The Futility of Criticism

The futility of criticism

“The strength of criticism lies only in the weakness of the thing criticized” said HW Longfellow. Each one of us has been at both the giving and receiving end of criticism.

If I feel absolutely inclined to give criticism, it only makes even an iota of sense if and only if I (a) know a thing or two in the subject area and have distinguished myself by my own performances (b) the criticism is constructive to the person it is being delivered to – this includes both the manner in which it is delivered as well as presence of genuine and tangible points that will benefit the other person. Without these two criteria being met, don’t give criticism- you are simply unqualified. Criticism only works when it comes across as genuine advice from someone that seems clearly vested in your well-being. Otherwise, no matter what the suggestion maybe, it will be taken badly.

By badly, I mean to the point that it can cause resentment that could last a long time. Personally, I think criticism is futile because it usually ends up putting the person on defensive and makes him/her strive to justify themselves. Criticism hurts the person’s pride and sense of importance and usually arouses resentment. Ninety nine out of 100 times, people don’t criticize themselves for anything. Even hardened people that have committed crimes of murder feel justified in what they did- take Hitler for example. He did what he did because he thought he was cleaning up society; he thought he was on a mission. If he didn’t think he was guilty, what are the chances that the people that you and I interact with will?

How many times has the person we have criticized not returned the favor? I’m going to say zero! Criticism often returns back to the giver. If we condemn someone or find fault with someone, he or she will justify themselves and condemn us in return. It is important to remember that we are all not rational but rather emotional beings and the most important person to me in the entire universe is myself. So why then would I entertain any criticism for myself? And further, why criticize others when I am incapable of taking it myself?

If there was ever a man in history that was severely condemned then it was Lincoln. One particular example of how he felt about criticism that I especially like has to do with the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee (the enemy) began to retreat on the night of July 4th while the rains deluged the country such that he was unable to cross over. He was trapped! This therefore presented a golden opportunity for General Meade whom Lincoln ordered to capture Lee’s army and end the war immediately. Of course, Meade did the exact opposite and procrastinated, and refused to capture Lee leading him to escape. Lincoln was justifiably furious and wrote a letter to Meade expressing his displeasure in no uncertain terms, stating how he had missed the only opportunity to end the war which would now go on indefinitely. Let’s think about how Meade reacted to this letter? Well, he never received it because Lincoln never mailed it to him. The letter was found by his bedside upon his death. The conjecture as to why Lincoln never mailed the letter is that he stopped as he often did to think from the other person’s perspective. He felt that it is easy enough for him to be sitting in the quiet of the White House and issuing orders of death. But if he had been Meade and seen as much bloodshed and heard as many cries and shrieks of pain and had the same temperament as him, he would have reacted in much the same manner as Meade had. How could it be any different? Besides, the damage was already done and sending the letter would have cost even the little bit of effectiveness that may have been left in the general and his army.

So every time I think of criticizing someone, I think of this example and ask myself that if Lincoln was capable of resisting criticism and staying calm in the midst of the war, do I have an excuse?

I’m sure all of us know of someone that we would like to change. I have been guilty of this temptation! I’m sure that we all mean well and that’s great but then again, why not begin on myself? I’m the easiest person that I can affect and when you think about it, it creates the least amount of drama. At zero cost (no hard feelings, no resistance, and no pain) I only stand to gain from this. It’s a win-win! This approach was clearly endorsed by Confucius when he said: “Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s doorstep when your own is unclean”. From my own personal experience, I know that when we start to dig deep within ourselves, we inevitably find that a weakness in others pricks us because we possess the same within ourselves. Once we identify this and eliminate it, it ceases to be a problem. Our attitude changes from wanting to give criticism to wanting to understand why the other person is behaving in a certain way. We draw from our own experience and offer a helping hand! And this diametrically opposite approach to dealing with people always yields diametrically opposite results.

So rather than heap condemnation and criticism on others, let’s start with ourselves and leverage our own experiences in helping others, in understanding them. It’s far more interesting than simply reacting to or complaining about something and kindles sympathy, tolerance and kindness.

As someone once said; “God himself Sir does not propose to judge a man until the end of his days”. So then why should you and I?

