Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Alex Payne on Criticism, Cheerleading, and Negativity

Criticism, Cheerleading, and Negativity

There is the perception, particularly in American culture, that criticism and negativity go hand-in-hand. We understand well the idea of being in favor or something, or against something, but we don’t particularly understand how criticism fits into this dichotomy. As someone with a penchant for criticism, I’ve often found myself misjudged as “being negative” when mere complaint is furthest from my intention. I’m here to explain myself and people like me.

Criticism Is Not Negativity

The reason a person is critical of a thing is because he is passionate about that thing. In order to have a critical opinion, you have to love something enough to understand it, and then love it so much more that you want it to be better. Passion breeds critical thinking. It’s why criticism as an academic practice comes out of deep research and obsession, and why criticism as a cultural product comes from subject matter experts, often self-taught.

Negativity, in contrast, is not the product of passion. There is a certain obvious duality to loving and hating a thing, but the kind of casual negativity that people read into criticism is really a product of apathy. You can’t truly a care about a thing only to casually dismiss it with a negative remark.

“That sucks” is negativity. “That sucks, here’s why, and here’s how to fix it” is criticism, and it comes from a place of love. That’s the difference.

Nobody Wants To Cook For A Chef

Friends who are professional chefs (or even accomplished amateurs) describe a social phenomenon. When someone who is not an accomplished cook is throwing a dinner party, the chefs are only reluctantly invited. It’s assumed that a professional chef must have such high critical standards for food that they couldn’t possibly enjoy anything less than a four-star gourmet meal. In actuality, most chefs I know enjoy a simple meal just as much as flights of culinary fancy.

As my own taste in spirits and beer have matured, I’ve experienced a variation on the above. I’ll show up at a party only to have the host apologize to me for their beverage selection. Though I’ve come to be an amateur critic of good drink, this certainly doesn’t mean that I can no longer enjoy a mass-market lager or a bottom-shelf bourbon. If anything, my experience has led me to a greater appreciation of the variation between styles.

A critic can certainly reduce her criticism to “good” or “bad”, but there’s far more context and nuance at work. Someone with an informed, critical opinion is, in my experience, far less likely to be negative than someone not as informed. If anything, critical thinking adds dimension to an appreciation of the world around you.

Everyone Wants A Cheerleader

Everyone says they’re comfortable with criticism and with critics, because not being able to handle criticism is a sign of immaturity. What people really want, though, are cheerleaders. Nowhere in life is this more true than in business.

A healthy business needs passionate employees to succeed. Critics are the most passionate people you can find, but we’re conditioned to assume that critics are negative curmudgeons with nothing more than slings and arrows to contribute. So rather than seeking out critics, employers seek out cheerleaders.

Cheerleaders are, on the face of it, lovely people to have around an office. They’re just super excited to be there, even if they haven’t had the time or inclination to really think about why. They abhor any suggestion of negativity, and pave over it with empty can-dos. A cheerleader might be a good worker or he might not be. It doesn’t really matter, because the guy is just so damn nice.

This might suggest a correlation between niceness and the capacity for critical thinking. I’m not proposing that. I’ve worked with “critical” people who actually didn’t have much to contribute (that is, they were really just negative), and I’ve worked with unfailingly nice people who also are quick to chime in with well-considered suggestions and improvements.

What I am suggesting is a correlation between critical thinking and passion. There are a million variations on “you don’t really know x until you hate it”. More apt, I think, would be: “you don’t really love x until you’re critical of it”.

Cheerleaders aren’t in love with your business. They care about your business, but from an emotional distance. If you treat them wrong, they’ll disappear and find a newer, happier company to cheerlead at. Critics, conversely, won’t just weather the storm with you, they’ll show up on Monday with a plan for a better umbrella. Who do you want to work with?


There’s a certain irony in criticizing the nature of criticism itself, but I’ve come accept that this is how I think. Part of me wishes I was a natural cheerleader; the selective ignorance, I imagine, is bliss.

Personally, I’m inclined to get involved exclusively with things that I’m truly passionate about, and that often means levying criticism and facing the subsequent conflicts.

For all the nights of sleep I’ve lost to the critical wheels in my head turning, I wouldn’t trade them for a moment’s rest. It’s not the easiest way to approach the world, but the cycle of passion, criticism, vulnerability, conflict, and resolution is perpetually educational.

This is one of the most poignant and true blog posts I've read in 2009 because it speaks to me personally. I know there are people that I've interacted with that think I'm "negative" or being "difficult". This always sadden me because if I'm passionate about something it's a special thing -- it means I truly care about the topic or issue at hand.

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