Leadership

How That Vicious Inner Critic Can Be Your Closest Ally

By on January 7, 2016

Ken Goldstein

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney were driven by their inner critic. If you’re going to block out the critics, you must master how to wield the one inside you.

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Editor’s Note: Ken Goldstein has served as Chairman & CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, and VP / Executive Publisher of Entertainment & Education for Broderbund Software. He is the author of This Is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness (2013) and Endless Encores (2015).

There’s something about optimism. Nothing in business is quite as powerful in motivating people to believe in a mission as a leader who undoubtedly believes. The energy that radiates from a passionate entrepreneur is engaging, uplifting, and inspiring. When we hear someone tell us he or she is following their muse, boldly pursuing a personal dream, we want to root for them. We want to become a part of it. We want to hitch our cart to their wagon. We want to step out of the ordinary and get onboard the outrageous.

A leader who won’t be deterred can bring purpose to a business enterprise.

A leader who rises above petty criticism and backstabbing naysayers can turn a hundred dollars into a hundred million dollars.

A leader who is “all-in” and won’t be dissuaded from a cohesive, organic vision can literally change the world.

Over and over we hear the speechifying that tells us never to give up, that resilience is all that matters, that we should forget the critics and ignore the naysayers.

Already doing that? Great. But there’s a catch.

Walt Disney was told he was no good as an illustrator, that his characters would never be popular. Steve Jobs got fired from his own company for being difficult, and refusing to compromise his ambitions. They were never dissuaded. They were resilient and persevered. They could not have cared less what their critics were saying.

Walt and Steve are held up as classic examples of rejecting rejection. They maintained an uncompromised vision and carved their place in history because of it. Detractors who called out “their folly” could do them no sustained harm. Walt and Steve evidenced a form of courage that set a new high water mark for leading teams beyond the fog to unbridled innovation. They remain heroes to those who aspire to transcend the ordinary.

So what’s the catch? You want to be That Leader, right? Or maybe you just want to sign on with That Leader? What’s the missing element that is most likely to take you down?

Is it that the odds against a startup succeeding are enormous? Nope. Most entrepreneurs know this long before they quit their day jobs. Many are wacky, but few are stupid.

Is it that capital is very hard to raise, especially for a first time entrepreneur? Nope.

Most entrepreneurs discover this lesson the first time mom or dad says, “What!? Are you kidding me? You’re not a CEO… you can barely manage to get matching socks on your feet!” They secretly know that mom and dad are just negotiating their share of the deal for the seed round.

Is it that it’s nearly impossible to get super-talented people to work for deferred or limited pay for the long runway until a business is cash flow positive? Nope.

Most entrepreneurs are confident that if they articulate an exciting enough plan, the right people will get with the program no matter what, and the ones who said no just saved the entrepreneur the pain of having to fire them later for their mediocrity.

Then what is it? What is the Achilles Heel of the resilient? What is the repelling force that stands counter to the success of leaders brave enough to shake off a world that tells them No No No when all they hear in their heads is Yes Yes Yes?

Presume for a moment this entrepreneur is You. Get your highlighter ready. You’ll want to make note of this for the rest of your career.

The problem might be YOU.

Don’t highlight that. I haven’t gotten to the important part yet. The part you need to highlight is this:

If you’re not going to listen to the critics who will tell you every reason in the world why you are going to fail—and believe you absolutely must tune them out in order to be a renowned, world-class leader—you are going to have to be the hardest critic in the world on yourself.

Yes, in order to earn the privilege of ducking all the pessimists trying to steer you away from your dream, you must beat yourself up in ways they can’t even imagine. There is no luxury in resilience. There is only a level of self-critique so necessary that the pain it will cause you as a lone wolf makes child’s play of the third-party negativity you will never hear. What you hear in your head must be far more thundering—and far more impactful.

The real reason most startup leaders fail

It’s not because of a lack of devotion, or a lack of passion, or even because of a lack of talent.

They fail because of a lack of self-critique.

Does this apply to you? Have you actually established yourself as your own toughest critic? I don’t mean a little tough. I mean vicious, brutal, send yourself into a tailspin tough. Sorry to break the news, but that’s why Walt and Steve were often perceived as miserable. They were always very, very tough on themselves, an order of magnitude more thrashing than what any bleacher critic was or even could have been.

I have had the privilege to lead a handful of creative companies and I have had the privilege to be a published author. In all cases I was told innumerable times why I would not be successful. I didn’t hear a word of it. I didn’t need to hear a word of it. In all cases I was already way ahead of the peanut gallery, working and reworking the scenarios of why I wouldn’t be successful.