So that’s about giving criticism but what about when we are at the receiving end? Needless to say it is not easy. But history has shown that the folks that were the most criticized were always accomplished at what they did – be it Lincoln, President Roosevelt or Mahatma Gandhi. We’ve already looked at Lincoln; let’s look at the example of the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII (who went on to become the Duke of Windsor) who was attending the Naval Academy at Dartmouth College. The Prince was about fourteen when one day one of the naval officers found him crying, and upon cajoling him the prince reluctantly admitted that he was being kicked by the naval cadets. The commodore of the college summoned the boys and explained to them that the Prince had not complained, but he wanted to find out why the Prince had been singled out for this rough treatment. The cadets finally confessed that when they themselves became commanders and captains in the King’s Navy, they wanted to be able to say that they had kicked the King!

Even if we were to think back to times when we were at the receiving end of criticism, we would see that we were perhaps working on something important or were courageous enough to stand by a not so popular cause with conviction. And it was probably those that did not share the same courage or the same passion that criticized us. It helps to know that often times when you are criticized, it is often for a feeling of importance. Chances are you are well on your way to accomplishing something good and are worthy of attention. So rather than take sorrow when we are criticized, I now try to step back as a detached observer and understand if the criticism is justified. If it is, then I say Thank You and make a mental note to work on it for myself but if it’s not then I don’t worry about it.

Initially, this is easier said than done. The temptation is to go to each person and justify ourselves and explain to them what you really mean and why so and so is wrong in saying something about you. But when you think about it, this is unnecessary because if I am right then I don’t need to justify it to anyone. Someone’s opinion of me will not change who I really am and while it might take some time, truth inevitably gets revealed- all we need is faith in our truth, in ourselves.

In addition to the fact that truth will be revealed, I’ve also realized that people really don’t care a whole lot about anyone other than themselves. They really have pretty short term memories about anyone or anything that does not affect their lives directly. Everyone has their own life and things to take care of to think about you and me. So, rest assured that even if I was lied about or humiliated, no one really cares!

In fact, this nature of human beings to focus on themselves disproportionately is a real advantage when used correctly. I could spend my time connecting with myself, getting to know myself better- my original qualities of peace, happiness and love and become aware of my negatives. Focus on removing the negatives and emerging the purity within me. This cleansing of oneself works best in solitude through meditation which is nothing but filling the soul with pure, positive energy which automatically crowds out the negativity and darkness. This is guaranteed to not only heal us but our presence will create such a strong, powerful atmosphere wherever we are that it feeds other hungry souls with the same positive energy. We become instruments that strengthen souls, give them hope and inspire them to become like us. Do we think we could have any unjust criticism in such an atmosphere where the very root cause has been destroyed?

As part of our self- transformation, one of the best things to do when we know we are being criticized unjustly is to do something infinitely more important: not let it disturb me.

Sometimes, we inadvertently bring on criticism to ourselves as we harbor the ambition to be the most popular one in the room. Many of us that are managers or leaders or even parents have a tendency to try to please one person in the team but this very thing could be unfair to someone else. Rather than do this, do what the greatest leaders in history did or better still, do what God does. Set the rules and be impartial- it’s not about being the most popular but rather about being the best leader! If someone is behind in a particular area, guide them and help them move forward rather than bend rules to keep them happy. Trust me, this strategy of being the juggler is dangerous, temporary and will back fire! Why? It’s the quickest way to lose trust! And once that’s gone, there is very little else left.

The small man flies into a rage over the slightest criticism, but the wise man is eager to learn from those who have panned him. Better still, instead of waiting for others to criticize us or our work, let’s be proactive and beat them to it. Let’s be our own most severe critic. Let’s identify and fix all our weaknesses before anyone else gets a chance to say a word. We certainly can’t be right all the time! Even Einstein could not accomplish this feat confessing that his conclusions were wrong ninety-nine per cent of the time! Do you and I stand a chance?

We don’t need Einstein’s example to help us understand that we are not always right and that there is a lot we can learn from criticism. Yet, if I am not paying attention when being criticized, I automatically leap to the defensive-even before I have the slightest idea what my critic is about to say. I was guilty of doing this a lot before and was disgusted each time I did it. The meditation that we discussed earlier helped me build my tolerance and confidence in myself to admit a mistake with grace and maintain my composure when being unjustly criticized.

As Ben Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain- and most fools do”. But, as Thomas Carlyle said, “it takes a great man to show his greatness by the way he treats little men”. So now, while nobody is looking, why not peep into the mirror and ask ourselves what company we belong to- that of fools or greatness!

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