The Essential Guide to (Not) Responding to Critics

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…
—Theodore Roosevelt

Face it. Life is full of critics. If you’re going to do work that matters, you’re going to endure criticism. Call them “haters” or skeptics or just downright jerks. But these people are inescapable.

Art Critic Photo
Photo credit: Allan Henderson (Creative Commons)

Sooner or later, if you’re doing your job right, you’re going to find someone who disagrees with you. And that’s fine. Because what you do with criticism is what really counts.

Two types of people

There are two types of people when it comes to responding to critics:

  1. People who try to please everyone.
  2. People who try to fulfill their mission in life, even if it means ruffling feathers.

The first group is the one that I belong to. I am a recovering people-pleaser; I want to be liked by everyone, which, I’ve found, is a mathematical impossibility. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

The problem with this type of person is that satisfaction rests solely on the happiness of others. If someone else is unhappy, so are you. And let me tell you a depressing fact of life: Someone else is always unhappy.

Those of us who are dying for people to love and adore our work, and I’m one of them, have an addiction. We hear 99 positive reviews and one negative critique, and guess which one sticks? This is what my friend Jon calls “critic’s math,” and it only makes you miserable.

When our obsession with appeasing audiences continues, things get out of control. Our fixation with approval turns into an appetite for affirmation, and that’s when things start to get really hairy.

Fortunately, there’s a cure for this malady. A simple solution that we are wont to avoid: Stop listening to people who aren’t saying anything.

“I don’t say nuthin…”

When I first moved to Nashville, I spent a day a week volunteering at the rescue mission, where hundreds of homeless men were fed every day.

I had the privilege of working alongside an older African-American gentleman, who was the picture of humility and wisdom. At 70 years old, Ed was exactly who I wanted to be in about 50 years.

One day, Ed and I were walking through the courtyard, and a man stopped us. He tried to give Ed a high five and started using what I can only describe as “urban slang.” He seemed to think that since he and my friend shared the same skin color that they would understand each other. He was wrong.

My friend smiled and nodded but kept walking. When he did, the man started cussing him out. This didn’t seem to bother Ed.

The next week, we saw the man again. He was downright belligerent, and Ed didn’t even stop to talk this time. When I asked him why he didn’t defend himself or explain his actions, Ed said something I will never forget:

I don’t say nuthin’ if I don’t hear nuthin’.

That mantra has become a staple for me in how I respond to criticism. It should be for you, too.

When this matters

Do you have a troll who unfairly blasts every word you write? An impossible-to-please skeptic who questions every sermon you preach, every song you play, every lesson you teach? Maybe just a neighbor who gives you a hard time every time you cut the grass?

We all have them. The question is: When do you respond to these people, and when do you ignore them? There is one simple way to know the answer: Are they saying something or nothing? Are they giving you a helpful critique, because they care? Or are they just picking a fight?

If the latter, move on.

Some say all criticism is useful. I disagree. This is the same group that came up with the “sticks and stones” chant — it’s not true. Names do hurt, and criticism can be deadly to your creativity. So stop giving it the power it doesn’t deserve; stop responding to people who aren’t saying anything.

Certain critics can’t be pleased. And in the grand scheme of things, they shouldn’t be the ones you’re trying to impress, anyway. If you’re going to worry about people hating your work, why not entrust that responsibility to those who deserve it? Like your friends and family? Sadly, this is something few performers, authors, and artists do.

But what if we stopped trying to impress strangers and responding to people who aren’t saying anything? Well, then, we might actually be creating art and not just entertaining the masses. Good luck with that (you’ll need it).

By the way, I’m guest posting on The Minimalists today: Downsizing Your Life to Live Your Dream. Check it out.

What about you? Do you waste time responding to people who aren’t saying anything? Share in the comments.