Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Dealing with harsh criticism

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, once told how Dilbert fared poorly initially. His critics objected that Dilbert was hardly ever funny, except when he appeared at the office. Instead of falling prey to discouragement, Adams decided to portray Dilbert almost exclusively at the office from now on. And Scott became a world-famous millionaire.

This is a perfect example of how to apply mental judo when faced with criticism: turn the negative energy which is opposing you, into positive energy that propels you.

I recently read Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. I wrote about the book on this blog a few years ago. This is a brilliant, highly original book by an author who is leaving his mark in history. I wrote an excellent review (5 stars) on Amazon, and I recommend that everyone reads this challenging book!

Yet the book is flawed. Venkatesh Rao summed the problem well, though maybe too harshly:

Debt is not one big story spanning 5000 years, but more like a collection of 5000 little stories and arguments thrown together, with a bigger narrative almost slapped on as an afterthought.

How did Graeber react when Rao criticized him online? He blamed Rao for missing the boat:

Sad really. A book is only as good as its readers.

This is not the best response. So, how should you react?

  1. Don’t be blinded by the negative. To be efficient critics of your work, people have to study it. In the process, they often identify strengths. Pay close attention to your critics. You will often find out that they are not trashing your work entirely. Consider the Scott Adams’ story: Dilbert is funny only while at the office. Ah! This means that Dilbert is funny while at the office? In the Graeber story, Rao wrote: “the book provides a lot of astounding value”. See how Graeber paid no attention to this part?
  2. Be constructive. Instead of opposing your critics, work with them. They will often identify real weaknesses in your work. You may not be able to fix these weaknesses (e.g., you cannot re-edit your book), but you should at least be able to take them into account in the future. An answer that I give often is “I’m aware of this problem and I plan to write about it in the future”. Scott Adams’ story is the perfect illustration of this principle: instead of fighting his critics, he improved his work accordingly.