direction. We’re too afraid. We don’t speak up, even when we’re right, because we’re afraid of criticism. We don’t want to make a bad impression, or to piss the wrong people off.
That’s a garbage response. It does us no good. We have to lean in to difficult conversations. At times, we have to speculate. As long as we’re honest, and we’re clear about how we arrived at our judgment, we need to speak up. We might be wrong. We might look silly. But it’s the only way to be taken seriously. And a little bit of criticism here and there may speed up our own development.
Look at the quote as a call to action
I think this is the best way to react to Hubbard’s quote about criticism: view it as a call to action. If you’re going to make a difference in life, you’re going to attract criticism. And that’s perfectly okay.
If you’re trying to navigate life in avoidance of criticism, you’re doomed. First, you won’t succeed. Second, even if you could, you’d have a meaningless existence. Either path is beyond crappy.
Hubbard is calling you to make a difference. He’s also calling you to build a healthier relationship with criticism. It’s a necessary part of life. Don’t avoid it. Don’t fear it. Embrace it. Learn from it. Become more self-aware, so that you can more confidently label criticism as helpful or unhelpful.
This is another reason you should find a mentor. Rely on someone that knows you. Use their judgment, in addition to your own.
As scientists and engineers, we have a natural aversion to criticism. If scientific work is done the “right” way, there’s nothing to criticize. All of the steps are defensible. The conclusion might be underwhelming, but it’s not “wrong”.
We need to kick that habit. Appreciate that in our most visible moments, we’re going to be vulnerable to criticism. And when the criticism inevitably arrives, that’s a good thing. Use it as fuel. And then make an even bigger, more visible contribution that hopefully invites even more criticism.