Embrace the Devil (or Learning to Love the Rising Criticism on Your Road to Success)

I gave the best speech of my life.

It was for a speech contest within my Toastmasters district that preceded the world championships. The winner of the competition would go on to the international contest to face distinguished speakers from around the globe. I had competed and won the three previous tiers of contests to square off against five regionally and nationally-known public speakers. My presentation had everything right: humor, a well-executed delivery, heartwarming anecdotes, and an inspirational message. I took my seat after my speech feeling like a million bucks.

A short time later, the results were announced.

Third place. Not me.

Second place. My name wasn’t called.

First place . . .

Someone else.

Wait!

What?!

I sustained my composure (especially since the winner was seated right next to me) but deep down inside I was shocked. And I know what you might be thinking. Maybe I was delusional. Perhaps I hadn’t done as well as I thought.

Well, to put your suspicions to rest, when the winner was announced, I did hear a few muffled gasps from the crowd. After the contest adjourned, four individuals stopped me as I left to express their surprise that I didn’t win. A friend later messaged me to say I should have won, or at least placed.

I considered not using this example, and some of the anecdotes to follow, for fear such narratives may be interpreted as me being a sore loser or griping how the world isn’t fair. And you may still conclude that at the end of this piece. But before you judge, know this:

I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my performance.

My best is my best. In the noted example, I believed I was good enough to win. Others felt that way too. But not the judges of that contest. And that’s OK. Those in the audience able to appreciate my message heard it. I spoke to them. That is what matters.

That same mindset of mine — of making an authentic connection, impact, or effort — has been put to the test several times within the past year as lessons of fortitude and perseverance have dogged me at every turn. In what seems nearly every attempt I have taken to improve myself, I have met resistance, mainly in the form of criticism. Criticism — much like that manifested in the aforementioned contest — resulting in rejection.

Rather than dwell on the negative and get discouraged, though, I turned inward. I meditated on what went wrong, learning from my failures and drawing an interesting conclusion, one I never thought an introvert like me would ever grasp.

I need to embrace the devil.

No. Not the Prince of Darkness. I’m talking about the demon that haunts all of us on the road to success. The one who tells you that you aren’t good enough, talented, or skilled enough. The devil of doubt who points to your inadequacies and failures as examples that you lack the experience necessary to proceed on the road to your success.

For years — no, decades — I listened to this devil and his curses, trying to resist his pessimism though eventually giving in to his doubt. In doing so, I kept myself from taking any number of risks or moves where I may have failed or experienced injury. Perhaps you can relate. For my demons have kept me from . . .

Moving to L.A. to pursue a career as a screenwriter.

Moving to New York to pursue a career as a novelist.

Applying to numerous jobs that were above my so-called paygrade.

Approaching women (when I was still dating) I felt were out of my league.

Networking with strangers to try to advance my career.

And so on and so forth.

There was never any one big moment where I allowed myself to be talked out of taking such risks. Rather, it was those little moments that snowballed and ultimately led to my apprehension. As they say, the devil is in the details. A worrisome thought there would creep into my mind. I would consider it, rationalize my doubt, allowing the fear to set in. Then I would analyze what I dreamed of or wanted against the odds. How many screenwriters make it in Hollywood? One in a million I suppose. Such scenarios would play again and again until I finally gave up on the notion of going for it.

That was all my internal criticism. Now let’s talk about the external kind.

When society rejects you, it can hurt a million times over. Even the most cautious of us experiences it every now and then, in activities so mundane a putting your dating profile out there or submitting your application through a job board. Silence or a lack of response hurts too. It becomes the devil you don’t want to experience, the silent killer, along with all the other demons you seek to avoid.

So with so much criticism out there — so much opportunity for rejection and such — why embrace it?

Five years before that iconic speech contest I started telling you about, I was at a low point in my life. My job was a dead end. My career stalled. In response, I took a good, hard look at myself and knew that if I wanted to do anything to change my situation, I would have to take some real chances.

