Criticism: take it; leave it; but face it

In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

– Restaurant critic Anton Ego, Ratatouille

Common career advice is to always ask for feedback when your application or interview was unsuccessful. My aversion to feedback or criticism had been deeply entrenched from childhood.  I think this was because of two reasons: the way the feedback was given and I conflated criticism of my work with criticism of myself. 

From my earliest memories, feedback was more of a command: I should or shouldn’t do it this way or that. It’s human nature not to like being told what to do and so I would naturally rebel: I would get defensive, shout, sometimes burst into tears. Once I did this, the focus obviously shifted away from the work to me.

I also believed that the criticism of my work was actually a criticism of who I was. I remember asking for feedback from a job interview. The interviewer emailed me back saying that one of my answers was “a bit odd”. As soon as I read this I burst into tears since only an odd person would make an odd answer. “I’m odd!” I wailed to my Mum down the phone.  

It is understandable why criticism is hard to take, as Oliver Burkeman reminds us in his Guardian column: “We want to feel we’re learning and improving, but we also want to be appreciated for who we are. So even when feedback’s delivered perfectly, we’re primed to react badly, because both needs can’t be met at once.” It’s this tension which causes us to flinch instinctively when receiving criticism, no matter how hard we try to welcome it.

Since I took criticism personally, I thought I had to accept it all and make the changes, without taking the time to think through whether the criticism was actually correct. I did it as a form of people pleasing: if I changed something to suit this criticism, I would also suit the critic. This is an impossible task, especially as people have different views. Therefore, I ended up pleasing nobody, least of all myself.

The epiphany came when I recently submitted a short story to a writers’ group. Most of the critics were positive about my story, accept for a couple of them. The first negative criticism was that my story was not convincing; it was a cliché no different from any other story. The second was that my writing style was too informal and chatty. I immediately wanted to defend my work but instead, I kept quiet and thanked the critics. I respected their honesty and took their views on board.

The key – however – was that I had the freedom to decide whether to accept or reject the criticism. I could do this because I showed up, and the purpose of writing the piece was not to please anyone, but to tell a story. Having confidence in my ability made the criticism much easier to handle, and much less personal. In fact, criticism is – by and large – not personal.

Oliver Burkeman emphasises that it’s better to focus more on how we deal with feedback rather than how it is delivered, especially due to the tension mentioned above: “We all need to get better at hearing feedback,” he advises, but, “that doesn’t entail always accepting it.” What’s more, we ought not to get defensive when we get feedback that we consider unfair. Instead, we ought to try to see where that viewpoint is coming from and to demand more clarity if needs be.

It’s only by subjecting our work to the criticism of others that we can improve it. But it’s also worth remembering the above quote: the job of the critic is easy, and our work will always be more meaningful than the criticism attached to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showing up

And “Olé!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Olé!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote comes from the writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk entitled ‘Your elusive creative genius’. She believes that the negative feelings people endure during the creative process (e.g. fear, rejection, exhaustion, depression, anticipation, etc.) could be improved by changing their mindset. If we can view our creativity as something that visits us – on loan from the external or divine, for a certain period of time – rather than something which solely comes from within us, then perhaps we wouldn’t take such trials, tribulations and triumphs so personally. She encourages us to show up, to give it our all, but know that the rest is beyond our control and to let it go.

I use this advice when writing. Certainly, there have been occasions when I’ve sat at my computer, clueless as to how I was going to write my next post or article. Remembering Elizabeth’s words, I would then tell myself to show up: to write – write anything at the beginning – and to give it my best; and then leave the rest to the divine. 

But showing up doesn’t have to be limited to the creative process, I try to apply it to every area of my life: my job; my relationships; my hobbies; my commitments. I have begun to realise that when you show up, knowing that you have done your best, then no matter what the outcome brings, you can remain assured that there was nothing more you could do to change it.

When it comes to relationships – romantic, platonic, parental, fraternal – showing up matters even more when they are going through hard times. I remember having to face the demise of a relationship; it was becoming increasingly apparent that our next encounter could be the last. It would have been easier to allow the demise to gradually eat away at ourselves, and to leave the table filled with pain and hurt. Instead, I promised myself that on this encounter I would show up: I would bring my best self literally to the table. I focussed on the process, not the outcome. Because of this, I knew that whatever ensued, I had done my part, well.

Showing up is not only about facing fears or facing the truth, it’s also a reminder that things aren’t always set in stone. Sporting events are a testament to this: all seems lost for a team for most of the match, yet something can happen in the 90th minute to change the course of history. All because that team showed up.

Show up; give it your best shot; focus on the process. You may succeed, you may fail, but at least find consolation knowing that there was nothing more you could do. And then give yourself a big “Olé!” from me.

