To Prefer Useful Criticism to Treacherous Praise

Working collaboratively on a project recently, I found myself in the position of submitting some edits, only to learn later that someone over my head had reversed a few of my carefully considered changes. Now, I try never to make changes to things just for the sake of making changes, and I usually make an effort to maintain a sense of reserved detachment about what happens once something has left my desk. At that point, it’s often out of my hands, anyway, and not worth worrying over. 

But, at the same time, I have to admit that my identity and sense of self-valuation can totally get wrapped up in how my work is received. This is true for simple practical reasons (e.g., I am most valuable as a writer or editor when my contributions are seen as to be of worth) and for lesser, more petty reasons, too (like when I think, “I have the most knowledge and the best taste and the most adept linguistic sensibility, and everybody should just trust my judgement,” which is of course ridiculous, but there you have it, I’m human after all).

In this case, I wasn’t even being criticized outright, and some of the revisions really had been more matters of style than of substance (a realm in which an editor should usually exercise the lightest touch possible and trust the discretion of the original author). But, even knowing all this, I felt my pride bruised, and I was tempted to get snarky and sulk awhile. 

It’s amazing how quickly we can turn defensive in situations like these, building up our walls and preparing for what we see as some kind of necessary counter-attack. It got me thinking about pride, humility, criticism, and our sometimes-all-too-deep fragility in the face of day-to-day life. Which led me, in turn, to this paragraph from the Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard’s book “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.”

Ricard writes:

“The humble person has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. If she is praised, she feels that it is humility, and not herself, that is being praised. If she is criticized, she feels that bringing her faults to light is a great favor. ‘Few people are wise enough to prefer useful criticism to treacherous praise,’ wrote La Rochefoucauld, echoing the Tibetan sages who are pleased to recall that ‘the best teaching is that which unmasks our hidden faults.’ Free of hope and fear alike, the humble person remains lighthearted.”

This kind of equanimity is tough even to aspire to, much less to attain. Most of us, perhaps especially in our so-called professional lives, are really, really dedicated to maintaining (for ourselves as much as for everyone else) an image of polished perfection and an upward-sloping trend towards ever-greater mastery. To be seen otherwise, we fear, would make us seem weak and ineffective and, potentially, useless.

But I suspect that, ultimately, this “lighthearted” path described by Ricard is the true path, the surest one to both abiding happiness and lasting success.

Now, if someone can just tell that to my pride….

Posted in response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Criticize


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