Though afraid, I did just that. I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking organization, even though speaking in public terrified me. Having grown up with a speech impediment, I always avoided voicing my thoughts or opinions whenever possible, always preferring the written word to the spoken one.

I also started writing my first book. Again, the prospect crippled me. My attempts to make it as a screenwriter had failed. But I knew that I had a story within me, one deserving to see the light of day, if not on the screen, then on the page.

I took a leap and switched from a new career. As a non-published writer, my day job had been in insurance, an industry that I loathed from my core. I had an opportunity to work in human resources, a move that intrigued me yet filled me with anxiety.

In all three scenarios, I took a chance. I joined Toastmasters and began to give speeches. I saw through the completion of my first book. And I stuck with a five-year career in human resources.

The results?

Yes, there was criticism. But there was also something else . . .

My speeches were panned. Though as I went on to speak more and more, I improved. As for my book, I went on to self-publish it. Then there is my career in human resources. Over the past five years, I managed to be promoted five times.

Logic dictates that as you become better at something, your mastery leads to a certain level of improvement. You avoid the mistakes of a greenhorn or first-timer. Your quality of output becomes cleaner. You produce results faster.

And all that improvement leads to less criticism, right?

Well, it can. But if it does, you’re living the wrong life.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, with greater mastery should come an increase of criticism. Yes, that same criticism you fought hard to avoid all your life. Why? Because you have reached a level of competence you’ve never had before. You rise to a new stage, an arena where you battle not amateurs but heavyweights.

Sure, you could stay a big fish in a small pond. As a football star, you could walk away from a mediocre career in the NFL, content on having crushed it in college and high school, where you were adored and everyone knew your name. As an executive, you could stay at a small company of a hundred employees and never aspire to lead a team of thousands, for which you’d have to manage a larger budget, a more diverse workforce, and have many more eyes on you. Or, as an artist, you could remain content with showing your work at local coffeehouses or galleries, never taking a chance to put yourself out there before an agent or manager who represents some of the top talents of your field.

You could avoid that increased threat of criticism like one who steps away from the edge of the sand as the tide rises and threatens to wash over bare feet.

Or you could embrace it.

The devil. The doubt. The criticism. And all the potential for self-improvement, growth, and personal development that comes by taking risks and just going for it.

As they say, with no risk comes no reward. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. What they don’t dwell on is the number of times the risk comes to fruition, of how common deprivation is, in the form of rejection and loss, whether it be in money spent as an investment that never sees a return, or debt that is accumulated in the pursuit of an education, or in just-plain-simple-wounded-pride. Yes, the motivational speakers and self-help gurus often gloss over the finer points of risk, of the devil that threatens to do harm. You and I, however, know better. We know the potential hurt that can come with taking a chance.

Yet, here I write, encouraging you to embrace the potential for criticism, risk, and defeat. On the path to achieving your own brand of greatness, I encourage you to embrace it all anyway.

Why?

In less than a month, I’ll self-publish my third book. Those who I have dared to share it with have enjoyed the glimpses they have read. I know it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Is it the best? In my modesty, I can answer no. Still, I press on, to continue pursuing the dream of writing, striving to improve a little with each project.

I just secured two phone interviews for the following week. The open positions are in human resources. Are either my dream career? No. But they are better than any opportunity I’ve ever worked in before.

Tonight, I’ll read a children’s story to my son. Two, actually. Then I’ll tuck him into bed. Will it be the greatest performance of a children’s book ever done? Umm, no . . . But it will be special. It will be a thread in a string of readings I have done for him since he was born, a trend I will continue. This mention might seem mediocre and slight. It is anything but, especially for a shy kid who grew up with a speech impediment, who never imagined having a voice all his own. One to share with his son.

Embrace the devil. Prepare to face the demons that haunt you every day. Face the criticism, rejection, and pain that comes with trying to improve your life.

For out of your attempts, struggles, and efforts will emerge a better you. Not the devil you have encountered. An angel. The best of you.