Friday, February 21, 2014

Learn how to take criticism, or be prepared to fail at life

Matt Walsh writes:

Business owners: I feel your pain.

How do you do it? How do you deal with it? How do you wade into our societal pool and find employees who aren’t thin skinned, self-entitled narcissists? How do you successfully weed out the plethora of whiners who fall into a billion pieces if mommy doesn’t pat them on the head and call them special every 45 seconds? Beginning assumption: most people are terrible. (And also, we live in an old-timey world where most employers are small business owners who have actual contact with many of their employees.)

How do you manage to filter out guys like my friend, codename “Steve”? That's not a codename, that's just a lame alias. I would suggest something like Tigerpaws.

Here’s an email exchange I had with “Steve” this morning. He asked me to look at his blog and offer him some “honest” feedback. Of course, when people ask for “honest” feedback, what they normally mean is, “I’m awesome at everything, therefore any honest person will surely have nothing but approval and praise for my endeavors.”

But I decided to take Steve at his word. I decided to make the dubious assumption that he would only ask for honest feedback if he, in fact, desired honest feedback.

Well, you know what they say about assumptions: They make an ass out of u and mptions?

Dear Matt I read your post about how you got 30 million blog hits and I really enjoyed it. Thank you for the tips!!! If you have some time I was hoping you can glance at my blog…[link]. I started it three months ago and haven’t been able to get anything going with is as far as traffic goes. Can you look at it and tell me what I’m doing wrong if anything?? I’m only a few years younger then you and my biggest goal is to be able to support my self by blogging like you do by the time I’m your age. I’d really love your honest feedback!! Thank you!! Steve

Thanks for reaching out. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I did take a look at your blog, and I have two pieces of feedback for you:

1) Your writing needs work. A few spelling and punctuation errors are inevitable (Lord knows, you can find them on my blog), but your sentences tend to clumsily and confusingly run together. Also, the multiple exclamation points really give off a juvenile, childish vibe. If you want to make a living writing, you need to improve your craft. It’s not there yet. How do you get it there? Write, write, write. And read. And then write some more. And then do some more reading. And then write. Then, for a change of pace, do a little writing.

2) The content isn’t very good. I read a few of your posts. For the most part, I agree with your points, but you didn’t communicate them in a way that provoked me, entertained me, enlightened me, or educated me. If you can’t do any of those things, I’m not going to be inclined to return to your blog. It’s not enough to be right – you have to be engaging. And, as they say in the radio industry, never be boring. In terms of driving traffic and earning money, boring is the worst thing you can be. Boring is death. Never be boring. Be provocative, be entertaining, be enlightening, be educational. Never boring. Unfortunately, right now, you’re boring.

Keep working at it, but keep your day job for the time being. You have ambition, and that’s a start.
I hope this helped.


Matt I always liked you even though all of my friends and everyone I know think your a f***ing assh*le. Now I realize they were right. You don’t have to be such an arrogant prick. By the way %80 of what you write is boring so I think you need to take your own advice. You can say what you want but at least my content doesn’t suck like yours. Read the comments on your blog some time.. everyone hates you. Now I know why after you attacked me just to make your self feel superior…… Assh*le. -Steve


That was a little more entertaining, but still pretty boring.


Again, employers, God bless you. How did this one email exchange translate into a broad economic argument? I know there are millions of Steves out there, and you have to rely on them to actually, you know, do things. Not just do things, but do things well. And you better hope they do it well, because if they don’t, your criticisms will not be warmly received. See Matt, this is once again where experience is helpful. You are not in a traditional workplace. I have had lots and lots of traditional workplace experience. And in my experience, most lower-level workers are intelligent and capable. If anyone is clueless and incompetent, it is management. People who are good at and like what they do tend to prefer to keep doing that, rather than get in the people-managing business. And if you think the higher-ups are any better at taking feedback... well, I have personally witnessed the opposite (E.g.. feedback from customers.) Your assumption that "business owners" (are you referring to CEOs here?) are angelic beings, while the rest of the workforce are fuck ups who can't take criticism, is based on nothing. No evidence whatsoever. It's just based on your ideology.

