As I write this blog post, there is one hour left in 2013 in the Eastern time zone. Facebook is alive with wishes for 2014, and they all sing much the same song. Wishes of happiness, health and prosperity are the hallmark of December 31sts all around the world. Of course, I am a fan of “happy, healthy, and prosperous”, but we’ve heard it all before.
My wish is different. In the coming year, I wish for everyone an abundance of critics.
Yes, you read correctly. Autocorrect didn’t hijack this one. I hope that 2014 is a year where critics play an important role in our personal lives and our communities.
Why would I wish for such a thing? Simple, where critics thrive, everyone thrives. Where critics are welcomed, even cautiously, respect lives large.
Now I’m not talking about the “hater” critic; the one who argues everything for the sake of arguing or to upset as many people as possible. I’m talking about the honest, constructive critic. The one who genuinely sees something not working as they think it should, and steps up because they believe their intervention can help.
Criticism requires and begets courage. For critics (and therefore those they criticize constructively) to succeed, courage is required from everyone involved.
The criticizer must be courageous because, unless they’re acting out of malice, criticism is hard to deliver. The constructive critic cares about the person they are criticizing, and criticism has a reputation for straining and even destroying relationships. It takes courage to do something that can lead to that outcome.
The receiver of the criticism needs to be courageous to lower their defenses in order to fully accept the criticism. It takes courage to push away the natural will to ignore, resist, and repel things that, frankly, most of us really do not want to hear. We want to live believing that we are right, that we make the right decisions, that we have integrity, that we are smart. When someone points out a fault, it’s not usually received willingly, or well.
Aside from my parents who raised me and teachers who judged my work at various levels of schooling, I feel very thankful for two notable, courageous critics. These people could have said nothing. They could have kept their criticism to themselves and lived, so to speak, happily ever after. Instead, they chose to act.
The first person is my cousin Irving. I was 25 years old, and I was working on various entrepreneurial ideas. I wanted to open my own business. It had been a while that I had been talking about these things, but nothing ever materialized in any publicly visible way. On a regular phone call, Irving called me on this lack of progress, as he saw it. At one point in the conversation, he flatly said something very close to: “you’re not really serious about doing any of the things you say you’re doing. You’re just doing enough to be able to tell people you’re working on something, to get them off your back, but you’ll never make anything of this.”
Needless to say, I was stunned. Then, my defenses went up, followed by self-righteousness. I got off the phone, angry, and began the self-talk that many of us have undoubtedly wallowed in. I told myself, angrily, how wrong he was. I kept telling myself how hard I was working. I focused on the “kind of nerve” he had for saying what he did to me. I didn’t speak more than an occasional inauthentic hello to Irving for almost 2 years.
At 27, I learned a lot about myself. Part of that learning shone a bright light on how right Irving was. The worst part about him being so right was that I’d been sitting on this information for 2 years, thanks to him, but had done nothing positive as a result of his courageous gift. I finally called him to open up, thank him, and admit that he had it all right, all along. Since then, I live my life with the intention of being honest with what I am up to rather than just try to make myself look good in others’ eyes.
The second person who really stands out for her courage in criticism, so to speak, is someone with whom I had absolutely no relationship at all. We met in a personal development course, and she could have simply shaken her head and left me to my ridiculous behaviour that she deftly spotted. Laura was 16 at the time, and I was 27. I could have dismissed her and anything that came out of her mouth for that fact alone. Initially, I did.
After a conversation where Laura was but one of many participants, she found me outside, with only 2 others around. She said, “do you realize how much you say you know?” I looked at her, puzzled. She replied, “every time someone tells you something, you say “I know.”” Remember those walls I referred to before? They flung up and into action. Who is this girl, and why is she pretending to know me? Surely, she has no idea what she is talking about! Right?
Undeterred, Laura continued. I have a game for you, she said. “I invite you to create that you know nothing.” What? That’s crazy talk. I smiled dismissively, and said, “thanks, but I don’t need your game.” She didn’t fight me. I walked away, probably believing that I had won. I hadn’t.
A few minutes later, sitting on the platform of the Place D’Armes metro station, with no one around (read: no one to impress or hide from) I decided to “try out” Laura’s game. I closed my eyes, and created “knowing nothing”. It took a few minutes to get past the objections from my inner voice, but the moment I did, I heard a bird chirping above my head. Inside a subway station? That can’t be! Or so I thought – or so I knew.
I needed to either explain this away, or prove her game effective. I called out to a passenger on the opposite side of the track and asked them if they had noticed the bird a few minutes earlier. The girl answered with a most confident “oh yeah, that bird is in that area all the time. It’s actually why I stand here. I love watching it.” To be sure, I asked if the bird had been chirping more than just once. She nodded, smiling.
From that point on, in 2005, I committed to playing Laura’s game (I will always call it that) of creating that I “don’t know” at least 5 times a day, every day. I am proud to say that I am positive that I have met or exceeded that target every single day since.
As a result, I have been exposed to seemingly out-of-place wonders that I probably would have missed, points of view that I never would have considered, and probably much, much more. And it’s all thanks to a 16-year old who dared be a critic.
And it is also thanks to me.
If I didn’t, for whatever reason, decide to let my guard down and let her game in, none of this would have happened.
So my wish is actually two-fold: one, I wish an abundance of critics, and two, I wish you the ability to lovingly and constructively receive what they have to say. The latter is just as important as the former.
If we know everything already, and do everything right, already, we have nothing to learn. Criticism offers us the ability to broaden our knowledge. To refuse that opportunity is, well, much like telling someone who is offering you a potentially very valuable gift that you don’t want it.
Because that’s what constructive criticism is: a gift.
With that, Happy New Year, 2014.
Love, Mark. Unleashed.