Before we were graced with the phrase “haters gonna hate,” Theodore Roosevelt put it a little more eloquently in the oft-quoted Man in the Arena section of his Citizenship in A Republic speech. In it, he tells us that it is not the critic that matters, but rather the person who is actually striving to do something great. His concept of “cold and timid souls” has become a personal rallying call when I’m feeling doubtful about my writing, parenting or career. The phrase reminds us that it’s important to strive for greatness because failure is better than having not tried at all.
The Critic is a force that has become pervasive in our society. At some point in our evolution, we’ve collectively decided that we make ourselves better by taking someone else down. It’s ingrained in the fabric of our politics, our parenting discourse and our health literature. There’s nothing you can do where you won’t have people climbing over each other to tell you how you could have done it better.
We’ve all become Tyler Durden, standing on our front porch and turning people away because they’re too old, too fat or too “BLONDE!”
This matters because The Critic is the enemy of Wonder.
By this, I don’t mean the good criticism, of course. When I tell my daughter not to climb on a stove, I’m not trying to limit her potential. I’m trying to teach my otherwise intelligent offspring the value of not being horribly burned. The greatest novels of all time have the greatest editors behind them. My own inner critic is what gets me out of bed in the morning when I’d rather be lazy instead of going for a morning run. Even gossip gets a bad rap. People get all high and mighty about it, but it has its place in society because it serves to signal what values are important to you.
However, like all of human nature, there is a dark side. The Critic is the voice that takes something else down solely for the purpose of taking it down. You’re not trying to make something better, you’re just trolling the commenting section of your life, pointing out how stupid everything and everyone is.
The worst part is how much it has become internalized. There is no greater critic than the one you carry with you that tells you that your ideas aren’t worth pursuing. That is the poison of dreams.
Think about how dangerous that is.
Think about how many ideas have been crushed before they even had a chance in the world. Think about how many parents subscribe to the great middling of our culture rather than letting their children be themselves. How many things have you thought about trying but you didn’t once The Critic started whispering in your ear? It’s why you see so many successful artists who drink or take drugs. Some people subscribe to the fallacy of numbing that voice to get something done.
The Critic is just as part of us as wonder or grief or doubt. Railing against the Critic is railing against who we are as humans. Don’t miss the irony of criticizing someone for criticizing. Don’t miss the irony of trying to silence the part of yourself that is silencing your own voice.
Instead, take a good hard look at what you are adding to the voice of the Critic because those are the things you hate most about yourself. As Brene Brown puts it in her masterpiece, Daring Greatly (inspired by the same TR speech):
“I’m not going to practically knock myself unconscious with a shaming eye roll about your nonorganic milk if I feel good about what I’m feeding my children.”
Any parent who tells you they don’t judge other parents is lying to you (or themselves). If I stop to listen to my own inner monologue criticizing the food that I see other kids eating or the antics they get away with in public or the time people spend with their kids, I hear my own critic talking about myself. Recognizing that helps me not verbalize the more ridiculous of these thoughts but more importantly, it teaches me about what is important to me.
The Critic can be a force for good too, but like anything dark in us, that can only happen when we shine a light on it.
Most importantly, The Critic is a beacon pointing us to what we should be focusing on in our lives. Criticism only really bothers me than when it’s about something I really care about. When The Critic tells me that I’m not a good carpenter, I think, “Yup, got me,” and the whispering is silenced.
However, that voice never shuts up about the aspects of my life I care most about. That’s because when I fight, The Critic fights back. When the Critic tells me I’m not a good father or scoffs at the wasted time I put into writing, we go to battle.
Use that voice to find your focus. If The Critic is constantly whispering to you, look closer to see if it’s a dream you should think about pursuing. You don’t have time? Make time. You don’t have the skill? Practice. You don’t have the knowledge? Learn it. That will silence it long enough to get something done, but know it will be back if it’s something worth doing.
Keep in mind that this is not your practice life.
This is it.
Maybe you’ll succeed or maybe not, but at least your place shall never be with those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”