“Criticism is like a nut. You eat the meat and spit out the shell.” This quote, attributed to Tim Sanders, jumped out at me recently. In fact, now I remember the quote but not where I read it! The concept is so huge that it may be destined to become a proverb. The nut meat is valuable information; the shell is everything that makes it hard to accept, like tone of voice or facial expression.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much criticism has in common with nuts. Nuts grow on trees. They may drop on your head. Sometimes you get one that’s all shell and no meat. Some are so tough to crack that after a while you just give up. Even the tiniest piece of shell can ruin your cookie. Some people keep a bowl of nuts on the table all the time. Some people are deathly allergic and can’t even be in the same room. Someone who is a little squirrely may throw one at you.
Criticism is basically the amateur version of critique. Most people are absolutely useless at giving truly constructive critique, feedback, mentoring, coaching, or teaching. Go to almost any forum that rates any product, service, or medium and read the one-star reviews. People will put approximately twice as much effort into rating something they hated as something they appreciated. These negative reviews can be really handy in their own way. I often use them as advice on what to read, watch, buy, or do. If that person hated it for that reason, why, it’s probably right up my alley!
Just because the critic has no credentials or credibility does not mean the criticism is without merit. Verbum sapienti. We get ourselves wound around the axle, thinking about the Nerve of Those People and How Dare They and Just Where Do They Get Off and Who Asked You? It’s more helpful to think in terms of whether they have a point. Is this useful information? What would be different if I attended to this matter? Is this perspective so alien to mine that I’m not understanding something that could change everything? We don’t have to feel that we’re capitulating or submitting or even admitting that someone is right. Those are options, but there are others. We can just eat that nut and spit out the shell. We can also swivel into the position that true excellence cannot come without feedback.
Ever since I quit my day job, I have been trying to learn how to be a working artist, which was backwards, but who’s counting? I’m like most other writers, in that I am completely paranoid about criticism and negative reviews. In my quest to Do the Obvious, I have apprenticed myself to various role models who are more productive and successful in their chosen form. I stumbled across the term “notes.” It turns out that professionals with formal training in everything from screenwriting to architecture to composition to dance actively seek out “notes” about their work, searching for even the tiniest improvements. They have nothing to prove about their talent or passion or ambition or commitment; they just want to master their art and put out great work. I’m not there yet, not by any means, but I know when to take a deep breath and fake it now and then.
The thing about receiving criticism is that it’s human nature to be defensive. We resist. The default position is to have hurt feelings, to be angry, to feel that the critic is attacking our very spiritual essence. We try to surround ourselves with people whom we perceive as loyal and supportive, and then are devastated when they are not always able to put our personal self-interest first or stroke our egos in exactly the right way. Defensiveness is its own punishment. We build up our own shells, thicker and thicker, seeking to protect ourselves from feelings of betrayal and ridicule and humiliation, preoccupied with emotional safety. Eventually we trap ourselves. No criticism can get in, but neither can anything else. More importantly, nothing can get out.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.