I study product features like I study word choices. I might tell you that no one on the market has anything like this, but before you’ll hear me utter those words, I have done the homework to assure myself this is worth defending. No one else can do that as stridently as I can. I say no to a sentence a hundred times before I let you see it. I edit it, erase it, rewrite it, rework it, change it, question it, then pick it apart word by word until I have exhausted all its failures. Same with a product. Same with a service.

I can only ignore the amateur naysayers because I am my own best professional naysayer.

Let’s take it deeper, to a place you may not want to go. Here’s another reason why startup leaders fail: they doggedly champion a product that is no good. It’s not because the naysayers are right. It’s because the startup leader doesn’t embrace the radical discipline to relentlessly question themselves and, by extension, their product.

If running out of time and money don’t apply as explanations, most entrepreneurs fail for a very simple reason: their idea was not good enough to create a category defining product or service. Too often we dupe ourselves into believing the ordinary is extraordinary. We fall in love with an idea because we gave birth to it, and rather than beating that idea into something exceptional—or dumping it, learning from it, and finding the fortitude to reinvent it into something else—we tell ourselves we will not be dissuaded and we go to market with mediocrity. That’s when we get walloped.

Once again, the tough love, get out the highlighter:

The only way you can defy the odds and ignore the critics is if you have a massive built-in crap filter. If you don’t want someone else to tell you your product is crap, you better be willing to tell yourself it’s crap or you’re going to blow a lot of time and money on nothing.

Artists and inventors have a crap filter no matter how successful they are. Walt did. So did Steve. Walt was told that audiences would never want to see a feature-length animated motion picture. He didn’t hear it, because Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way to make it something people would never want to see.

Steve was told there would never be a market for something as intimidating as home computing. He didn’t hear it, because the Apple 2 was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way that it would intimidate people.

Both of these visionaries agonized over perfection and were never satisfied. When they were starting out they were never satisfied. When they were at the bottom they were never satisfied. When they were at the top of their game they were never satisfied. The critics failed to resonate with them because they were lightweights in comparison to their own pounding criticism.

Are you embracing this burden of innovation?

Why do I need you to hear this? Why is this so desperately important to everyone who wants to make a difference and change the world? Because too many hopeful leaders are embracing the rhetoric of “going their own way” without embracing this burden of innovation. Every single day someone shows me a derivative app and begs me to believe in them. It’s a minimum viable product, they tell me, they will build on it and make it great later.

Right, after customers have yawned.

You really think they’ll give you another chance? So yours is 12% faster than your competition? So what? So yours addresses a tiny niche with a quirky set of differentiating features that matter mostly to you for pitching on demo day… So what? Get your eyes off the IPO listings and back on the shelf where the war for customers is lost or won. Don’t be Happy. Be Grumpy.

Incrementality is toxic. Don’t tell me how all your competitors have slightly weaker products than what you’re proposing. Convince yourself you can blow my mind with something that leapfrogs the entire market if not in one product cycle then over a generation. If you don’t want me to tell you that your app is crap then be sure you’ve asked yourself a hundred times before you ignore me. If you don’t know that your app is crap because you aren’t being honest with yourself then you haven’t earned the right to ignore the naysayers.

That’s the secret sauce—knowing when you are ready to play and when the cards you hold are not worth playing. Be that critic and you’ll never need another. When you stand up onstage and tell your story of success, it will undoubtedly be preceded by the chapters of failure that led you to your day in the sun. I want to come to that speech and applaud. I want to see you do it again and again. I want to see you tell the naysayers to jump off a peer.

Are you ready to take on the responsibility of being your own toughest critic? Wield your inner critic in such a way that it allows you to do the best work of your life. Then yeah, tell us all to bugger off and let’s get to work changing the world.

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About the featured photo:

Fabio Napoleoni’s “Solid Declaration” is our feature painting this week. Many events influenced Fabio’s artwork but none more than the traumatic events that followed the birth of his second child. His daughter, born with major heart abnormalities, had to face several surgeries to correct issues that could prevent her from having a future. Through this experience, Fabio realized what was missing from his work: emotion.

 

TAGS
  • Fantastic piece – really well thought out. It’s definitely a balancing act.

    • Ken Goldstein

      Thanks, Brock. I wish you a prosperous new year of thoughtful growth!

  • Sean Carver

    I see what you did there… Be Grumpy, not Happy… after citing Walt’s brave but confident foray with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves… nicely done. Also, great article too.

    • Ken Goldstein

      Thanks, Sean. Walt has always been an inspiration to me. That made my time working at Disney a true honor. I studied his life and creative process in depth. He has so much to teach us about pushing our creativity way beyond where we think it can go.

