Are We Drowning in a Sea of Complaining?

[This article is based on the Where There’s Smoke podcast episode, Fish Out Of Water (Attitude). The full episode — complete with audio clips, music, and all kinds of antics — is embedded at the end of this article, or find it wherever you listen to podcasts.]

There is a French proverb, “Fish discover water last.” Meaning that when we are completely immersed in something, we are oblivious to the fact that it is there. It is only when we are pulled out of it, that we can see how immersed we were.

I’ve been thinking about this proverb lately, because I’ve been exploring the topic of complaining. Now, it is not lost on me that with every word I type here, I am invariably at risk of writing an article that is complaining about complaining. And, I really don’t want to do that.

I do want to take a moment to connect with all of you, here at the beginning, and say that I think this message is really important. It’d be easy to just make jokes and turn an article about criticizing, complaining, and gossiping into a 750 word stand-up routine. But I think that would make it really easy for all of us to pretend this article is about someone else, and it’s not.

So take a deep breath. Because for the next few minutes we’re pulling ourselves out of the water, and taking a look at our own reflection.


One of Gary Vaynerchuk’s most popular videos is titled, “Monday Morning Motivational Video”. Though of his own admission, it is more of a rant, and would be perhaps more accurately re-titled, ‘Monday Morning Stop Complaining and Get Grateful Video’. The video has millions of views — which either means that people are sick of complaining, or they love it so much that a video complaining about complaining is like chocolate covered chocolate with chocolate sauce for them. Either way, while it’s an important message, I think even Gary would admit it’s not a new one.

Stop complaining. We’ve heard that before, and most of us agree with it. Because even people who never stop complaining, don’t like listening to other people complain. So I don’t think you’d have to look too far to find someone that would say the world could use less complaining. Therefore, there is no need for me to do that in this article.

What I’d like to do is open the subject up a bit. Let’s dive in deeper to find out what’s really going on when people complain. What are the costs; who’s paying them; and what can we do about it?

A few years ago my wife and I attended a weekend event, and one of the ground rules was ‘No Criticizing or Negative Talk’. All weekend, anywhere. To be clear, this meant both during the event activities and outside of them. The results of those few days on our relationship were staggering. In the past we had discussed how we nitpicked each other, but we failed to realize how much we projected it outwards. It turns out, many of our conversations were also nitpicking others; complaining about things; or gossiping. Whether it be the service in a restaurant or how bad we both thought that performance on American Idol was.

And when we removed those negative conversations, the vibe between us transformed. It was kind of amazing. Remember … fish in water.


Now, complaining is obviously far from limited to our personal lives. It runs rampant in the workplace as well. Linda Swindling wrote a book called Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers, and she shared some startling statistics:

  • 78% of people report a loss of at least 3–6 hours each week in their workplace because of complainers.
  • On average, that’s a month of lost time, every year — for every person who spends time dealing with complainers.
  • This unproductive time costs companies between $4,000 to $9,000 per year, per employee.
  • Meaning that U.S. employers are spending at least $10.2 billion on wasted time per week, and over $513 billion a year on complainers and draining situations.

So maybe you’re someone who’s like, “Yeah, so it costs my company money. They’ve got enough of it.” Ok, then let’s talk about what it’s costing you. Because whether you realize it or not, your approach to criticizing, complaining, and gossiping has already created a reputation for you — at work and in your life. And through what you put out, you are also deciding what you get back.

Choose Your Own Adventure:

To listen to the Let’s Make A Deal piece from the Where There’s Smoke episode press Play.

To skip it, just keep reading.

When I was 28 years old I took a year off working, and travelled around the world. One of the insights I received from that time was realizing how much stress we can carry from the minutia of everyday life. I’m not talking about the big stuff, I‘m talking about all the little stuff added together. For that year, I didn’t have to worry about anything. There was no one to call back, no groceries to pick up, no one’s birthday to remember, no bills to pay, and no deadlines. Do you know how well I slept that year? Exceptionally well! At the end of the day, I would rest my head down onto my pillow and just shut off. There was nothing to worry about from the day, and there was nothing to worry about for tomorrow. There was no stress. None. I hadn’t realized how much stress cluttered our day to day lives.

Regardless of how much you think you are or are not contributing to this issue of complaining and criticizing, I want you to stay open to taking a look. Either way, I think you’ll know. Maybe your perception of yourself is dead accurate. Or perhaps you’ll realize that what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing are totally different. Perhaps, just as I did with stress, some of us will discover we’re in a lot more water than we realized.


Do you think you could go 21 days without complaining?

Maybe some of you are immediately thinking, ‘No problem!’; while others are wincing a bit and thinking, ‘Unlikely’

In 2006, Will Bowen was a minister giving a sermon at his church on Prosperity. He had noticed that people say they want more, but they complain about what they already have. He wanted to develop gratitude in his congregation, and he believed that sometimes to do that, you have to get past the complaining. So he came up with an idea. He handed out purple bracelets and invited people to use them as a tool to eradicate complaining from their lives.

