Writer and motivational speaker Jon Acuff, in his book START, writes about what he calls “critics’s math.” Its sometimes called “hater’s math”, and I’ll use that phrase here. But regardless of what you call it, the formula runs the same:
1 criticism + 10,000 compliments = 1 criticism
Substitute “insult” for “criticism” and the formula still works, unfortunately. It works because all of us are hardwired for praise, and getting criticism instead is disappointing and wounding. This is especially so for people who are making some change in their lives – taking up a new activity, leaving a habit, losing weight. Making a change is putting yourself out there. There’s a reason this website’s header image is a fat man standing on the edge of a rock. It’s more than a pretty image, its a metaphor. Its a lot easier to not be out there, away from the edge of the rock, out of the photo.
And just as we are wired to receive praise, we are wired to criticize others. Some of us are better wired for that than other people, but still, its there, and its excessively easy to do. (Twitter seems to exist for little else, for instance.) Much criticism is well-intended, and often important – for instance, when I first started camping I kept food in my tent, until someone pointed out nylon isn’t effective at keeping bears out – but there’s the destructive kind too. Its very easy to toss off – witness the popularity of “snark”, for instance – and because its so easy, its everywhere.
How then should you deal with criticism? First, remember the formula above. Hater’s math is potent but it doesn’t make sense when you are Solving for Why or How. Ten or ten thousand compliments will outweigh the one insult if you know the formula is bogus.
But when you are criticized, think of the circumstances. Was it a case of someone not wanting me to be eaten by a bear in my tent? Or was it something else?
For instance, before the 2012 surgery that replaced my defective knees and straightened my legs, I’ve had people suggest that I should be using a handcycle instead of a bicycle. The assumption was that my legs didn’t work well enough to ride a bike. I had to step back and consider if the comments were from someone who was simply reacting to a photo and was unaware I’d ridden three thousand miles that year, or if it was simply an insult. In other words, was it ignorance or antagonism? And even then, the distinction was important only because I wanted to know how to consider the critic – the criticism itself could be dismissed.
Jon Acuff has a couple of good ways to evict such critics from his mind, including mentally prefacing the criticism with “I’m a complete stranger with some advice about your life.” -and answering them with “You may be right.” (I can’t find the link for the last quotation, but its words to that effect.) I prefer the blunter reply “Thank you,” both because its more formal and because I’m not as nice a man as Mr. Acuff. An antagonist wants not only a piece of flesh, but a piece of your time, and I find a short reply works best. After all, you have better things to do than work out math problems, right?
So if you find yourself caught in Hater’s Math, remember, you have better and bigger things to do than solve math problems. Like mountains to hike up, or bikes to ride. Boats to row. Races to run. Rediscovering the outdoors.
Let the haters do the math.
You do your thing.