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Re-negotiating Your Relationship With Your Inner Critic

Dec 16, 2014

Pixar makes movies that that stir us and make us laugh.

Toy Story. Cars. Up. The Incredibles. Finding Nemo. Monsters Inc

Their 2015 film, Inside Out, was one of my favorites movies of last year. And my son loved visiting the theater in 2016 to watch Finding Dory.

I’m not sure if it is Pixar’s attention to detail which makes their films so good (they spend years working on a story before they ever draw a picture.) Maybe it is the fact that their films appeal to children and adults (read Donald Miller’s post about the perfect story arch of Toy Story 3). It could be the imagination behind it all (in UP, a house flies between continents powered by balloons?!)

In their 2007 film, Ratatouille, Pixar wove a tale about Remy, a mouse living in Paris, who loves food and takes over Gusteau’s, one of the most well-known kitchens in the city.

One of the main characters in the film is a famous and cantankerous film critic named Anton Ego. After visiting Gusteau’s, Ego writes his review of the restaurant, reflecting on his visit and the work of Remy. Watch the video below for that powerful scene. (If you are not seeing this embedded clip, click here to watch it.)

When I watched this scene recently, Ego’s words struck a chord with me.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

As you read those words, were you stirred? Convicted, maybe even challenged? I know I was. In the midst of this movie that is beloved by children, an adult confession about the danger of being a critic surprises us. Ego’s words unveil the secret dark side of being “paid” to judge the worthiness of someone else’s creation.  While Ego’s words bite, his honesty opens the door for us to consider our own “position” as critics.

As I continue to work on my first full-length book, exploring my journey from idealism to cynicism to hope and the lessons I learned along the way, many words have poured from my fingertips as I explored the destructive power of unbridled criticism. This kind of criticism leaves us feeling more and more powerful as we become more and more destructive. The kind that mixes with sarcasm and cynicism, tearing down everything in sight. As a writer and speaker, I know my words hold the power of life in them – I can lift people up or crush them, with my fingertips or tongue.

Photo Credit: Mukumbura via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mukumbura via Compfight cc

5 Steps to Changing Our Relationship to Criticism

In reflecting on the clip from Ratatouille, I had 5 realizations about criticism. These realizations inspired and provoked me to renegotiate my relationship with my “inner critic”.

1. Beware of how criticism often becomes unavoidably personal.

Has someone ever offered you a piece of criticism that hurt, but they quickly backtracked with the caveat, “it’s not personal” (as if that made it any better)? When I’ve been told “it’s not personal,” my brain interpreted those words to mean, “don’t be mad at me for hurting you.”

Every public figure, every artist, every person I have ever known who put their work “out there” for other people to engage and assess has battled some sense of insecurity and fear. It is insanely difficult to separate yourself from the things you create. And as Gavin Adams recently wrote, “few people can allow their art to be ripped apart without allowing their heart to be ripped in the process.”

Criticism is a dangerous thing because our work matters to us. We’re passionate about it; we put our heart into it. And when someone describes its shortcomings or inadequacies, we begin to wonder if it is the art or the artist that is not enough. While we need to learn how to relate to our critics, I struggle to imagine criticism of what I make not being something as “impersonal.”

 

2. Recognize a meaningful life is found in doing, making and risking, not critiquing those who do these things.

I love how a film starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson created a cultural buzzword – “bucket list” – which gave people a handle for and inspiration to engage the pursuit of a meaningful life. And yet, I’ve never met met anyone who had “criticize someone else’s work” on their bucket list. Many of us check with the critics before we try something new (visiting Rotten Tomatoes before seeing a movie or Yelp before visiting a new restaurant). Yet, few of us aspire to the act of “criticism” the way we do an international trip, skydiving or a meal with those we love.

Theodore Roosevelt articulated this reality superbly in his 1910 speech, Citizenship in a Republic. Roosevelt said,

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt (and Ratatouille’s Ego) knew what we must learn – criticism is easy. It is much easier to write a review of a product than actually make a product worthy of reviewing. It us much easier to write a blog reviewing a book than to actually write a book. Reviewing and reviewers have their place but in all our blogging, Yelping, and Trip Advising, we must remember – we’re sitting in the easy chair. While others sweat, making something and risking greatly, the critic sits safely and judges, insulated from the meaning they desperately long for themselves.

 

3. Artists and creatives like us (anyone who makes something and shares it publicly) need to choose where to listen to and ignore criticism.

Everyone is a critic today. We don’t have to wait until the morning papers arrive to read the reviewer’s take on a new restaurant, a play or our presentation. The “column” is now a Tweet, a status update or a series of Emojis; social-media-fueled feedback is instantaneous. Everyone is a critic and everywhere we turn, we find a place to get “feedback”, whether it is wanted, helpful or needed.

Have you ever heard or read someone’s take on what you did or what you made and wondered, “Why do I care so much what they think? What gives them the right to decide whether that was good?” The answer? We gave them the right – and we can take it away. When we give their voice power, we give them the right to decide the value of what we’ve done or what we’re going to do.

I love what Brené Brown writes about this subject in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Brown writes,

“Going back to Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech, I also learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never the critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me. Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.

This may be the best metric for evaluating criticism – “is the source sitting in the stands or standing next to you in the arena?

 

4. Accept that being a critic is a poor substitute for doing the work you were created to do.

One of my dreams for this site is to provide content which helps you live the life you were created to live. That life often terrifies us because it involves uncertainty, demands courage and takes us headlong into the unknown.

Most of us avoid uncertainty and danger by taking safer routes. We surf social media rather than doing something worth remarking about. We read other peoples books instead of writing our own. Sticking with the life we know, we play it safe, rather pursuing the dream and calling we sense deep within our hearts. We critique other people who were trying something (and even failing) while we play it safe. Being a critic is poor substitute and a thin escape from that calling and pursuit.

God did not create you to assess how well other people lived out the purpose of their lives; He created you and will one day hold you accountable for how you embraced yours.

God did not create you to assess how well other people lived out the purpose of their lives.

 

5. Remind yourself the best kind of criticism comes from creating, not commenting.

It is easy to be a critic. It is much harder to create, to make things and put them out there. Sure, someone failed in their efforts. How will you do better? What will you do differently? Where they mis-stepped, how will you correct? Our best criticism comes in creating something new.

When I was in my early 20s, I spent too much of my time critiquing the work of other leaders. Some of this came from jealousy about the position and influence they obtained. Other times, the criticism came from anger and frustration about their “wrongness”.

I’m not sure whether the criticism or the cynicism came first (it is one of those “chicken or egg” arguments.) However, I know they both would not have been as prevalent if I had heeded Jennie Allen’s words. Allen, founder of the IF: Gathering, posted on Twitter a few weeks ago and wrote the following:

Somebody asked me recently – how do you overcome cynicism? My response – start building things. Then there’s no energy to tear down.

When we harness our limited energy and focus it on building and creating, Jennie is right – there is no energy left to criticize others or tear down their work. When we make what someone else should have made if they had considered our assessment, we do something far better than throwing our review into the fray. We throw our work into the fray and everyone is better for it.

Changing the World

Rarely (if ever) have reviews of films, books, restaurants, and new products changed the world. It is those gutsy, creative and imaginative souls whose lives have been poured out through story, recipes, pages and code – their work has radically altered our world.

World-changers are those who make and create, not those who assess and evaluate.

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