 

Should we really do what we love?

For last month’s issue of Together magazine, I question whether the advice of “doing what you love” as a career is as helpful as it appears. I always thought it was and I wrote about it in a previous post. Below is an excerpt of the magazine article:

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” The plummy voice of Alan Watts (the English author and speaker best remembered for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West) does haunt me. This line in the video ‘What if money was no object?’ sent me into a bit of a tizzy when I first watched it a year ago. It made me call into question what I really desired from life.

Read more (p. 15-16 of Pdf version)

 

 

The shy Iranian

“There is the shy Iranian in all of us who dances in quick bursts of energy.”

– Omid Djalili

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” This quote from Oscar Wilde has chimed with me for many years. I have often tried to be myself, but I am never really sure what this means. There is also another “be yourself” quote which I hear regularly, attributed to Marilyn Munroe: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

Growing up, I was frequently told to “be myself”. Especially when it came to dating, my friends encouraged me to stay who I was, and that the right guy would inevitably love and accept me for me. My favourite boss told me to never change who I was. These were lovely sentiments that made me feel very good.

I also had friends, family and colleagues telling me what I was like. A former colleague of mine once described me as a “thinker, not a doer”. A loved one told me that I am sometimes “too nice” and that I try too hard to please others. In my early twenties, a forty something singleton friend of mind told me that I reminded her a lot of herself when she was my age.

It’s funny to think that on the one hand people tell you to be yourself – the uniqueness that is you, and yet on the other hand, they tell you who they think you are.

One of the keys to happiness, says Tal-Ben Shahar on his Happiness 101 lecture, is the permission to be human: to express your emotions, frailties and vulnerability. I think that we all should do this, but only to a certain degree. I believe we have an obligation to one another to bring our best selves to the table as much as we can. And sometimes, bringing our best self means being someone we usually aren’t.

I used to find it very hard to temper my emotions. I got great joy from raising my voice and shouting people down. I used to fall in love quickly and deeply, and then be brought down to the depths of despair when it all went horribly wrong, which was most often the case. I believed in confrontation, in righting the perceived wrongs done against me. Somedays fear and self-consciousness would paralyse me in anxiety. Other days I would bounce off the walls, full of extroversion and energy.

The F**k It philosophy says that we have many sides to our personality, character and behaviour, and that it’s far better to just accept these different sides and not attach any positive or negative associations to them. The danger in fully accepting this philosophy is that it excuses the behaviour which prevents me from living freely. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that when we are a slave to our emotions, we are not truly acting freely, because we are letting them rule us. When I let my emotions overpower me, I wasn’t being my authentic self, because my authentic self would chose to act in a more responsible way.

I think we can be many things and we can change or adapt behaviour to become someone different. We can fake it until we become it. And how do really we know what we are like until we test the boundaries of what we are capable of? For instance, I didn’t think I was a particularly good flirt, but actually since I’ve been practising, I’m becoming quite good at it. I didn’t think I was particularly artistic but since I’ve started making cards, I consider myself a bit of an artist!

My nephews (who are 9 and 11 years old) brought the British comedian Omid Djalili’s quote to my attention when they wrote it in my birthday card. At the time, I had no idea why they chose this particular quote. With hindsight, I realise that they are geniuses. We all have shy, dancing Iranians inside of us. We just have to dare to bring him or her out.

Let’s not believe in who we think we are, and let’s not be overruled by our emotions. Let’s play, and test, and dance. And let’s always bring our best selves to the table, even when we don’t think we can.

Last week was Living room philosophy’s first anniversary. Thank you, dear readers, for this wonderful year.

Getting comfortable with discomfort

Dear All,

My next article for Together magazine out. As I’ve tried to become more open, put myself out there more, and express a more authentic self, I’ve definitely felt the discomfort and felt like retreating. Read how I deal with it. It’s on page 13 & 14 of the PdF version. Enjoy and let me know what you think!

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A cup of tea: extending the olive branch

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

It’s highly probable that each of us have some sort of tea ritual. Some of us may cherish the first cup of tea in the morning, when we are bleary-eyed, cold and disoriented. Others may prefer the tea of the afternoon or early evening, perhaps taking it on our own, hands cupped around our mug, our thoughts a million miles away from the moment. We may only be able to take our tea a certain way: with a dash of milk, a slice of lemon or two spoonfuls of sugar; in our favourite cup, at the right temperature, or made by our Mums.

