How to Handle Criticism

Recently, I heard this great little gem about how to deal with other people’s opinions of you and your work — “you have to have both thick skin and thin skin.”

As soon as I heard this, I stopped dead in my tracks to add it to my notes. The statement was profound — mostly for its simplicity. It’s a perfect “self-talk” phrase to use as you balance the things you’ll inevitably hear when you’re working on something, particularly if it’s something new or different.

This golden nugget of advice comes from Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO of Dropbox, during an interview on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Apparently, in the early days of Dropbox, someone wrote that Dropbox’s founders were “too stupid” to know that their idea had already been tried and it failed. Houston explained how he dealt with that criticism, which included acknowledging some truth in what had been written — not the name-calling part, but the part about businesses like Dropbox having failed.

Whether you’re building a new business, developing a novel argument, or proposing a unique solution to a problem, I guarantee that you’ll encounter at least one critic. That’s just the way things work. I’m sure there are explanations for this, but in my mind, focusing on why someone is criticizing you is not productive. Rather, it’s more important to decide what you do with the criticism.

I encountered doubt and criticism for “hanging out my shingle” as a solo practitioner one day after I was a newly sworn in lawyer. And, throughout my career as a defense attorney, I heard prosecutors call my arguments “ludicrous”. More recently, while employed as in-house counsel, I inevitably heard, as pushback to my proposed solutions, “That’s not the way we do things here.”

I spent many years doubting myself or trying to appease all my critics. It’s exhausting. Over time, I have learned that not all criticism, nor all doubts about you and your ideas, are equal. And, that’s what’s so great about Houston’s statement — it’s a reminder that you get to decide what to do with the criticism.

Anytime I tried to appease all of my critics, I was actually just trying to prevent criticism. I was trying to control other people’s responses to what I was proposing. It’s taken me a long time to acknowledge and accept that I cannot control other people’s thoughts about me, no matter how hard I try. But, I can control what I do with their thoughts and opinions.

Some criticisms are clearly meaningless — they come from people we refer to as “haters.” And, for these criticisms, having thick skin is helpful. That’s not to say it’s easy to ignore what’s being said. It takes some work. I mean, those throwing hate your way do want to hurt you. You’re not imagining that. It is up to you, though, to choose what you do with what they’re saying. My advice for these types of criticisms — ignore them. Or, write them down, tack them to the wall, and let them fuel you. But, whatever you do, don’t let them stop you, or change your course.

There are other criticisms, however, that do have meaning. Some people can be very well intentioned. Perhaps they delivered their thoughts poorly, but ultimately, there is some value to what has been said. And, this is where thin skin is helpful. It behooves you to at least be open to listening and considering what people are saying, particularly if you are exploring new territory.

I admit, developing thick skin and simply ignoring anything anyone ever says about you, or your ideas, would be easier. But, then you might miss opportunities for real growth and improvement.

If you’re the least bit innovative or creative in your work, you’re going to encounter more than your fair share of criticism. So, it’s important to have a process for dealing with it. “Thick skin/thin skin” is a great processing tool. It serves as a reminder that you need balance in your approach, and that you get to choose which parts of the criticism you let slide right off your thick skin, and which parts you let sink in through your thin skin.

In this current era, where criticism feels like a full-contact sport, it is especially important to have thick skin. But, don’t discount all criticism. Evaluate what’s being said, see if there is something in there that’s useful. Take the useful parts, be grateful for them, throw away the rest, and keep on keeping on.

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