  • Ken, this is a very important piece of advice for everyone, but particularly for those in my field of men’s health. Men live sicker and die sooner than women. My work is energized by a study from the University of Michigan that said, “If you could make male mortality rates the same as female rates, you would do more good than curing
    cancer. We’d save more than 375,000 men’s lives a year in the U.S. alone.” For more than 40 years, I’ve been committed to healing men and the families who love them. I’ve been writing articles for the Good Men Project (GMP) (among other venues) since they began I believe they are one of the few organizations focused on men’s health that as the kind of self-critical perspective that allows them to be both relevant and effective. I’d like your perspective on why you believe GMP has been effective and what other organizations focused on men’s health can learn.

    • Ken Goldstein

      Thanks, Jeb, the work you are doing is so very important. Good Men Project has been a joy for me, because it’s uncharted territory, and thus very dangerous creatively. We have no roadmap, so as I say all the time, we can step in poo at any given moment, the question is how do we get out of the poo quickly and keep moving forward. Although we remain highly imperfect, here are three things that I think help us:

      1) Our platform is meant to be a dialogue, not a diatribe. The brand does not define what being a good man is, it poses that question to the community to sensibly discuss in a conversation that never ends. We don’t name a good man of the year, because if we did, the chances he would be unveiled as flawed a minute after we did are 99%. We discuss goodness, we don’t cement a model of good.

      2) Diversity to us is air. Because good is so hard to understand, we see the whole of our contribution base as vastly more important than one dominating voice. We are The Good MEN project with half our writers women and half our readers women, so men and women can discuss important things with each other, not at each other. Ethnicity, sexual preference, age, we cast the widest net we can, so we can learn from each other.

      3) We demand good behavior without imposing political correctness. You can disagree with a point of view, but you can’t attack a contributor. We encourage articulate contribution over invective. Again, it’s meant to be a conversation, which means there are rules of civility, but not so many that they curtail free exchange of voice.

      I don’t know how that applies specifically to men’s health, but you might note that as rules of engagement, these are equally applicable to science and art. Maybe that’s a good place to begin, establishing fair rules of engagement that encourage progress and celebrate process.

      • Ken, thanks for your detailed response. It occurs to me that your last points about “good behavior without imposing political correctness” and having “rules of engagement” might be very useful both as it applies to creating an effective organization as well as an effective relationship between ourselves and our inner critic. As Erin notes above, our inner critic needs to be active, but not too active. It has to challenge us to create the best product or service we can without wiping us out or immobilizing us by beating us down. It’s been a challenge for me to accept my inner critic without letting it shame and blame me (we all have a good deal of that from our growing up).

  • Erin M. Kelly

    Hi Ken. Firstly, this is a really solid piece. It speaks to many “old school” aspects and values of hard work. I know you’ve been instrumental in breathing life into The Good Men Project, and I can see how a lot of the things you talk about here are incorporated into the daily goings on at GMP. As the current Social Justice Editor there, I try to listen to my inner critic enough that I leave my writers with a little more knowledge than what they came in with. As a writer myself, however, I sometimes wish that critic inside me would hush itself, but not completely go silent. I’m a self-admitted perfectionist, particularly when it comes to my work. I know that in itself can be detrimental, and I often don’t like to read my work after it’s been published. I guess it’s much the same way that an actor doesn’t like to watch themselves on screen because they know they can’t go back and do another take once the finished product is out. So, if I may ask, how do you find that balance between being OK with whatever you’ve done versus having the urge to go back and make changes?

    • Ken Goldstein

      Hi Erin, and thanks for the kind words. The answer to your question is simple in concept and extremely difficult in practice. A creative must look forward and only forward. You only look back for learning, what mistakes should you not repeat. But the exhilaration of a creative life is that every day you can do something new, and you must do something new, or you’re simply repeating yourself, good or bad, which is the antithesis of creativity. When something is done it’s done, you make the decision and you move on. You can never repeat success with the same thing, only failure, so what’s the point in obsessing over something you’ve done? Obsess about the future, and you will light up your world.

      • Erin M. Kelly

        Thanks, Ken I see where you’re coming from, and agree with you’re saying about the future. I also agree that the whole process of leading a creative life is difficult – reaching for a brass ring that seems so accessible to the majority of people, because they do their job and generally see a paycheck the next week or what have you. For me, and people pursuing creative careers in general, that’s not the case. I made a promise to myself quite a while ago that I’d be a writer – not for the money, fame, or notoriety – but for sheer experience. I knew my heart had to be in this before anything else, and that’s still how I feel now – 15 years later.

  • Wilhelm Cortez

    Well, you have put words on so much that I have been learning over the past couple years in particular. Being my own toughest critic has been a base line, then extending that to the writers I work with to get them to dig deeper and push that little bit harder as their own critic. All in the effort to avoid producing more “crap”. Thanks for detailing this so clearly, Ken!

