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The surprising lessons of hate mail

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Personal Development

“A bit assholic.”

That was the response from a reader and former colleague to a newsletter I sent. He didn’t bother to explain what he thought was wrong with what I wrote—and resorted instead to calling names.

(If there’s one benefit to hate mail, it’s the vocabulary expansion. I had no idea “assholic” was a real word!).

I regularly receive messages like this from some keyboard warrior somewhere in the world.

When I first started writing online, this sort of hate mail would send me into a funk. I’d rush to draft diplomatic responses, hoping to convert critics into cheerleaders. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t work).

Since then, I’ve learned two important lessons.

First, don’t reply. Engagement only adds fuel to the fire. Now when I receive hate mail, I ignore it and block the sender from my email list.

Second, and more importantly, when you create anything meaningful, someone, somewhere, will try to make you feel lousy about it.

Stephen King routinely finds himself on the receiving end of hate mail. “Not a week goes by,” he writes, “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.”

When Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass—one of the most influential and original works of American poetry—the reviews he received were awful. “It is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love,” wrote one particularly colorful reviewer.

There’s only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.

Fear of criticism is a dream slayer. It slays dreams by preventing you from getting started, from taking on a challenging project, or from raising your hand during a meeting to voice dissent.

Don’t get me wrong: Criticism is helpful when it’s given in a spirit of generosity, with the intention of improving your work. A generous critic will deliver her feedback without personally attacking you (assholic) and by explaining how you can improve your work.

But the conformist criticism from the peanut gallery—the type of criticism that tells you that you have no business doing what you’re doing and that you should go back to coloring between the lines—should be ignored.

Conformist criticism says more about the criticizer than the creator. When people appear to judge you, they’re often revealing a part of themselves that they’ve judged into silence—a part they hammered down to conform and fit in. When that part sees its promise fulfilled by you, the tendency will be to attack rather than to praise.

In the end, sharing your creations with the world is an act of courage.

It’s to say, “Here, I made this,” and embrace the risk of rejection.

The true shame lies not in being criticized, but in withholding something that can move others and enrich their lives.

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