There is simply no other beverage that exists which is as diverse in its benefits as tea: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thoughts and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body and cleans the perceptive facilities,” wrote the Chinese writer Lu Yu in what is considered to be the earliest specialist work on tea, ‘The Classic of Tea’. But tea is more than just an antioxidant or detox for the body and mind; it’s the fabric that holds society together. The ritual of tea in the morning brings the groggy and moody to the breakfast table seated next to their bright-eyed counterparts; the tea-round in the office offers respite and relief from the grind, giving each colleague the chance to be charitable and sacrificial by making tea for the greater good. Putting the kettle on can be an ice-breaker between us and the builder, plumber, electrician or a new neighbour. It can be an offer to make amends or build relationships. Making the tea is the modern day metaphor of extending the olive branch. The stakes are high however; not asking how someone takes their tea could just as easily undo all good intentions.

It’s always the simple things in life which gives us the most pleasure. Having a cup of tea is not just enjoying a hot drink, it’s an experience to be savoured and enjoyed. It’s an alms-giver, peace-dealer, relationship-forger. When we decide to make someone a cup of tea, it’s an expression of our willingness to that person: be it to love, to tolerate or to show humility.

Let’s have a tea truce, a tea party, or just a tea for two. Then let’s take pride in the joy and harmony that we have just created.

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My tea ritual

Know your value, know your self

Hi All,

I hope to be back posting on a regular basis. I have spent the month of March travelling and spending time with family. I managed to get another article published with Together magazine, entitled ‘Know your value, know your self’. It’s on p. 15 of the pdf link to this month’s issue. We often hear experts telling us to “know our value”, “appreciate our worth” etc., but I wonder what these phrases actually mean. I hope to shed more light on the subject in the article. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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On my 24th birthday, my Dad quoted part of the poem Nosce Teipsum (“Know Thyself”) by the Elizabethan poet (also a lawyer and politician) Sir John Davies in my birthday card. My Dad dedicated the following lines to help me in my journey throughout life:

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

These lines inspired me to write this article. If we are ever to truly know our value, we first must know who we are.

Thank you Dad for providing such inspiration.

See you all soon,

Gemma

My first magazine publication

This week, a Brussels’ lifestyle magazine Together published my article ‘Three deep breaths’. It is about how leaving space in our lives can help us make more positive and healthier choices. Just click on the image below and it will take you straight to a Pdf version of this month’s issue. My article is on pp.15-16 of the Pdf version.

Together magazine

I hope you enjoy reading my first ever magazine publication and do let me know what you think!

Saying Yes

“Take the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. At least it’s done. It’s over. It’s gone. We can all learn from our mistakes and heal and move on. But it’s harder to learn or heal or move on from something that hasn’t happened; something we don’t know and is therefore indefinable; something which could very easily have been the best thing in our lives, if only we’d taken the plunge, if only we’d held our breath and stood up and done it, if only we’d said yes.”

– Danny Wallace, ‘Yes Man’

Something wasn’t right. It was the second weekend of January and at around 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday I got weepy. I had lost my phone earlier that week and had made no plans for the weekend, in an attempt to be spontaneous. However, being without a phone and leaving my weekend social life up to chance had not paid off. I spent the whole weekend in my flat, venturing out only to go to the supermarket.

Spending a weekend in on my own hadn’t really bothered me before. I have enjoyed it – sometimes even relished in it – and I freely admit that I have spent quite a few Saturday nights in. So why had this particular weekend affected me so much?

First, I put it down to the January blues. I soothed myself thinking that everyone gets them. Then I piled the fact that I couldn’t call or text on top of the January blues. I flung another excuse on the pile: I recently got a bit of disappointing news concerning someone I had a crush on. “That’s it!” yelped my eureka moment, “It’s January, I’m phoneless and my crush is unavailable! Yes, three very good reasons for feeling down in the dumps.”

And once that downward spiral started, there was really no stopping it. Pity-party Peter, Johnny no-mates and Sally self-loathing invited themselves round to my flat, parked themselves on my comfy couch and long out-stayed their welcome. Over the next couple of days I told a few friends about my depressing weekend in. I didn’t quite understand it: I love my own company. I have a lovely life here: a lovely flat; a lovely job; lovely friends; a lovely social life. Weekends are supposed to be a light relief to the working week. Why was I longing for the weekend to be over?

I was determined not to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t until I had lunch with a friend did this scary thought finally dawn on me: by spending my weekends in, my life was passing me by. I had my weekdays evenings booked with various activities but my weekend pursuits were a bit meagre. Take for example my knowledge of Brussel’s nightlife: I didn’t really know where the good nightspots were and I had only been clubbing less than a handful of times (I’ve lived here nearly three years). Dude.

