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Happy first criticism day to you!

What anonymous negative feedback really means.


Sandra was ecstatic.  She couldn't believe it.

Had the big day finally arrived?  She'd waited for years to reach this momentous point in his career!  Some never reach this point.  

From the subject line she had high hopes.  With hesitation and excitement, she clicked on the email.  It read:

"Sandra, this book was the single worst thing I've ever read.  I can't believe you have the audacity to publish content of this quality online.  I want my money back."

She read the email.  Then she refunded the person their money, unsubscribed the person from all forms of contact, and smiled.

Smiled?  What??

Oh, were you expecting more like this narrative?

There is a comic floating around the internet where graphic artist Harold draws a lovely art and posts his work online.  Everyone oohs and aahs and gives great approval.

Then one single person says that Harold's art sucks, and he can't stop thinking about that one negative comment.

If you have ever released something publicly online, you may be able to relate more closely to haggardly Harold than smiling Sandra.

So what's up with the smiling?

You see, today was the day Sandra received her first criticism.  Not like, first time anyone had ever said anything critical of her, but the first time someone had taken the time to send her an email explicitly stating disapproval of her work.

If someone has such a strong reaction to your work that they feel compelled to fire up their email and expend precious minutes of their short life to tell you of all people that you suck, that's huge.

It means your work was interesting enough to generate a response.

Whether a novel, an app, a website, an art, or an online course, the worst response to something you release is not criticism, but apathy.

But is this real life?

Now wait just a minute!  Harold is a fictional made-up character who can have any emotions that I the writer of this letter give him.  Surely this isn't how people actually behave?

And you are right.  The way most people understandably react by default to criticism is like haggardly Harold.

The reason is because the brain is hardwired to be skewed towards pessimism.  In the olden days of hunting and gathering, if you didn't watch your back and carefully consider the negative responses of your immediate tribe to your actions, you risk death by starvation or lions from being kicked out of said tribe.

And so the brain interprets the disapproval of others as a literal death threat.

Training towards a better response

Nowadays the anonymous angry internet critic has almost no actual power over your well-being, so the fight or flight response to some random person online is complete overkill.

Let me be clear: I'm certainly not at this ideal point of always responding like smiling Sandra yet myself.  But I think it is a goal worth working towards.  I'm also not saying we should just relish in bad things that happen to us.  Instead, since it is inevitable that you'll eventually receive your first criticism if you do anything of interest, it's worth preparing for that eventuality.

The nice thing about brains is that they can be trained.  The reason I love Stoic philosophy so much is because it in large part focuses on training the mind to respond differently than it's default of being scared to death.

A key Stoic principle is the "trichotomy of control" - there are things that are up to us, things that are partially up to us, and things that are not at all up to us.  The Stoic advice is to completely stop worrying about things not at all up to us (like the actions of other people), and to focus most on the things completely up to us.

But the only things that are completely up to us are our actions and reactions to events.

So any time your rational brain identifies a reaction that might be worth changing, consider using Stoic ideas to move towards a new reaction.

How can we change the brain's default reaction?

One of the first steps can simply be awareness.  For a brief moment, step outside the situation and observe as an outsider.

Going back to the critical email, consider the other person who is criticizing.  What if they were just having a bad day?  What if their cat just died?  What if they have been trying to achieve the success you are achieving and are frustrated?  This doesn't excuse their behavior, but it does give you perspective.

Consider that the brain is responding to what it considers a real threat.  Perhaps kindness can be given to the poor frightened monkey mind of your self.

And like with smiling Sandra, consider that this could be a sign your project is actually taking off, especially if you are receiving mostly positive feedback elsewhere.

Consider that the person on the other side of the screen can't probably physically harm you.  This doesn't remove the fight or flight response, but over time awareness of what is happening can dampen it.

The human mind is hypersensitive to losses, but only mildly sensitive to gains.  Something that has been very positive for me is to write down any time people have said anything kind or affirming to me.  Then, when feeling down or attacked, I'll go back and read through the list of positive feedback.

Further reading on Stoic philosophy

Much of my understanding of Stoic philosophy and the techniques I've described here I learned from the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.  It's a practical guide to "being happy" in the modern world that is completely different than the environment the brain is adapted for.

A lovely exposition on the idea of awareness as antidote to tunnel-vision is David Foster Wallace's This is Water.

And in case nobody has told you recently, you are lovely and awesome, your work is great, and I am thankful for you.


I first sent this article as a letter to my mailing list. New letters go out each week!

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