Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Your Critic, Your Best Friend

Today's post will actually continue to explore Randy Pausch's lecture, which I wrote about yesterday. He is the professor dying of pancreatic cancer who gave an inspiring final lecture about achieving your childhood dreams.

I am exploring his statements, mining them for the riches they contain. Today I'd like to discuss the relation of the critic and of criticism to your path toward bliss.

This is obviously where a lot of folks get very uncomfortable. You announce to your spouse you'd like to open a yoga studio. He says, in a calm voice: "Honey, you've never taught a yoga class." Your heart may think, An immaterial detail! But your brain hears his words as criticism saying, You will certainly fail!

Our relationship to criticism is a complex one, and is dependent as much on timing as on anything else. Reveal your dreams of opening a yoga studio too soon, and the gossamer fabric of the dream is too flimsy to stand up to the real world of struggle and heartbreak. But keep your dream secret for too long, and you miss out on the encouragement, advice and community of people who believe you are capable of succeeding.

Now, back to Randy Pausch's thoughts on criticism. One of his childhood dreams was to play NFL football. He described himself as kind of a small, scrawny kid--not your typical thick-necked football player. Nevertheless, as a nine year old, he started playing football in a league under a Coach Jim Graham. Here's what he has to say about that experience:
There was one practice where he was riding me hard. All practice was, you're doing it all wrong, you owe me laps, you're doing pushups after practice. After it was all over, an assistant coach came up to me and said, "Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn't he?" I said, yeah, he did. And then he said, "That's a good thing. When you're screwing up and no one's telling you anymore, that means they gave up." That's a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. When you see yourself screwing up and no one's bothering to say anything, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they love you and still care.
No one likes to be criticized. It hurts, mainly because you suspect it might be true. Or, even if you know it's not true, it forces you to summon belief in yourself, which is sometimes so hard and scary to do it's easier to believe that the critic is right and you're doomed to fail.

No matter whether the criticism is constructive or destructive, I say that any reaction is better than indifference and dismissal. Any reaction means there is a real response, that you're on to something. And most of the time, when criticism comes from your loved ones, they really just want to help you. It's well-intentioned, and might bear listening to. Maybe in the yoga studio example above, the husband isn't saying: 'You'll fail,' but rather, 'I love you, I don't want to see you hurt, and I think you need to develop your plans a little more.'

So the next time someone gives you hell, don't look at it as an excuse to give up. Decide to listen to constructive criticism, assess it for validity, and then trust yourself to do with it what you need to. Decide to be grateful for the criticism, grateful that someone cares enough to expend their limited energy to help you reach the potential they see in you.

Now, isn't that a better way of looking at it? So the next time someone gives you a kick in the ass, turn to them, smile, and say, "Thanks, I needed that."

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