You: Steve, I need you to improve in some areas
Steve: WHAT?! ME?! But I’m SPECIAL! YOU need to improve on your FACE!
You: You’re fired.
Government: You were mean to Steve. Now give him six million dollars.
This is hypothetical. There is no reason to believe that this is representative of any actually-existing conditions. If you think it is, provide me evidence. We all get feedback (performance evals) and most employees know how to respond without getting fired. And, um, you need actual documentation of discrimination to be able to sue on those grounds, but... you don't seem to be interested in reality, so I'll move on.
I’m not saying that Steve is necessarily in the majority that is exactly what you have been implying, but he does represent a growing problem. A lot of people just can’t take constructive criticism anymore. Once again, what is your evidence for this "growing problem"? Do you have data that spans multiple decades? This is a very dangerous attitude, and it’s the sort of demeanor that makes growth and success impossible.

So I thought about it for a while, and I’ve decided to give Steve a little more feedback; this time it will be of the unsolicited variety. I am addressing this to Steve, but it applies to all of the Steves in the nation. Particularly the young Steves and Stevettes who have high hopes for the future, but – due to their self-obsessed refusal to entertain the notion that they might NOT be the perfect, flawless snowflakes they imagine themselves to be — little chance of fulfilling any of those hopes.

This is my plea. My intervention. My last ditch appeal.


There are two types of criticisms — constructive and destructive. Here are two examples, which I’m just pulling out of thin air.

Constructive: your writing is confusing and bland, now here are some things you can do to improve. (What you actually said: you don't write well and your content is no good. Keep your day job. But, hey, you have ambition. - I would say borderline destructive.)

Destructive: you’re an arrogant prick, a f***ing assh*le, people hate you, and you’re also an assh*le.

Your success in life will rely on your ability to ignore the second type and listen to the first. You’ll notice that the first brand of criticism often concentrates on an activity or an action. It may be blunt, even undiplomatic, but that doesn’t matter. Winners know how to absorb and process blunt criticism. Winners don’t need it to be coated in sugar and chocolate. They don’t have time to be pampered and coddled. Besides, they have far too much self-respect. “Give it to me straight,” they say. And they mean it. Who are you? A high school football coach from a 1970s made-for-tv movie?

Destructive criticism, on the other hand, attacks you on a personal level. Note: not all personal criticisms are necessarily destructive. For instance, I started this post by calling you “thin skinned” and “whiny.” That’s a critique of you personally, but you’ve earned it. You can’t go around behaving like a thin skinned whiner and expect the rest of us to never point it out. Nope. Constructive criticism would be phrased as, "You need to be more receptive to other people's feedback." Calling someone "thin-skinned" and "whiny" is destructive because it construes target behavior as enduring personality traits.

Here’s the good news: you can change those characteristics. You can change them right now, if you like. You can lash out at me for making an observation, or you can work to change the thing that I have rightly observed.

I want you to. I really do. And herein lies the distinction between destructive and constructive criticism. The destructive criticizer simply wants to hurt the person they’re criticizing. They WANT you to be whatever they’re calling you, because it affords them the opportunity to tear you down. The destructive criticizer is trying to demean you, not help you.

Your response to me was a poignant example of destructive criticism. You became defensive and panicked when I didn’t give you the validation you desired. You then attempted to avenge your bruised ego by knocking me down a couple of pegs. And then YOU attempted to avenge YOUR bruised ego by becoming self-righteous and blogging about the incident.

As far as that goes, you’ll have to try A LOT harder. I get destructive criticism all the time. Like, every day. Like, every hour of every day. But I also get plenty of constructive criticism — even constructive criticism that essentially communicates the points you were maliciously expressing. Namely, I’m rude and hurtful, etc. Interesting thing: I have never heard you admit that you were wrong about anything, ever. I correct my mistakes and admit error constantly. It seems you have some ego issues to work out yourself. But, I guess it is true that the things that annoy you most about other people are the things that apply most to yourself.

