I get it. Nobody likes to be criticized. When somebody criticizes us, we feel hurt and inadequate. We look at our flaws and our mistakes and we feel like we are not good enough. And nobody wants to feel like that – ever. We are designed to avoid pain and seek the things, experiences and people that make us feel good. But should we run away from negativity and criticism all our lives? I think not and I’ll tell you why.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
These days, I’ve been thinking about a story I read as a child – “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen. I only remembered the main idea of it, but I re-read to see if the message is relevant to what I’d like to say. I think it is so I’ll try to write a short summary. You can read the whole story here, if you prefer (it’s a short one).
There once was an emperor who loved to dress well. He would spend a lot of money to buy the finest clothes made from the must luxurious fabrics. And he also spent a lot of time trying on new outfits and wearing them around.
One day, two men arrived in that city. They pretended to be weavers, claiming that they can create special clothes. The clothes were supposed to be colorful and beautiful and they had another interesting quality – they could only be seen by the people who are intelligent and fit for their positions.
The emperor hired them to make him some new clothes. The two weavers accepted, asking for money, silk and gold thread. They set up two looms and pretended to work. As the weavers were pretending to work on the outfit, the emperor was curios to know how they were doing. So he sent some of his men to assess the quality of the clothes. Every men that went there saw nothing at all – because there was nothing there indeed. The weavers were just pretending to work.
However, no men wanted to admit that they could see nothing. This would only prove that they were stupid and unfit for their jobs. So man after man would simply say “Wow! These clothes have wonderful colors and patterns on them! Remarkable!”
The men in the city all heard about the special outfit that the emperor had made and they were anxious to see it. Knowing about the special feature of the clothes, they all wanted to see how intelligent other people were. The emperor wanted to wear his new outfit during a special procession in the city. As he was getting dressed, he was a bit worried. He could not see the clothes himself. But thinking that he is not a stupid man, he pretended to see them, praising the two weavers.
He then marched gracefully among the people on the streets. All the people on the street were admiring and praising the new clothes of the emperor – but in reality, nobody could see them. After a few moments, an innocent child said “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes!”. Then one by one, the people started shouting “He has nothing on!”. The emperor knew that this was true. However, admitting this would make him look stupid, so he just kept on parading his invisible clothes!
Are we all looking at invisible clothes?
There’s a reason why I wanted to tell this story and it’s not because I miss reading fairy tales. It’s because I’m starting to get the feeling that we live in the same city as the people in the tale. Of course, we don’t have emperors wearing invisible clothes. We now have people who do things that are foolish, meaningless or just wrong.
And we are standing in the streets, admiring the people wearing invisible clothes. Instead of raising our voices and shouting that those “emperors” are naked or wrong, we just stand there and cheer them on. Many people may not even care. But some of us do.
We see the naked men and women parading around us and we want to shout out “You are naked. And you are a fool for thinking you are wearing any clothes. You are not fit to be our emperor!” But everyone around us seems to be blind or pretends to see those clothes and we feel too scared to raise our voice. We wonder: “What will they think? What will they say? And who am I to question a naked emperor when everyone is praising his non-existing clothes?”
If we all stay silent, this is the world we will continue to live in. More and more people will buy invisible clothes. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to seem superior and more intelligent than the rest? And little by little, our whole world will be filled with naked men and women who are fools walking around us like the wisest ones around.
“Pssst…I think you’re actually naked!”
Why am I writing about this? Because I see this happening in real life and online and I think it’s an important topic. I look around and I see people acting in ways that I would label as wrong or harmful to themselves, other people, society or the planet. I see people who are uninformed, yet claim to know the truth. I see people justifying whatever they do and thinking they can do whatever they want – consequences be damned.
And I often ask myself: what should I do? If I see a naked emperor, how should I react?
- I can simply ignore that person. Even if they do and promote things that are foolish or harmful to society or the planet, I can just stay silent. Other people will cheer them on and they will continue as before.
