“I don’t know how they do it,” she said. We were having coffee — Vanessa, Michelle, and me — in the exact coffee shop where Michelle and I first met in real life. Of course, we were talking about writing. And about writers we admire. They’re the ones who stick their necks out, take a stand, state their case. They probably have days where it overwhelms them, we reasoned. We didn’t doubt that sometimes they probably wonder if it’s worth it. But still. They’re passionate, and willing to withstand the criticism in order to get the word out, and to encourage people to think just a bit differently.
I leaned in with my arms on the table and told my friends I’ve received some criticism over the past few weeks. It’s made me wonder if I’ve crossed the line. If I should tone it down a bit. If these #GoingThere conversations are doing more harm than good. And how do you know when criticism is valid, and when it isn’t?
Of course, my friends assured me I hadn’t crossed the line. They told me the conversation is important, and encouraged me to keep on keeping on. But still, I wondered, how do you know when to listen to the criticism?
After Michelle, Vanessa, and I had hugged and parted ways, I checked my phone and saw I’d missed a call from my daughter. When I called her back, she was all gushy with emotion. “Mom!” she said. “Why did I not know about Brené Brown?”
My daughter was attending The Global Leadership Summit, and that morning, Brené Brown had been the speaker. “Ah!” I answered! “Isn’t she amazing?”
“Oh my gosh, mom!” my daughter replied. “Amazing! Really amazing! I need to be her friend!”
“What did she talk about? Being vulnerable?”
“Yes. And shame. And mom, she talked about criticism.”
“Really?” I asked, and I was going to tell my daughter that I’d just been talking with some friends about criticism, but there was no interrupting my daughter’s enthusiasm.
And here, I’m going to tell you, in my own words, what my daughter says Brené Brown told that group of leaders because it keeps coming back to me, and because I think that maybe you might need to hear it just as much I did. You’ll have to keep in mind that this information is third hand — I wasn’t there, and I have only my daughter’s interpretation of what she heard. I credit Brené Brown for this insight, while offering my apologies if I’ve misrepresented her:
Brené Brown said that when you go into the arena, you can expect to get dirty. Your clothes get torn. Your knuckles get scraped. You get the wind knocked out of you. You might even break a rib or two. And Brené Brown decided that when it comes to criticism, she’s only going to listen to it if it comes from other people who are in the arena with her. Others who know what it’s like to get knocked down so hard you see stars circling overhead. She’s going to value the criticism coming from others in the arena, over and above the criticism coming from the people in the stands, eating their popcorn and Twizzlers and shouting out their armchair quarterback epithets.
The people in the arena? They give advice and offer constructive criticism based on their own arena experiences. They say things like, “You might want to try a different stance,” or “Watch out for that guy behind you,” or “Here! You can borrow my shield!” The people in the stands? They say things like, well, you know the kinds of things they say. And rarely do they say, “Hey, how can I get in there with you? How can I help?”
I think I know you, and I think the last thing you want to do is offend someone. Me too. But sometimes, someone tells you something that makes it clear you’ll never see eye-to-eye on this particular thing. I guess this advice about the arena helped me to realize that’s okay. Not everyone has to agree. Not even all of the people in the arena will agree. But the advice they offer is likely to be more constructive, more helpful, more fitting for the long run.
What about you? How do you handle criticism?”