The idea was simple:

  • Take a pledge to swear off complaining, gossiping, and criticizing for 21 days
  • Wear a purple bracelet on one of your wrists on Day One
  • If you catch yourself complaining, take off the bracelet, switch to the opposite wrist, and start over on Day One

And since that one conversation, this relatively simple idea has exploded around the world. Will Bowen is now an international best selling author of five books, and the founder of Complaint Free World and The 21 Day Complaint Free Challenge. Complaint Free World has sent out over eleven million bracelets to 106 countries thus far.

But here’s the thing — while millions have taken the challenge, I would guess only thousands have completed the full 21 days. Though to be clear, that does not mean the others have failed. When I reached out to Will Bowen directly to discuss this challenge, he told me, “I always explain to people, get used to Day One. There’s no shame in Day One. The average person complains 15 to 30 times a day, and they have no awareness they’re doing it.”

Will likes to say that “complaining is like bad breath — you notice it when it comes out of somebody else’s mouth, but not when it comes to your own.” And so he offered that typically what happens is you’re on Day One, and then you’re on Day One again. Then you’re still on Day 1, and then 1, and 1, and 1, and 1; until finally you make it to Day Two. Only to once again, start back over on good old Day One.

As you can imagine, when you start switching your bracelet from wrist to wrist, you become acutely aware of how much you complain. And that in itself is a huge win. Because now, you know. Which means you get to do something about it.

Don’t expect a quick fix though. Will says that for most people (including himself), it takes between “four to eight months” to complete the challenge. That means it takes commitment, patience, and a lot of perseverance. It also requires courage. Because make no mistake about it, we believe we get something very valuable out of complaining. And to give it up, also means to give up those benefits, and risk standing out from the crowd.

Dr. Robin Kosofsky at Clemson University did her doctoral thesis on complaining. Will Bowen used her work to create the acronym G.R.I.P.E., which identifies the five underlying reasons about why people complain.

Get Attention. Will says, “That’s probably the biggest reason. This is when people get on the elevator and they complain about the local sports team or the weather. They just want attention.”

Remove Responsibility. “When you give someone a task, no matter how big or small; if they don’t want to do it, they’ll complain about the conditions around that to remove themselves from having to even try.”

Inspire Envy. This is another way of saying bragging. “A lot of people complain to brag.” This is what many of us now think of as The Humble Brag (with a HT of respect and thanks to Harris Wittels. RIP.)

Power. “This is probably the second most common behind Get Attention. People will complain to build alliances. Somebody will complain to somebody else in their family if they’re upset with another family member, so that they’ll have them on their side. People do the same thing at work. They’ll complain about somebody in another department, so that if that person causes any heat, you’ve built your alliance.”

Excuse Poor Performance. This is sort of like Remove Responsibility, but happens after the fact. “Excuse Poor Performance is they’ve already done something, they messed it up, and they’re going to blame everything other than themselves. You know, the golfer who says the light was in his eyes, or or the student who says the teacher didn’t give me the homework.”

“We are all self-made, but only the successful will admit it.” Earl Nightingale

Will says that in his last ten years of traveling the world with this message, he’s never found a complaint that didn’t fit into at least one of these five reasons. And whether these five reasons are definitive or not, what does seem definitive is that as a society, we are drowning in sea of complaining, gossiping, and criticizing. And Will told me that he’s been thinking a lot about this lately.

Now with a better understanding of what we get out of complaining, Will is “trying to dig deeper and deeper into why it’s challenging for us to be positive? Why is it easier for us to be negative?”

He seems to think it is somehow attached to our ego. Not in the Freudian sense, but what he calls our “rude roommate.” This part of of our mind that is “always there criticizing and condemning us. Telling us to do things that we know we shouldn’t do, and that after we do them, telling us we’re stupid for having done them.” And Will thinks this rude roommate is always asking two questions in every situation:

What’s wrong?
Who can I blame?

And that, Will says, is “the essence of complaining.”

And so in this exploration, he has discovered what he believes acts “like a magic bullet.” He asks the opposite questions in his head as he goes through his day..

What’s right? 
Who can I thank?

And in Will’s words, “that gets you away from the complaining. It puts you on that positive focus so that you can accomplish and do anything.”

What’s right? 
Who can I thank?”

I believe these questions are worth repeating. Simple, yet powerful.

So I am throwing down the gauntlet to all of us. I challenge you to become 21 Days Complaint Free starting today. It’s Day One for me, and tomorrow will likely be Day One again. But I will be patient. I will persevere

As for the bracelets — Will was very clear to me that you don’t need to get the purple bracelets to do this challenge. Anything can work. Though he did suggest you pick something that you will want to wear on your wrist for a few months, because it’s likely to be there for awhile. That said, if you want to order some from the website and spread the movement, go to www.willbowen.com.

But don’t wait for them to arrive to start. We’ve stared at our reflections throughout this article, and now you get to decide if you’re going to immerse yourself back into the water, or make an effort to float on the surface. If you want it to be, today can be your Day One of the 21 Day Complaint Free Challenge. Are you in?

Yes or yes?

Please PLAY above to hear the original podcast episode that inspired this article, OR subscribe to Where There’s Smoke wherever you listen to podcasts.