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The way to face criticism || BITS Pilani (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
13 min
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Questioner (Q): My question is related to criticism. In the corporate world, we usually hear that we need to take criticism positively, healthy criticism that is. But there could be people around me who are jealous of me and criticize me because of their vested interests. So, how do I recognize whether the criticism is healthy or unhealthy for me?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Initially, you have to let everything in. So, it doesn’t matter who is saying things about you. There could be four categories: somebody is criticizing you unfairly, somebody is criticizing you fairly, somebody is praising you unfairly, and somebody is praising you fairly. Let everything in. Do not be biased right away. Let everything come to you; consider all of it. You don’t have to be insecure to just block a few people in the beginning itself.

So, think over what they are saying, assess the points that they are making, and do it as objectively as possible, without relying too much on where the praise or the condemnation has come from. I know it is not possible to completely forget the source of the praise or criticism. We have the tendency to rely on memory and come from our biases, but try being as objective as possible. Forget who is saying what is being said; just be more attentive to what is being said.

Q: Okay, so I should forget the source of the criticism and focus on the effect it has on me?

AP: Focus on what is coming to you, and that is how you begin. Then, with the passage of time, if you find a pattern emerging, then, for the sake of economizing on time, it might be prudent to give more weightage to the criticism or praise coming from a few particular sources versus the other sources. Not that the fundamental principle of being open to everything stands violated. No, that principle is always valid and that is a supreme principle. Always listen—that is the principle. Always listen.

But then, there are so many people saying so many things, and you have a limited life to live. Time is the constraint. So, practically you cannot pay equal attention to everything that is being said. Especially if you are in public life and those commenting on you are in large numbers, then you have to, by dint of necessity, draw a line somewhere. Not that you don’t want to be open, not that you don’t want to listen, but you just cannot practically listen to everything that is being said.

So, then you have to realize where is the substance and where is the noise, and then you are well within your rights to shut out the noise. But remember, shutting out the noise is something that you do purely to economize on time, not to save your own backside. “I know this fellow will be saying, or might be saying, hurtful things, so I will shut him out”—that is not what is to be done.

Please be very careful about what we are trying to say here. Very objectively, you listen to everything from everybody, and then, if you honestly find a pattern emerging—there is a fellow and you have found that fifteen times, twenty times he has been just uttering gibberish—that is when you say, “Well, even if I have to listen to him, I will accord him a low priority. If I have surplus time, then I will go listen to him. Otherwise, you see, I can’t just keep squandering time on something very unworthy, no?” You get the difference?

You are not saying, “I can’t spend time on something hurtful”; you are saying, “I can’t spend time on something unworthy.” If it is hurtful, it is alright, provided it is worthy enough. And what determines its worth? Its truthfulness. Is it reflecting to you the right state of your being? The criticism that is.

Somebody comes and criticizes you—is he showing you a mirror? If that is what is happening, then that criticism has to be listened to even a thousand times. Even if that fellow hurts you very deeply, and again and again, he still has to be given access and your ears, repeatedly.

So, it is not that you shut someone out because he is hurtful. I am saying, you stop listening to people who are unworthy. And who is an unworthy person? He who is not bringing the truth to you; who is either dumping lavish but undeserved praise on you—there are such people, whose modus operandi is to keep praising people without a reason and earn some favors in return.

And there are people who, as you said, might be so jealous, so full of vitriol that they just want to criticize everything and everybody. They are not reflecting to you your reality, where you really stand, what you are really doing. They are not holding a mirror to you. So, then, you are justified to block them, to not listen to them, or even if you have to listen to them, you give them a low priority.

Q: So, to differentiate between the substance and noise, truthfulness is the criteria; whether it is reflecting the reality or not.

AP: Yes. See, saints have talked of both the things. Saint Kabir, on one hand, he says nindak niyare rakhiye , keep your critic very close to yourself; on the other hand, he also says that there is nothing worse than bad company. Now, take these two together, and what do you get?

Q: If that company is bad it is not useful, but the critical company is good.

AP: No. The critic has to be good company if he has to be kept near. And what determines good company? Neither praise nor criticism, none of these are determinants of good company. The determinant of good company is truthfulness. When you are with that person, do your eyes become clearer? Are you able to see the world in sharper light? As we said twice already, is he holding a mirror to you? Does your own face, your intention, your mind, your internal machinations—do they become clearer to you in that person’s company?

And that person, I repeat, might be a critic, might not be a critic. That’s his style. A few people improve you through criticism, a few will improve you through some other means, and it might even not be a matter of their personal style. Somebody might think that the right method to improve you is criticism; somebody might think that the right method to improve you is something else.

