A friend and I were talking about criticism. He was saying he thought I had been criticized more than most people he knew. True, I was thinking, and then he added, "But boy, did you know how to dish it out!"
"It was self-defense," I retaliated.
We continued talking about how our lives were progressing, and I said that one of the signs of this progress was that some less pleasant aspects of our characters were falling away.
Obviously I'm not the only one who finds it hard to take an objective look at myself and see what could be improved. It's far more comfortable to justify bad characteristics, as I'd grown accustomed to doing with rationale such as, "It's OK to be critical, because I'm a perfectionist." "I criticize myself more than I criticize others." "If other people did things right, I wouldn't need to criticize them."
I may justify criticism as the pursuit of perfection, and even consider it a virtue, but it can have its downside. One person's perfection can be another's self-opinionated arrogance.
Although I still have a ways to go, a turning point in changing my own critical stance came when I heard someone define criticism as "a public admission of your inability to see good in someone else."
More ouch! But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I put myself in my neighbors' - particularly my co-workers' - shoes. At the time, I was running a fashion business, which relied on creative input from freelancers. If all they heard from me was criticism of their ideas, they heard no encouragement, no praise, and no nurturing. What incentive was there for them to be creative, imaginative, or think out of the box? How could their efforts result in "perfection" if they were shot down at their first public airing?
My criticism, designed as a pursuit of perfection, did nothing but create a threatening environment, an atmosphere of mistrust, resentment, and fear. The fundamental conditions for war, I realized. How helpful to humanity was that, and what sort of perfection was I really pursuing?
One of the Ten Commandments came to mind: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). The harsh reality was that I was as ready to kill a good idea, or even any original thought, as a soldier in a war zone was to kill an enemy. It wasn't self-defense; it was an act of war.
A change had to take place. I found the starting point I needed in a documentary film about the late film director John Cassavetes. It described his work as "creating the space for brilliant people to be brilliant." The light went on. I didn't have to limit anyone to my own concept of perfection. Perfection is indefinable and limitless. Perfection is reached by adventurous dialogue and inspiration, humility, and grace. Nobody could own perfection or monopolize it. It's for all to participate in and express.
Something remarkable happened. I learned to delegate! I no longer stood and oversaw every project. I gave my colleagues broad outlines of what I wanted, and allowed them the space to fulfill that vision while I concentrated on other things.
They came back with work that surprised and inspired me! They did things that I had never thought of, and our conversations were ones of "what if...?" and "how about...?" As a team, we gained a reputation as being inspired, different thinkers. As each readily acknowledged the contributions of others, the sense of ownership and ego disappeared. No one needed to steal anyone else's ideas because they all had plenty of their own. So another of those Ten Commandments was inadvertently obeyed: "Thou shalt not steal."
Eventually members of the team went their separate ways and excelled in their own field. But I will never forget them.
He who is afraid
of being too generous
has lost the power of
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor