My Approach To Being Comfortable With Criticism (As A Writer)
Somebody on Quora asked a very important question, which I have been thinking a bit about today:
Excellent question — and a very important one!
Thankfully, I have a very easy solution (or at least I think I do).
Just be yourself and state what you believe in. In other words, be relentlessly authentic — all of the time.
Now, here’s what I mean by that:
Unless you’re affirming that the sky is blue, or are simply reporting hard news, it’s almost inevitable that some people are going to disagree with what you have to say.
Actually I take that back. If you write a post about the sky being blue and it reaches a sufficiently wide audience — let’s say one million readers — I reckon there’s a high to probable chance that somebody who believes the CIA are artificially changing the color of the sky will happen upon your post and take umbrage with it.
Expressing any kind of opinion will evoke a reaction from those that hold a countervailing opinion. It’s a hard-wired axiom. The way of the world.
Statistically, I believe the number of people we’re talking about here is in the magnitude of about 2 or so in 10. But the precise number doesn’t really matter. What matters is rather the point. Which is that the more you write your writing will (typically) have more resonance and get amplified by publications of progressively greater reach. You’ll gain a following — of both haters and fans. And that means, statistically, that you’re going to reach more readers who find your views repugnant.
Some people are going to frame that criticism diplomatically. You have a choice to learn from those people and an opportunity to experience some neuroplasticity if you find that those views have merit. Those responses might even change your views — which is always fun! Or, at a minimum, you can be happy that people are reading and engaging with your writing. Most of my writing is ghostwriting (for clients), but I get more out of feedback with criticism than I do out of “that was perfect”. In fact, judging by my share activity of most of my posts on LinkedIn, I should be happy that anybody engages with my work at all! (This is why my opener to any feedback, good or positive, is typically “thank you for checking out the article!”).
Occasionally — and this isn’t from personal experience, but from networking with writers — you will find that you’re on the wrong end of an organized campaign. Somebody says, “Daniel sucks” — and the comment gets 200 likes! This can actually sting far more than one isolated hurtful comment — even 200 times more! Again, there’s no reason to be discouraged. Even if this isn’t a reflection of some kind of coordinated activity, keep statistics in mind. If 1 million people read this post, then yes, 200 people will indeed think that Daniel sucks. There’s nothing I can do about that other than stop being Daniel and there’s no point in sitting down with 200 people and arguing why Daniel doesn’t stuck because they have determined otherwise — and who am I to deny them their right to hold an opinion? This is because there are a plurality of views in the world and — in non-totalitarian settings — one cannot force one’s views upon another by dint of unrelenting reason. So dust down the hit to your ego and move on to your next pursuit.
Then, there will also be abusive haters that come at you maliciously.
You can mentally prepare for that and report them if the case merits it. However, if they are sufficiently venomous and just attacking with hate, it’s often better to simply not engage with them. Be sure to avoid peppering any personally identifiable information (PII) around the internet for this reason. If it ever gets to that stage, though, it becomes more a matter for law enforcement than for you. So for the most part, all you have to do is filter those people out and have the proper psychological defenses in place. One of those is realizing that unwarranted hatred — confer constructive criticism — is often more a reflection of the person doing the hating than you. In better cases, you get to engage in civilized debate with your readership and the outcome of the debate which you have may shape the views you convey in future authorship. In other words, there’s really not that much to fear.
To bring this down into concrete terms:
I live in Israel. However I’m critical of many policies of the Israeli government and many things about the country.
If I write those criticisms, people will criticize me for being anti-Israeli That’s fair criticism. A ferocious fringe will determine that I must be a self-hating Jew with deep-rooted psychological issues that have caused me to react against the state. That is not.
Speaking of opening myself up to criticism by writing about Israel, I did that yesterday and somebody already messaged me to tell me that I should pack my bags and leave!
If I say, instead, that everything is perfect in Israel people will say that I am delusional and no, in fact, everything is terrible.
If winning means keeping everybody happy and supportive then there’s essentially no way that I can.
And that’s only dealing with one side of this issue, by the way.
I greatly pity any journalist that frequently covers this or another major world conflict. I reckon that between paid lobbyists, vigorous supporters, and people that hitherto had no stand on the issue but suddenly turned partisan after reading their piece, not a day must go by without receiving some kind of online abuse.
I recently asked one such journalist — a former bureau chief with a major wire service — how he handled the barrage of hatred I witnessed piled onto one of his recent compositions. “I’m far too old to worry about things like that,” he answered.
When you meditate upon this, understand it and internalize it (separate stages!) you then realize that criticism is essentially inevitable no matter what you write and your only choice is between writing and not writing at all. But, as a writer, you will probably often find that you are compelled to write.
Hence, strictly speaking, volition doesn’t seriously come into play and this is, rather, a state of affairs that you will have to learn to put up with one way or another. You could, of course, choose the past of lesser resistance and just stop writing. But that would mean being cowed into submission by the chorus of haters. And that’s a defeat for free expression. So you could say that developing a healthy tolerance for criticism is kind of a tool of the trade that you’re going to have to develop — like learning shorthand was twenty years ago.
Statistically there is almost zero chance that you are going to become a high profile writer, or a politician, or an entertainer without offending and annoying a pool of people. Sometimes, a large one. This is a good skill to have, if you think about. It’s one that every prominent journalist, senior politician, of even CEO is going to have to master at some point or another. In other words, if you aspire to achieve great things in life then you should actually be bending over backwards to thank you first group of online haters for helping you to learn how to deal with criticism, especially the more unnerving kind that comes from anonymous people on the internet.
Winston Churchill put this in simpler terms once.
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
My advice to anybody reading this — and to myself — is as follows:
Keep writing. Whatever the people say.
ETA: A good litmus test to employ, if trying to determine whether criticism is warranted, is to ask whether the criticism could be considered an ad hominem. Is the person attacking you — or your argument?
Originally published at https://www.danielrosehill.co.il