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Finding the joy in being criticized

Posted in the following categories: Motivation

It was one of my first conferences as a young law professor.

I offered the contrarian argument–now the subject of my forthcoming book–that sometimes democracy comes through a military coup. In these coups, what I call “democratic coups,” the military deposes a dictator and oversees a transition process that ends with the free and fair elections of civilians. I had plenty of examples to back up this controversial thesis: I summarized diverse events from the Athenian Navy’s stance in 411 B.C. against a tyrannical home government, to coups in the American colonies that ousted corrupt British governors, to twentieth-century coups that toppled dictators and established democracy in countries as diverse as Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, and Colombia.

The moderator—a senior scholar who shall go unnamed—awoke from his daydream, turned his head deliberately in my direction, and gave me the same bewildered stare that the cardinals must have given Galileo for declaring that the Earth is round.

The same contrarian argument caused a serious interruption to our honeymoon in Summer 2013 (sorry, honey). As we were trotting around Italy, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey took to the bully pulpit and lashed out against me in a public speech. There is “no such thing as a democratic coup d’état,” he argued and compared the concept to the “living dead,” calling it a figment of my imagination.

Erdoğan’s speech was followed by several op-eds in government-friendly newspapers in Turkey accusing me, among other things, of being a CIA agent. My favorite pleaded NASA to send me to Mars so I can stop writing nonsense (the author of this particular op-ed got bonus points from me for actually doing some research and discovering that I had worked on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project).

I wish I could tell you that I didn’t miss a stride and took the mantra “all press is good press” to heart. But I’d be lying. This ordeal proved to be a significant source of distress as I spent weeks brooding about it. Looking back on it in hindsight, I now consider criticism to be a natural side effect of contrarian thinking, the jitters that necessarily arrive shortly after you down five shots of espresso.

Contrarianism almost always prompts intense criticism. When you challenge conventional wisdom, convention balks. When you separate from the herd, the herd calls you out. Those holding a stake in the status quo–either because they created it or they preach it–resist, and resist hard.

The conformists don’t want you to raise your hand, color outside of the lines, or suggest a radically new path forward.

Don’t take it from me. Even Stephen King–one of the greatest writers of our generation–routinely finds himself at the receiving end of scathing criticism. In his wonderful book, On Writing, he explains:

“Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or downright psychopathic.”

If you do anything meaningful, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, regardless of the number of bestsellers you’ve published.

What’s worse, we’re genetically wired to pay undue attention to this type of destructive feedback. Our ability to spot negative stimuli and focus on them to the exclusion of everything else kept us from being lunch for a saber-tooth tiger. As the social psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister explains, “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.” The ancestors who were more attuned to lethal threats managed to survive and pass on their genes to us.

Don’t get me wrong. Negative feedback is helpful when it’s given in a spirit of generosity, with the intention of improving your work. That kind of feedback is precious and demands close attention. But the conformist feedback that simply tells you to go back to coloring between the lines should be ignored.

Fear of criticism is a dream slayer. It slays dreams because it prevents us from getting started, from taking on a challenging project, or from raising our hand during a meeting to offer a contrarian view.

“What if this doesn’t work?”

“What if others point and laugh?”

“What if I make a fool out of myself?”

So, we stick with the default, and life becomes a race to the center.

In the end, there’s only one way to avoid criticism: Stop doing meaningful work. In a quote often misattributed to Aristotle, the writer Elbert Hubbard said: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

But there is an alternative.

It requires dropping the illusion of universal respect and understanding.

It requires realizing that criticism, however uncomfortable it may be, is often validation that we’re doing meaningful work.

It requires accepting that tomorrow’s brilliant innovation is today’s ludicrous idea.

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