Thursday, May 22, 2014

Criticism and Purpose


“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.”


“Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for.”

“A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”


I should have been writing earlier, but I was browsing Facebook and reading an article by someone who was criticizing a comic book artist he didn’t like.  In the article, he gave 40 examples of the artist’s work, 40, and then explained why each one was evidence of why this artist was no good.  The truth is that this particular artist isn’t a favorite of mine either, but that seems like a lot of work simply for the purpose of criticizing someone’s work.
Perhaps it’s good to point out examples of what is not good work in order to improve our own.  But in two books I’m reading about writing, Sol Stein’s and Stephen King’s, both entitled On Writing coincidentally, the authors spend more time writing about what to do, rather than what not to do. 
Why do we like to criticize others?  Perhaps it’s easier to look at where others need to improve so we don’t have to look at our own failings.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I think we build people up so we can tear them down.  Regarding the comic book artist in question, it’s probably true that he could improve.  But who can’t?  Interestingly, this artist was, at one time, considered one of the top in his field.  He made millions of dollars.  He even started his own company, one which still exists today.  Now he is routinely criticized.  Some of his critics are people who once claimed to be his fans.
Why do we criticize others?  Is it out of fear?  Steven Pressfield says the critic criticizes because he doesn’t have the guts to do his own work.  Is the successful person a reminder of who I could be but am not yet?  Does his work discourage me because he’s made it and I haven’t?  Is that why I spend so much time and effort criticizing?
Or is there more?  I might be dealing with unresolved anger issues and so I take it out on a writer, an artist, a movie or a United States President.  Why am I angry?  Am I angry at myself for not doing my own work?  Am I angry because someone I believe to be less talented than me got a chance and I didn’t?
Do I criticize to feel superior or more knowledgeable?  Do I feel that I can do a better job than the artist, writer, actor, coworker, or employer in question?  I once worked for someone who I thought was terrible at what he did.  I knew I could do better, but I didn’t finish the education I needed in order to get that job.  I didn’t really want to do that.  My desire to criticize was stronger than my desire to effect actual change.
I’ve noticed that when I criticize, it’s usually for one of the above reasons.
Is there ever a good reason to point out how someone else’s work could improve?  Yes, but I call this critique, not criticism.  It’s meant to build up, not tear down.  And I find that even this is something I only do when asked.  I really don’t have much time to critique or criticize; I’m too busy with my own work.  I’m also painfully aware of my own shortcomings as a writer, a teacher, or an employee, to worry about or judge someone else. 
All I want to do is get better at my own work.  Perhaps in this way I can lead, and inspire, by example. 
Sometimes correcting others is called for, but perhaps not as much as we think.  As I said, all I really want to do is get better at my own work.  The more time I spend criticizing someone else, the less time I have to work on myself. 
Ironically, with regard to the criticized artist, even the critic had to admit that this artist made millions of dollars.
How many of us can say that?  I can’t yet, so I have work to do.  Perhaps a new critique method needs to be developed, one that explores the strengths more than, or at least as much as, the weaknesses of someone else’s work.  Perhaps if I spent more time talking about what others do right, I can learn more.
Criticism keeps me from my Purpose.  That’s why I don’t want to engage in it. I would rather Get Started and Keep Going on my own work.