They say there’s nothing free in this world, especially not a free lunch, but that’s not true. There are at least two things you can always get for free: other people’s opinions, and criticism. Often they feel like the same thing. People do tend to have positive opinions about things, like their favorite movie quotes, sandwich fillings, or Hollywood actors. They just don’t tend to share their positive feelings when they’re handing out free critiques. The question for anyone who has an interest in self-improvement or practical ethics is: When do you listen to advice, and when do you ignore it? What is your personal responsibility toward feedback from other people?
There is a lot of latitude in this question. For instance, we were at a Starbucks recently when an employee asked another customer to take her dog outside. It wasn’t a service animal and it was barking and making a fuss. The woman asked the employee whether she would make someone take their baby outside, because “this dog is literally my baby.” Um, you threw a litter? Am I getting that right? Regardless, this dog lover appears to be comfortable ignoring other people’s opinions about her training skills. Say we rate her at a 10/10 on the DNGAF scale.
(That’s “Does Not Give a Fig” for all you fruit fans)
How much responsibility we have for the behavior of our pets, children, friends, robots, etc is an area that we haven’t really worked out on a cultural level, so there will continue to be friction and room for interpretation there. The reason we feel free to push back about other people’s behavior is that there aren’t any hard rules for most things, whether it’s cell phone use, children kicking the back of someone’s seat, or carrying small dogs in your purse. It’s something to keep in mind - the feedback we don’t like to receive feels the same way to the person to whom we are trying to dish it out. And vice versa. When they serve us, they’re using the same scoop that was served to them by someone else.
Okay, back to the discussion. Which opinions do we hear out and which do we ignore?
Lectures from strangers?
Professional feedback, i.e. “telling me how to do my job”?
I try to pay heed to mainstream public opinion when I’m out and about, because I want to avoid confrontation with strangers as much as possible. I don’t tie my dog up outside the store because I know he barks about once every fifteen seconds the entire time I’m out of sight. I don’t kick people’s seats or drop litter and I always wipe down my table when I’m done. Of course this doesn’t make me immune to obnoxious strangers; a woman nearly hit me with the stall door in a public restroom and then cussed me out. It happens. I just make it a policy to avoid being someone else’s pet peeve as much as I know how. Less hassle that way.
I might take advice about my marriage, if it’s from someone who has been married longer than I have. I would ignore the opinion of a single person, someone who had been divorced more times than I have, or a married person who has marital quarrels in public and insults their spouse on social media. Otherwise, my love life is only relevant to my husband. I listen to his opinion because his opinion on our marriage matters at least as much as mine.
I might take financial advice, if it’s from someone whose net worth is higher than ours and/or someone who has a higher income. That would only be true if we share other values in common as well. I would ignore the financial advice of anyone who has no credentials, earns less, has spending habits that are not relevant to my interests (like gambling), or carries a debt burden.
I don’t have to take people’s advice on driving because we got rid of our car. I decided that having a “personal driver” was the first thing I would do if I ever got really rich, and that ride-sharing qualifies! Otherwise, well, I’ve never had a traffic ticket, so come at me.
I also don’t have to take people’s parenting advice because I can’t have children. Nevertheless, I’ve been cornered and lectured on how it’s my duty (not kidding) to have children, that I could still adopt, et cetera. Look, it’s none of anybody’s business who decides to have kids, or when, or why, or how, or with whom. I have a free opinion for you, and that’s to never make suggestions to other people about having kids. It might touch off some extremely painful emotions. Find something better to talk about.
I would probably take someone’s landscaping advice, if we owned a house. The neighbors would spend more time looking at our yard than we would, and they’ve probably lived there longer. To me that would be a very trivial way to earn major brownie points in the neighborhood. If they want me to take out a hedge, *shrug*, it’s out of here.
Fitness advice is one of those fountains that always flow. The fitter I’ve gotten, the more carefully I’ve listened when athletes are talking, and the funnier I think it is when anyone else is. I’ve been lectured about my diet and exercise habits from people who walk with a cane (more than once), people with heart problems, people with sleep apnea, people who are at least a hundred pounds overweight, and more and more. “Let’s go,” is what I say. If you can outrun me, I’ll hold still and you can tell me whatever you want. Let’s compare lab work, see who can run up a flight of stairs faster, who can do the most push-ups, who has the fewest prescription medications. On the other hand, I practically grow an extra ear when very fit people are willing to drop a few pro tips, especially when they’re past forty like I am. Please, by all means, tell me more!
About professional feedback, it depends. I once had a difference of opinion with my manager about my annual performance review. I had been commended by another manager for designing training materials that saved her team twenty man-hours, and my own manager rated me a Needs Improvement for the same project. Normally I’d say to do anything to make your boss look good and make your boss’s life easier. In this case, I immediately updated my resume, started applying for other jobs, and wound up promoting into a 30% raise. Bye-eeee.
Most people are average, by definition. We deflect our feelings about our own lives by critiquing others, even when we have no real expertise in the area. It helps us to feel smarter and more in control. We convince ourselves that we’re helping, even though we hate being on the receiving end of the identical behavior. We feel shamed and singled out when it happens to us, but we never realize that we can make other people feel shamed and singled out, too, unless of course we think they deserve it.
Overall, it helps to remember the difference between critique and criticism. It’s our job to receive critique graciously, if it comes from someone whose job description includes formally evaluating us. Criticism comes uninvited, from someone who has no official managerial, editorial, or coaching role over us, in a negative and demotivating way. We can still benefit from unsolicited criticism, even if it’s annoying, if we search out anything that would help us in our commitment to excellence. We’d do best not to ignore real critique, but we can, as long as we accept responsibility. Our results in life and work depend as much on the opinions we accept as the opinions we choose to ignore.
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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.