I had no excuses: I couldn’t blame the commute to city centre – I live 15 minutes away by metro. I couldn’t blame my finances – I earn a decent salary. There is no language difficulty, there is always some event going on. No, I was being rubbish and hiding behind something.

About seven or eight years ago, my brother lent me Yes Man by the English author Danny Wallace. Danny Wallace was coming out of a long-term relationship and saying no a lot – mostly when it came to socialising. He met a man on the bus one night who simply told him to ‘say yes more’ and he decided from then on to do so. What ensued were wild adventures and finding the love of his life, not to mention getting a book and film deal out of it. Not bad going for saying yes.

I was reminded of this book when I came across the advice of dating guru Matthew Hussey on how to find my ideal man. One of his suggestions was to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself during the month of January.

I didn’t say yes to everything, but I said yes to a lot. I said yes to drinks, to parties, to exhibitions, to brunch, to coffees. I said yes to social events with complete strangers. I said yes to spontaneous adventures and trips, I said yes to going after crazy dreams. Most importantly, I said yes to not being in my flat on a Saturday night. If I only manage to stick to one Yes this year, it will be the last one.

Of course, sometimes by saying no, I am saying yes to myself. For instance, on occasion I do need to just relax, enjoy being idle, and slow down. The key – with everything in life – is balance. But what Danny Wallace makes really clear is that if you don’t say yes, things just stay the same. I think it’s ok for things to stay the same,  until you start feeling stuck.

That weekend was a turning point for me. So far, I’ve been out every Saturday night since. For Danny Wallace, saying yes changed his life: “The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.” Matthew Hussey talks about how the smallest shifts in our dating lives can yield the biggest results. Saying yes is a small shift.

I challenge you to say, “Yes”.

Higher Pleasures

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

– Oscar Wilde

I am trying to live within my means as of late. I went on such a crazy spending spree in January that I was very close to reaching my credit card limit. I am now feeling ever so slightly guilty at my over-indulgence; my poor will-power and absolute lack of discipline in saving money.

I was in a real pickle last week about whether to go to a Jazz concert. I have always been a bit of a Jazz fan – and my Dad and I are currently doing an online Jazz appreciation course – so I was extremely excited when I recently picked up a flyer for this concert. I naively thought that there would still be cheap tickets available. But no, only the expensive ones were left.

I agonised about whether it was worth buying a ticket. I had already dipped into my savings to pay off last month’s credit card bill and it didn’t seem like I would manage to save this month either. Could I really afford to go to a concert? “A penny saved is a penny earned” said founding father of the US and polymath Benjamin Franklin. My guilty conscience was telling me to save the money.

I ignored it all the same and bought the ticket. Over the following days, I attempted to rationalise and justify my decision as being a good one. My first justification was that it was my hard-earned cash and I could do whatever I like with it. Unfortunately, this reasoning is very superficial, and its sparkle soon faded. My Mum’s words of wisdom came next: “You have to spend money to make money”. My spending was helping the local economy make money – I skilfully argued with myself – and you never know who I could meet there or what opportunity may come out of going. This reasoning was more plausible, but I was still yet to be fully convinced.

It was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (also a polymath), who assured me that my purchase was justified. Mill developed Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle to incorporate the idea of assessing happiness on its value and desirability. Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism was non-judgemental: it was not the quality of the thing that made you happy which counted because all preferences were rated equally. What only mattered was whether this thing also made most people happy too. To Bentham, the enjoyment of watching reality TV shows would be of the same value as the enjoyment of watching Shakespeare.

However, the idea of all preferences being equal raised moral questions: surely it would still be morally wrong for society to allow horrible goods e.g blood sports even if this pleased the greatest number in society? Mill tried to rectify such an outcome occurring in his essay Utilitarianism (1861) by developing the happiness principle on the basis of “higher and lower pleasures”: society does value one good over another, and that the higher pleasures are the ones which contribute to society’s greater good. Thus “higher pleasures” are goods which are more valuable or desirable; they appeal to our higher senses and faculties. Perhaps they are harder or more difficult to acquire, comprehend or grasp, but we know intrinsically that they raise the quality of our being.

To me, watching a Jazz concert is a higher pleasure, and ever since I started the Jazz appreciation course, I have begun to understand how technically difficult Jazz is and how creatively ingenious its musicians are. I think John Stuart Mill provides an excellent moral justification for me forking out more than I would expect to for a Jazz concert.

When caught in a position of living on a budget and trying to save for a rainy day, it is natural to give ourselves a hard time about spending money on a pleasure that may seem like a waste. Nevertheless, if this is a pleasure that cultivates our mind, which adds to our character and nobility (and in the grand of scheme of things, it is affordable), then we should be reluctant to deny ourselves such a pleasure.