See, the constructive criticizer wants you to improve on your weakest areas. He wants you to succeed, so he’s helping you identify the things that might impede your success. The constructive criticizer will often couch his critiques with useful advice — advice which he hopes you consider, because he earnestly desires to see you become the best version of yourself.

The problem with your inability to accept constructive criticism is that it stems from a greater, more problematic, overarching inability to accept the fact that you are not perfect. Once again, that is an assumption you are making. From my experience, people have the hardest time accepting criticism when it hits at deeply rooted insecurities. Many, many people are very insecure. You won’t listen to criticism because you believe all criticism to be unwarranted. You believe it to be unwarranted because you think that your abilities, your personality, and your accomplishments represent the pinnacle of humanity’s potential. This attitude is poisonous and insane. Also, it suffocates your true potential by putting you under the delusion that everything you do is automatically the best that anyone has ever done. It makes YOU the ultimate standard bearer for everything and anything. Once again, deeply rooted insecurities.

And that’s a tragedy. You have now effectively tied a chain around the universe and pulled it all down to your level. All the truth and beauty in God’s creation has been cut off at the knees so that you can stand above it. You have no need to climb, or strive, or try, because you are already at the top of the world. Deeply rooted insecurities.

I ask that you try an experiment. Just do this for a day. Just one day. Try to go about your day under the following four pretenses: 1) You are not perfect. 2) You could stand to improve in every single facet of your life. 3) People who point out your flaws or critique your actions aren’t necessarily motivated by cruelty, hatred, and animosity. 4) Some people know how to do certain things better than you know how to do them, and you should be grateful if they take the time to offer you guidance and insight into their areas of expertise.

Try to navigate one 24 hour span like the sort of person who believes these four things.

I think you’ll be better for it.

I want you to be better. I want myself to be better. I think we both have plenty of work to do.

P.S. Constructive criticism has to be honest. You weren’t honest when you said that “everyone” hates me. I happen to know for a fact that my parents, my wife, and my kids don’t hate me. So it’s everyone minus, like, five people.

Now here, Matt, is some constructive criticism for you, on the topic of constructive criticism:


I provide feedback to people on a regular basis as part of one of my jobs. It is very important feedback on which their future success hinges. For both their own benefit and my own, I have no interest in being anything but honest.

However, I also realize that people are not robots. Everyone responds to certain types of phrasing and wording in different ways, and they have different areas of sensitivity/insecurity. That's life, and it has always been. Humans are not perfect. I take the time to get to know people. I give people honest feedback in a way in which I know they will be receptive.

When you gave Tigerpaws his feedback, Matt, it is possible that Tigerpaws interpreted your criticism thusly: "Your writing is bad. And your content is bad. You're probably not close to being successful at the moment, but I am going to patronize you with a hollow compliment about your ambition." Even if you did not mean it that way, well, things you say can pretty much always be interpreted differently. Fact of life. You have the power, though, because it IS possible to anticipate how things may be interpreted, especially if you have gotten to know the person.

But more than that, your criticism was not entirely helpful. See, you did not pick out specific things that could be addressed in concrete ways - measurable, reachable goals. Your criticism was too comprehensive, and it was difficult for Tigerpaws to know where to even start to address it. (How do I become more entertaining?) So, it is not out of reason that Tigerpaws felt defeated, rather than motivated, by your comments. Seeing as to how you effectively crushed his dreams, I can understand why he reacted emotionally. You are prone to emotional reaction yourself, Matt.

Through my own work, I have found time and again that a positive mental state is necessary for achievement. When I am confronted with someone who seems to be so far behind the standards that success is virtually impossible... I tell them they can do it. I do NOT do this because I am lying or trying to spare their feelings. I do this because there have been too many times when I have seen people do the impossible. I make a point of showing people all the strengths they already have so that they feel more confident in their ability to conquer their weaknesses.

Many times something more than simple honesty is needed. People can accomplish amazing things when they feel confident (a good indication, in fact, that most people actually struggle with their confidence). Encouragement goes just as far as honest feedback.

No comments:

Post a Comment