If you embark on any project that has some scope, you will face criticism, and sometimes a lot of it. Whether you’re working on a business, an association, a book, a method, a blog, an invention, whether you’re setting an ambitious goal like becoming rich, being world champion in a sport, traveling the world by car (and by boat! 😉), winning an Olympic medal, becoming a business leader or a professional actor, you run the risk of being put under the fire of criticism, often abundant, often hurtful, and rarely thoughtful and constructive. In addition, it will happen all the more so because what you do deviates from the standards of those who are likely to criticize you.
Handling Criticism: My Story
When I decided to quit school at age 18 to start my own business, I had to face much criticism. I used to say, at the time, that “my parents didn’t enter the equation”, but they still had the openness to let me go through this experience. Moreover, I think I did a pretty good job in convincing them of the merits of my project. Therefore, they weren’t the main source of criticism I had to deal with.
The criticism came mainly from three sources:
- My friends and colleagues
- Family as a whole
- The people I met and talked to about my project
The first two categories are important psychologically – well, maybe less so when you’re 18 and you’re in the midst of a teenage rebellion – but the third was decisive for me: this category was anyone important likely to help me, to teach me the many things that I didn’t know, and to finance my project.
Put yourself in the shoes of any reasonable adult: you see an 18-year-old pimple-faced weakling come in and tell you that he is fed up with school and wants to start his own computer business, while he has no degree, no experience, no network of contacts, and no clients.
Your feelings could be a mixture of admiration for his courage and derision about his chances of succeeding in developing a viable business. You may lean more so towards one than the other, but one thing is certain: you wouldn’t take him as seriously as you would a 35-year-old mature man, who has 10 years of experience, an expanded network of contacts, and a clientele that is eagerly waiting for the creation of his business to be helped out. And, in a way, you would be right. You may find your criticism of him entirely justified, especially about the very viability of his project.
However, if you are this 18-year-old young man who has given up everything for this dream, which he considers as his only hope – as he sees it – for a better life, it’s a safe bet that you won’t be very receptive to people who criticize the very merits of your project. And, in a way, you would be right.
Dream into reality
Because embarking on a project, taking the first step in transforming a dream into reality, can only be done if you fully believe in your project. You have some degree of uncertainty (What if it doesn’t work? What if there aren’t as many clients as expected? What if the bank doesn’t want to give me the loan?),but deep down inside,you have convinced yourself of the viability of your project and your ability to carry it through (no matter what, I’ll try, and I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed).
This belief is both your main strength (it is it that which motivates you and gives you the strength to overcome all these constraints) and your main potential weakness: you may confine yourself to your ivory tower and refuse to see the most blatant flaws in your project if you believe in it too much as a solution to pursue a currently unfulfilled wish.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive criticism, criticism that provides us with something from criticism that has no other purpose than to bring us down. I quickly learned to do this, empirically, and I had the opportunity to narrow down a bit the criteria for determining whether to attach importance to criticism.
How to Distinguish Good Criticism from the Rest in 4 Steps
Is the criticism neutral?
First of all, I immediately reject any criticism expressed with strong negative emotion on the part of my interlocutor. If someone you don’t know is affected by a negative emotion such as anger, exasperation, disdain, arrogance at the time that you present him/her your project, it’s a safe bet that this project will take the interlocutor back to an internal frustration or a failure and therefore will directly challenge his/her ego, or it simply will not fall within the framework that the interlocutor has defined; a framework that is his/her own and that perhaps is not shared by others – and certainly not by you! Such emotion will obscure the person’s perception. Consequently, his/her criticism will very likely not be too objective.
Furthermore, even constructive and friendly criticism can be difficult to accept (ah, our ego!), let alone criticism that is rooted in negative emotion. You have much more important things to devote your energy to. Therefore, do not waste it on handling such criticism.
I think for any criticism to be heard, it must be stated in the most neutral way possible, especially when you are presenting your project for the first time.
Is the criticism constructive?
Once it gets past the first filter, there is a second: is the criticism constructive or not? That is, can it bring you closer towards accomplishing your project or not? Here again, it’s a binary filter: if the criticism is constructive, you listen to it, otherwise, either it falls directly by the wayside, or you ask your interlocutor to elaborate on his/her thoughts.
Although the ego and a possible confinement in an ivory tower may make us see constructive criticism as non-constructive, typically non-constructive criticism is any criticism containing absolutely no element which allows you to reflect on your project from a new angle, and which demands very little reflection from the person who makes it – if there is any reflection at all. This category includes any statement along the lines:
- “You’ll never succeed!”
- “It’s too much for you.”
- “Nobody will be interested in that thing.”