- I can tell them “Hey, you are not actually wearing any clothes”. And then they can respond by:
- ignoring me because they are sure they are fully dressed
- ignoring me but going to look in a mirror and asking for an honest opinion
- yell at me for being negative
- say that they can do whatever they want
- ask me how I know that they are naked and be willing to talk and look into a mirror
From what I have noticed, people rarely choose the last option. Nobody wants to be told that they have been walking around naked. Yet they can always look at a mirror.
I’ll admit that I may be biased, but I think that we live in a world where people want to walk around with invisible clothes without anyone telling them the truth. If you dare to try to tell them that, you’ll be called a critic and they’ll just continue to strut in their “amazing and expensive” clothes. And that’s just unacceptable.
Truth and negativity
I hope you’re not bored with the story just yet because I love using it to make my point. I want to ask you something. What if one of the people on the street had the courage to speak up and say “Emperor. You’re not wearing any clothes!”. What would you think about this? Is that men telling the truth or is he negative and critical of the emperor?
If you have the right to pretend you are wearing clothes, shouldn’t I have the right to say that you are actually naked?
I would say that he is simply telling the truth. But in our world, many people would label this as negativity and criticism and never bother to look for the truth.
I think that there is a fine line between telling the truth and just being mean and negative and it’s very important to understand the difference. I honestly think that criticism is very important and it should not be avoided, but sought out.
Here’s how I interpret negativity and truth.
When someone tells you something mean just to make you feel bad, they are mean, bullying or negative. Especially if it’s something offensive or untrue or related to something you cannot control. I think it’s unacceptable to:
- call someone fat/ugly/stupid and so on
- make fun of their families or the situation they grew up in
- tell lies about someone and spread them around
Basically, saying something mean just to make one feel bad is not alright. Saying things that are not true to put them down is also something we should not do.
You tell the truth when you comment on the things that someone does, says or thinks – be it a praise or a criticism. If someone does something mean, unethical or illegal, I think you can and should point that out. If someone does something kind, heroic and selfless, you can and should point that out. I firmly believe that it’s alright to tell someone that:
- they need to earn the things they want (status, popularity)
- they are not as skilled, talented, awesome as they think they are – if this is true
- they need to improve in one area or another
If someone is unaware of their mistakes, flaws or impact, you can tell them about that. Do your best to notice if this is true before you bring it up. Do your best to share your perspective and advice without making them feel terrible. Try to open their eyes without cutting open their hearts.
Why criticism matters
As I said in the beginning of the article, I know that nobody likes to be criticized – including me. But I firmly believe that criticism is important and valuable. And instead of ignoring and running away from it, we should be looking for it and accepting it.
One of the things that I have learned while reading psychology books is that our brains are remarkable; and that’s good an bad. The problem with this is that often times our brains will deceive us. They will make us think that we are smarter, wiser, more talented than we really are. And we’ll believe that. But we end up walking around naked thinking that we are smarter than the rest of the world.
We are really good at deceiving ourselves – without even knowing it.
That’s when criticism can come in handy. We are often blind to the lies our brains tell us. Someone else will often be able to assess ourselves more accurately. And if they care about us and if we let them, they will tell us the truth. Once we realize that we have a blind spot, we can learn more about it. If we become aware of our weaknesses, we can learn how to assess ourselves better and manage those weaknesses.
Obviously, the opinion of one person should not be considered the absolute truth. Ask for another opinion, assess yourself and do your best to find out the truth.
Sometimes we can’t see ourselves clearly so we need someone else to do this for us.
If you can, try to be your own critic sometimes. It’s better to realize what your flaws are on your own than to find out about them from someone else. It’s easier to look in the mirror before leaving your home. But this will be uncomfortable and painful at times. It’s also incredibly powerful since you won’t need others to show you who you are.
Great people who rely on criticism
We live in a world where people are encouraged to be happy, cheerful, optimistic and confident. We are told that we can do anything and we can reach for the stars.
And while I know that all these positive traits can help us a lot, they can also harm us – whether we realize it or not. Let’s face it, most of us are great people with many amazing qualities. But we are also flawed people. So I think it’s time we embrace our abilities and our limits as well.
