Dealing with harsh criticism

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, once told how Dilbert fared poorly initially. His critics objected that Dilbert was hardly ever funny, except when he appeared at the office. Instead of falling prey to discouragement, Adams decided to portray Dilbert almost exclusively at the office from now on. And Scott became a world-famous millionaire.

This is a perfect example of how to apply mental judo when faced with criticism: turn the negative energy which is opposing you, into positive energy that propels you.

I recently read Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. I wrote about the book on this blog a few years ago. This is a brilliant, highly original book by an author who is leaving his mark in history. I wrote an excellent review (5 stars) on Amazon, and I recommend that everyone reads this challenging book!

Yet the book is flawed. Venkatesh Rao summed the problem well, though maybe too harshly:

Debt is not one big story spanning 5000 years, but more like a collection of 5000 little stories and arguments thrown together, with a bigger narrative almost slapped on as an afterthought.

How did Graeber react when Rao criticized him online? He blamed Rao for missing the boat:

Sad really. A book is only as good as its readers.

This is not the best response. So, how should you react?

  1. Don’t be blinded by the negative. To be efficient critics of your work, people have to study it. In the process, they often identify strengths. Pay close attention to your critics. You will often find out that they are not trashing your work entirely. Consider the Scott Adams’ story: Dilbert is funny only while at the office. Ah! This means that Dilbert is funny while at the office? In the Graeber story,  Rao wrote: “the book provides a lot of astounding value”. See how Graeber paid no attention to this part?
  2. Be constructive. Instead of opposing your critics, work with them. They will often identify real weaknesses in your work.  You may not be able to fix these weaknesses (e.g., you cannot re-edit your book), but you should at least be able to take them into account in the future. An answer that I give often is “I’m aware of this problem and I plan to write about it in the future”. Scott Adams’ story is the perfect illustration of this principle: instead of fighting his critics, he improved his work accordingly.


Daniel Lemire, "Dealing with harsh criticism," in Daniel Lemire's blog, December 5, 2011.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

10 thoughts on “Dealing with harsh criticism”

  1. @Hyland

    I can understand Graeber’s frustration, but he could have taken his dog for a walk instead of arguing directly against Rao.

    I don’t expect anyone to respond perfectly all the time to criticism. But I think we can learn some general rules. As you say “self-effacing understanding” would have been more efficient.

    I think that once we think this problem through, it becomes easier to respond efficiently when facing criticism.

    It turns out that our instinct to lash out is misguided because our brain falsely associates the critic to an “attacker”. In truth, someone who criticize our work is rarely someone attacking us. And my experience is that critics are often far fairer than we think at first.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for the misattribution — I guess I wasn’t reading carefully enough whose advice it was.

  3. I don’t think Graeber’s response was very good, but I can understand his frustration. Re-read Rao’s piece from the standpoint of a humanities student and you will come away with an entirely different opinion of the critiques. His characterization of the book as hot-headed and reactionary is true so far as it goes but it feels more motivated by distrust of the methodology. From the perspective of a social scientist ethnographies almost always seem anecdotal, idiosyncratic and disparate. Graeber’s frustration is puzzling if your most common modality is mdoel building and justifiable if you have watched the world be willfully misunderstood by model builders for your entire careeer.

    Your point still stands, of course. The best response to frustrating criticism is engagement and almost self-effacing understanding. But I wouldn’t call this for Rao just yet.

    On the Dilbert subject, criticism of Scott Adams over sexism and misogyny has been less well received. It was difficult, but not impossible, for Adams to accept that he didn’t have a complete handle on when Dilbert was funny. Much more challenging to accept criticism from outsiders that his (that is, Adams not Dilbert) worldview on women was distorted and demeaning. Consequently he has had much less admirable response to those criticisms.

  4. I agree completely. I’ve learned the same lesson after reading many referee reports on my papers. But when I get a critical comment on a paper, I can still feel that defensive, wounded pride raising its angry head. It seems that my fight against my ego never ends.

    This relates to your earlier post on “Scientists and central planning” and the “god complex”. Big ego helps us to pursue bold, risky theories, but it blinds us to valid criticism. Keeping ego under control is a tricky thing. At least for me.

  5. @Daniel

    Absolutely. I didn’t mean to suggest that Graeber was in the right. He should have suppressed the instinct to lash out or denigrate the criticism.

    But I can understand his frustration just as I understand Rao’s comments.

  6. @David

    I saw the comment and for a brief moment thought he said “Adam’s” and not “Adams'” and was horrified that David Eppstein thought I had been praising myself with sockpuppets on Wikipedia.

    I agree there are many faults we can find with Adams. But two things stick out. First, the invokation of Dilbert/Adams was a means to tell a story about handling criticism gracefully–not argumentum ad Dilbetum! Second, even flawed and generally disagreeable people can be right. Sometimes even especially due to their flaws because when they give honest advice they are dealing with the angels of their better natures.

    Maybe Adams was a good choice *because* we can find instances where he didn’t follow his own advice. Advice that everyone can follow without stress or sacrifice is relatively meaningless. Advice that is ignored (and in Adams’ case as well as Graeber’s) at someone’s peril is sometimes more meaningful.

  7. Learning how to deal with criticism is an art. And anybody who creates will inevitably face criticism.

    Sometimes the criticism is unfair and, as you suggest, sometimes the critic is being more fair than we initially realize.

    Back in 2009, Alain de Botton responded to criticism of his new book in a way that he probably shouldn’t have.

    Sometimes the best response to criticism is simply no response.

  8. >This is a perfect example of how to apply mental judo when faced with criticism: turn the negative energy which is opposing you, into positive energy that propels you.

    Some people would call that craven capitulation to one’s critics. Perhaps it’s both.

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