- “Nobody has ever done that.”
- “You’re a total loser!” (and any other insult or attempt to belittle)
- “You make me sick.”
In short, a constructive criticism must 1) be non-aggressive and 2) make you think.
Is the criticism valid?
The third filter is this question: is the criticism valid? In other words, is the criticism based on concrete external elements rather than the mere opinion of the person?
If someone says to you: “With the crisis, all the small businesses are in trouble; you can’t start your business right now”, this is the expression of an extremely personal perspective that someone has developed, with a reflection that is not necessarily deep and from sources that are not necessarily reliable. This simple statement raises many questions like: “Is it true that all the small businesses are in trouble? Where do you get your information from? Has it been verified? Are there sectors not affected by the crisis? Which ones? Is it impossible to start a business right now in a sector that is affected by the crisis? Why can’t I start my business right now?”
And this is just a small sample of the possible questions. A tendency to develop is to try and challenge the peremptory assertions of your interlocutor. Ask him/her many questions like those above. If he/she is an expert who relies on his/her experience and knowledge to synthesize his/her knowledge in short quick sentences without taking the time to explain them to you, you’ll find out with these questions and could find a gold mine of information.
If it’s just Joe sick-pack, all these questions will make him realize the superficiality of his knowledge and his thoughts on the subject. And you’ll see it right away.
The matrix of neutral, constructive, and valid criticism
Once these three filters have been passed through- the emotion associated with a criticism and the fact that it is constructive or not are quick enough to determine – I narrow it down by asking myself two questions:
- Does the criticism relate to elements over which I have an influence?
- Does the criticism relate to the very viability of my project?
These two simple questions make it possible to establish a matrix with four possibilities.
1 – The criticism relates to elements over which I have no influence and on the very viability of my project
- “The market is not developed enough for your project to work.”
- “With the crisis, the average purchasing power of households has dropped, and they are not as likely as before to buy the products you offer.”
- “There is too much competition in this sector.”
- “With the evolution of technology, paper books have no future.”.
The approach to these criticisms is simple: first, consider whether you think they are valid. If so, they must be taken seriously. Examine the elements that you control to determine if some allow you to counteract the mentioned negative elements that you cannot control.
2 – The criticism relates to elements over which I have an influence and on the very viability of my project
- “With this launch date, you’ll head straight for disaster. These kinds of products are only bought at Christmas.”
- “This sector is not suitable. You should rather target this one.”
- “The choice of this production method would have too much impact on your costs.”
As for the other category, you must (always!) ask yourself if the criticism is supported by any elements; or if it is the mere personal and partial view of someone. If so, this kind of criticism is a gold mine, because it can potentially prevent you from making a big mistake that would put your project in jeopardy right from the start.
3 – The criticism relates to elements over which I have an influence and does not have a direct influence on the viability of my project
- “Starting with this price range puts you below the competition and lowers your profitability.”
- “Your communication strategy will work but is not optimal.”
- “This cover for your book may not allow it to reach its full sales potential.”
- “You will have to work harder than you think to make it.”
Once the validity of these criticisms is established; it is up to you to determine whether it is worthwhile to think about your criticisms and possibly to put in place corrective actions. What is certain is that there is always something to be said for everything. As a result, if you want to create the perfect product or business, you will never create anything. So, know how to swat away some of these criticisms with the back of your hand; you can’t think of everything.
4 – The criticism relates to elements over which I have an influence and does not have a direct influence on the viability of my project
- “With your level of diploma, you will never be respected by your clients.”
- “Your experience is insufficient for you to be able to implement an effective business policy.”
- “Your country accent will not win over the Parisian clientele.”
Don’t pay any attention.Let it directly fall by the wayside; you have other things to think about.
The 4 Steps in a Diagram
It goes without saying that it will be difficult for you to apply these 4 steps systematically to all the criticism that one makes of you. However, the first two steps are very quick to implement, and the third can be; if you learn to question your interlocutor in order to find out what he/she is relying on to formulate his/her opinion. The matrix is the most difficult to implement “in the heat of the moment”. Therefore; I advise you to write down in a small notebook each criticism that has successfully gone through the first three filters; then to quietly think about it after a while at home, in peace and armed with your matrix 🙂.
Finally, no one can ever predict with certainty whether your project will succeed or not; even the experts in their field. There is always some luck and unpredictability in the success of something; and nobody fully understands how everyone else will react once your project is launched. Therefore, know that in the end you alone decide whether your project is valid. Know how to listen, but above all, know how to decide for yourself, with your soul and conscience.
And what about you, how do you deal with criticism that is made about you? Your comments are, as usual, heartily welcome 🙂.