    • Ken Goldstein

      Thanks, Wilhelm. We all know a good editor is hard to find. When you have one, you have a gift like no other. I have been blessed in that regard on my first two books. I don’t take it for granted. Being a great editor is pure art. I know you take that responsibility seriously and you will also be a better writer for it!

      • Wilhelm Cortez

        Indeed! Editing has already improved my writing so much. The process of deconstructing and reconstructing someone else’s writing to make it more readable and impactful really teaches a lot about the power of the written word. Then, the self-critic in me, who wants to preserve the author’s voice and intention without altering their words too much takes over for that final go through. The reward is when the author loves the changes. Now, when I sit down to write for myself, the words come out more precise the first time around. Again, the self-critic is so vital to process in order to avoid potential problems.

  • Philippe Collard

    This is a very important article for young entrepreneurs. One the one hand, you do need the passion and the quasi certitude that you will succeed. This is the fuel in the engine. Without that fuel, you will go nowhere. On the other hand, you also need a healthy dose of skepticism about your own ideas. As Ken said, be your own harshest critic and naysayer. If your idea survives the acid test of your own doubts, success is not assured but at least you will have asked yourself most of the questions that others will ask you. The question is of course: how do you do that? Well, if you came up with the “product that will revolutionize the universe as we know it”, you probably have a list of reasons why that will be the case. In front of each of these reasons, come up with a counter argument. And if you cannot find a plausible counter argument for each reason you listed, then you are not trying hard enough! Once the list of reasons is listed, with the list of counter arguments, then write down what your are going to do about the counter arguments. At the end of the exercise, you have challenged yourself beyond pure enthusiasm into the realm of the real world. Thank you Ken for this excellent paper. Philippe

    • Ken Goldstein

      Fantastic framework for the gut check, Philippe. I hope everyone takes note of your suggested methodology. Of course where you are leading is even more important, that beyond a vetted concept awaits the even harder part of finding success, which is execution. Almost all dreams are lost or won in the doing, and in the doing consistently!

      • Philippe Collard

        Thank you Ken. As someone who comes up with “ideas” on a consistant basis, that’s the method I have devised for myself to make sure I “do not believe my own marketing hype”. Works all the time 🙂 And yes you are right, the doing is tough. You need to start with a solid basis, something that has been challenged, “to the bone” as I used to tell my teams. After that, you jump in the water with the sharks….Cheers!

  • Nannette Ricaforte

    Thank you for confirming that I can be my toughest critic because I always have been. It’s the reason why I continue to be my best self in everything I do especially in my small photography business when others have advised to give up if I can’t do it full-time. Also, when I contributed to The Good Men Project the angst I exhibited to produce good writing was met with disdain by close friends because “You’re not even getting paid for your work.” I’ve been told on several occasions that I’m my own worst critic and need to “chill out.” Thank you for writing this piece as I now know I am okay!

    • Ken Goldstein

      Nannette, you are more than okay, you are operating on a very high plain and answering to the only muse that matters. You create to satisfy the calling inside you, and you perfect to satisfy the impossibly high standards of that calling. My sense is the pride you experience in that independence of thought far outstrips the self-esteem of those who would dissuade you. If you are doing good work in your own eyes and those eyes are piercing, you are already at a level of personal accomplishment those who critize you will never achieve.

  • Wow, Ken. I came across this article and it really resonated on me because it does represent my lifestyle over the years of producing and leading creative works in terms of art and music. I personally have never been satisfied with any of my work throughout my years of working due to my inner alter-ego who kept criticizing and made me thinking I could have done way better. It has helped me achieved the best academic achievements back when I was in high school almost a decade ago – beating all the naysayers who thought I could have never pulled it out.

    But, this vicious inner critic, if not properly managed, can lead to total confidence breakdown. Therefore, I would say that the very same person must acquire a high self-esteem and level of optimism to personally manage his/her own critics so that when being in that positive wavelength/ frequency, a rational perspective of thought is produced that serves as a positive counter argument against the inner-critic’s feedback instead of admitting the critic was right. Love the article, Ken.

    Nik Harith aka Nic M Rayce
    Senior Marketing in BTL/Digital, Designer/Musician/Songwriter
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicmrayce

    • Ken Goldstein

      Thanks, Nic. Your point about balance is spot on. When a work is done and you move on, you must move on. Sure, you could rewrite the same short story forever, but I say publish it, share it, get it out in the world, and then do better on the next one. Stay in the process on a work until the work is done in your mind, even though we all know nothing is ever done. But going back and nitpicking your own stuff after it’s in the world is stifling, especially in a world where we must move fast to stay in the game. Push yourself to the edge but not over it, finish something, then start anew. Don’t get stuck running in place. New work lets us apply learning from the past and then let’s us breathe. Never forget to breathe. Never.

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