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Criticism and Gratitude

I remember as a teenager being told by a parent or teacher that the best response to being corrected was to say, “Thank you!” And that instead of getting upset and defensive, I should accept correction as something good.

I also remember thinking that they were crazy because I couldn't imagine feeling anything but pain, anger, and resentment when someone criticized my behavior or performance.

Gratitude? No way!

Criticism hurts. Correction hurts. It is never fun to be told we are wrong, that we didn't do something right, or didn't measure up to some standard. We all want to feel like we're succeeding, that we know what we're doing, that we know the answers.

But there's the rub: which do we want? To feel that we're doing everything right? Or to actually be doing everything right?

The first time someone criticized a story I'd written, I was pretty crushed. They thought my characters were fake and my plot didn't make sense. The dramatic part I thought was so cool, they thought was just stupid. They didn't even like the names I'd chosen for my characters! I was discouraged and upset and didn't write anything for a while. And I'd asked for their opinion! Criticism we don't ask for is always harder to take.

I can tell now that the person who told me those things about my story was right. It wasn't a very good story. They saw things about it that I couldn't. And their criticism—once I got over it—made me a better writer.

Since then I've come to genuinely enjoy asking for and receiving criticism on my writing. Not because I've developed a thicker skin (though I have) or become more virtuous (though I hope I have), but because I changed my mindset about my work.

I learned that bestselling authors have editors too. Many have writing groups with other authors where they criticize each other's work. If you read the acknowledgement section for any popular book, you'll probably find that most people listed are people whose main job was to tell the author what he or she did wrong.

This taught me that writing a book isn't a solo project. Writing a good book requires the work of many people. It's only by seeing how others react to my work that I can improve it. So instead of feeling criticism of my writing as an attack, now I think of it as a collaboration.

Living a good life isn't a solo project either. It requires the work of many people, many of whom are there mainly to point out mistakes.

If we could learn to tell ourselves that our attitudes and behaviors are also works of art that we're trying to perfect, and that the people around us (especially teachers, parents, and bosses) are there to help us do that, then maybe those painful corrections and criticisms could actually become occasions of gratitude.

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