In this world where we are told that we are the best, few people tell us differently. Yet there are some exceptional people who are wildly successful and who use criticism to learn about themselves and their abilities. And they use this not to complain and play the victim card, but to accept their limits and focus on becoming even better.
I’m sure that you have probably heard about the entrepreneur who has been called “the real-life Iron Man”. He’s a brilliant man working for Tesla and SpaceX and attempting to encourage humanity to harvest the power of the Sun and colonize Mars. But do you know that he values criticism?
“Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold.”1
“Usually your friends know what’s wrong. But they don’t want to tell you because they don’t want to hurt you. It doesn’t mean your friends are right. But very often, they are right.”2
“I think it’s very important to seek out…actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. And this is something that people tend to avoid because it’s painful, but I think this is a very common mistake…to not actively seek out and listen to negative feedback.”3
These are just a few of the things Musk said about criticism. I know that he often comes across as a superman who is always confident and who can do anything. But being confident and listening to criticism are not mutually exclusive. I would actually say that the more you become aware of your flaws and own them, the more confident you can be.
Real confidence is not based on an inflated sense of superiority or greatness, but comes from knowing the truth about yourself and owning your imperfections.
You may have never heard of him. The first time I heard about Ray Dalio was a few months ago and there are many things I admire in it. Ray Dalio is an American investor – but not just any investor. He is the manager of the largest hedge fund in the world and manages assets of $160 billion. He predicted the 2008 financial crisis and he has managed to make a profit for himself and investors for decades – even when everyone else was losing money. So you can tell that he’s not just anybody.
In a TED podcast I learned about his company. It turns out that his company, BridgeWater has a policy of radical honesty. In their company, anyone can and is invited to give honest feedback to everyone else – including Ray himself. He once received an email from a colleague who told him that he was unprepared for a meeting and he gets a D for that. It’s a bit interesting to see that one of the most successful people in the world promotes the idea of radical honesty and criticism. But then again, maybe this should not surprise us at all.
“I believe that the biggest problem that humanity faces is an ego sensitivity to finding out whether one is right or wrong and identifying what one’s strengths and weaknesses are.”4
“Successful people ask for the criticism of others and consider its merit.”5
“I learned that everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses and that one of the most important things that differentiates people is their approach to handling them. I learned that there is an incredible beauty to mistakes, because embedded in each mistake is a puzzle, and a gem that I could get if I solved it, i.e. a principle that I could use to reduce my mistakes in the future.”5
To be honest, I did not study Ray Dalio’s life philosophy yet, so I can’t tell how he thinks about many things. But the feeling I got from a few articles, a podcast about him and his TED talk, is that he wants to find the truth – even if that makes him feel bad at times. He thinks that if we know what mistakes we make and what weaknesses we have, we can take action and perform better in the future. And I believe this as well.
Why is criticism good?
I’ll share one idea I learned from Ray Dalio.6 It is incredibly simple and very powerful.
Pain + Introspection = Growth
We’ve already said it – we feel terrible when somebody criticizes us. And I can tell you for a fact that criticizing yourself is not that great either. But when you have the courage to accept criticism (from yourself or others), move past the pain and analyze yourself, you can grow.
Of course, you can also grow when you feel good about yourself and when people praise you. But when people praise you for the things you are good at, you will only get better at those things. If you are never criticized for your flaws and shortcomings, you can never work on and remedy them.
The way I see it, if you avoid all criticism – even when it’s based on the truth – you are simply passing up on a great opportunity to get to know yourself and to grow.
Praise encourages the status quo. You need criticism in order to grow.
To tell you the truth, I know that you may disagree with my perspective. You have every right to do so. But I wanted to share my perspective, to raise my voice. If you are reading this and you believe that finding out the truth, even when it hurts, now you know that you are not alone. If you are brave enough to choose growth over comfort, I want to encourage you to keep going. If the world is stuck admiring non-existing clothes, remember that you don’t have to be one of them.
Let’s be the children standing on the road and having the courage to tell people that they are naked!
Let’s live in a world where the truth matters more than an illusion. Let’s live in a world where people can raise their voices and speak the truth!