So, it is not criticism per se that matters. Something else matters. If the critic is coming to you with the right intent, do listen to him. If somebody is congratulating you, pepping you up, and inspiring you with the right intent, do listen to him. Everything is alright when done from the right center.

But bad company is about people who come close to you not to bring Truth to you but for their own little vested interests. The fellow is trying to get closer for his own little selfish needs. And for his own selfish needs, he might become or pretend to become your admirer, your fan, your lover, anything—and he is not being a critic at all; far from criticism, he is always full of commendations for you. Even this person has to be avoided.

Those who offer unnecessary praise, misplaced praise are to be avoided just as much as those who heap needless criticism on you. Truthfulness is the criteria, neither criticism nor commendation.

Q: But you also talked about the intent of the person. How can I figure out his intention?

AP: Through its effect on you. He is telling you something—don’t you have the faculties to test it out? The fellow has been, let’s say, close to you. Don’t you have the faculties to know what the effect of this closeness has been?

Q: From the little exposure that I have had of spirituality, one thing that I have understood is that it encourages the acceptance of truth and the practice of truth. Now, as an aspiring entrepreneur, much of the career growth in entrepreneurship, or even in the job market, happens when we try to conceal the negative aspects of our products or services. As students, we are supposed to build our careers and most of us are bound to follow the practice of concealing the negative aspects of our production services at certain junctures.

AP: Please clarify the question. What you are saying is, there are products on the shelves and they have to be sold, so the companies advertise unfairly and lie to you. Soft drink is saying “I am refreshing” and all that. Now, what is the question?

Q: So, the question is that spirituality encourages truth, its acceptance and practice. Aren’t we deviating from that practice when it comes to career and entrepreneurship? I mean, how can we reconcile spirituality with the career building process? On a career path or in entrepreneurship we are bound to conceal the negative aspect of our products or services.

AP: Conceal from whom?

Q: If we are the seller, we have to conceal it from the buyer.

AP: Who taught you that?

Q: I mean, that is what the trend has been. We see that in advertisements.

AP: Therefore, spirituality is about empowering you to see that you need not follow the trend, that there is nothing that you need to bow down to or kneel down to. Spirituality is empowerment. A spiritual person is not going to bow down to nonsense. He will never find himself helpless.

As a young man, I don’t know how you say, “We have to do this,” and that too so early in your college days. You are sounding a bit fatigued and resigned, if I may say. Why must you be resigned to your situation so early? How do you know that a career can be made only by selling lies?

Q: What I mean to say is that if I have to sell a product and I start advertising the negative aspects of…

AP: Why do you want to first of all build a product that has negative sides?

Q: I mean, everything has something positive and something negative.

AP: How do you know?

Q: Via observation.

AP: What have you observed? That everything has something that is harmful to the one who is consuming it or experiencing it?

Q: Under certain context.

AP: Maybe you are living in a way where you are surrounded only by stuff that has a lot of negatives to it. Maybe there indeed is a lot that is right, pure, beautiful, and worth laying down your life for, but you have no idea, no whiff of it because of the life you are leading.

But ego lies in saying, “The Truth is all that I already know of. Beyond the scope of my knowledge, there is nothing.” So, instead of saying that there can be a truthful way of living, doing business, making a livelihood, what you are saying is that there are only untruthful ways. And when I ask you how do you know, you say, “Because that is what I have observed around me.” The world around you is the entire universe?

Q: No.

AP: Then why are you so cocksure that there are no honest and right ways of living?

Q: I haven’t really thought upon it deeply.

AP: Because of the world you live in; it discourages thought. The world we live in would be dismantled if people were thoughtful. We don’t think. We just don’t think. All we do is consume, consume and eat—that is what we do. We don’t think. And when you get too fat, you lose your faculty to think.

That is what is classically called as sāttvikta , being light. Being sāttvika is being light. When you are light, then you can think. Thought is subtle. It flourishes only in very light environments. If you drown it in liquor, if you coat it with grease, it cannot operate; it requires a certain levity.

Question everything that you see around yourself. You are just right now too green to come to conclusions. It is too early for you to form opinions. Remain inquisitive; ask, ask, and ask. And if you keep asking, you will come to know of things that are both beautiful and dangerous. In fact, there can be no beauty without danger.

Q: Yeah!

AP: Yeah, you already know of that?

Q: No sir, I am agreeing with you because light can exist only where there is darkness!

AP: And you are so sure that is what I said, right?

Q: Sir… Kind of?

AP: You don’t even want to ask me! You already made up your mind.

Q: Okay, I understood your point of being…

AP: You understood? It is so easy to understand?

Q: Thank you, sir!

AP: “Thank you, sir”? Better get away quickly to safety? Things are getting a bit insecure?

(Questioner is silent and thinking)

We will see each other again, right? Yes?

Q: Yes!

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