It’s Not The Critic Who Counts

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One of the toughest things any creative person deals with is the fear of what will happen when we go public with our work.

When we breath life into the mad ideas that spin in our heads and make them manifest for the world to see, to experience and to judge.

Be it an entrepreneur launching a company, an artist showing canvases, a writer bringing out a book or a team innovator offering an idea more than one standard deviation from the judgment-free norm. We care about what other people think. Because we’re human. And, anything truly new or different, presented with a strong voice, will create the opportunity for people to respond with a strong, often visceral yes or no.

That’s the way it should be. The world needs that voice, it needs the energy and conviction of those vested in the quest to reveal possibility. And as creators, we learn, grow and benefit from the response to our work. At least, sometimes. Other times, we are demoralized without benefit by the vocal critic who seeks not to offer feedback in the name of growth, but rather vitriol in the name of shame and power.

So, how do we handle that?

How do we know whose voice matters and whose doesn’t?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to explore this very question with researcher, professor and New York Times bestselling author of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown. She was my guest for a stunning 50-minute episode of Good Life Project that crossed a variety of topics. It was an extraordinary conversation, one I keep reflecting on.

But when we got to criticism and who, as creators, we should and shouldn’t listen to, she shared a decision she’s made in her life that we all can benefit from.

Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:

BB: I have no intake at all of any feedback or criticism from anyone whose not in the arena. Click to tweet

Unless you are, in your own capacity, in your own world, in your own life, getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in what you have to share with me about my work.

JF: What flipped that switch.

BB: A profound respect for myself and other people who are out there trying to do work and trying to walk with uncertainty and vulernability who are really risking. Because it is so easy to make a life and a career out of sitting in the bleachers and making fun of people and putting them down….

The people who are in the arena, who are showing up and letting themselves be seen give feedback that is far more constructive and far more helpful and mindful about what people can hear and not hear…. I love debate and discourse…people who make fun of me and other people…you’re either making the world a better place or you’re making the world a worse place…everyday our choices have a huge impact on people….

A fake avatar and a fake name and even a comment is not benign.

Because I’ll keep putting my work out there, and you’ll keep putting your work out there, but there are people who have amazing gifts, who could make the world an incredibly better place, who won’t put their work out there for that reason. And that’s a loss. And whether we know what that work was or not, we miss it and grieve it every day.

There are songs that we need to hear, there are stories that need to be told, that we’ll never see or know because there are so many people out there who are so reflectively cynical and critical and mean-spirited, I don’t like it.

As you move forward, as you continue to own the call to bring ideas, solutions, experiences, art to life, think seriously about Brene’s words. Both in terms of how you receive criticism and, also, how you give it and why. And, more importantly, if you’re primary role in life has been that of the critic and not one who lives in the arena…when will you take the reigns?

Because as Brene shared a moment later, “the greatest pain I’ve ever seen is from people who’ve spent their lives outside the arena, wondering what would’ve happened had I shown up?”

Click here now to watch the entire episode >>>

And, in the comments below, share an experience where you’ve been criticized and how you’ve handled it and decided who to listen to and how to engage with what’s being said.

With gratitude,


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24 responses

24 responses to “It’s Not The Critic Who Counts”

  1. Richard Posey says:

    Interesting that you crossed paths with Brene Brown and better yet that you chose to write about her. I had just re-watched two of her TEDx videos and think she has some very interesting and pertinent things to say. Now I need to watch your video …

  2. This is such a juicy topic- and one that is so vital for anyone on the journey of living- and giving- their true potential and selves in the world.

    I totally agree with Brene that nothing is sadder to me than wasted potential- the idea of looking back at your life and thinking “I could have been/ done/ experienced that had only I the courage to be true to who I am and not let what others think stop me”. I think we all too easily forget we have one life- and we owe it to ourselves to go for it.

    I also really agree with the idea of only listening to the feedback from those that are really truthfully showing up and courageously building something they believe in- rather than sticking to a ‘safe’- but empty existence.

    I remember when I made the decision to leave my successful- but utterly unfulfilling corporate career- a lot of people in that world bought forth their ‘judgements’ and warnings to me, pointing out the risky territory I was about to enter. It got to me at first and then I realised something– by me going for what I really wanted, I was actually questioning the rules & assumptions they were choosing to live their life by. By judging and questioning me, they were really trying to justify their own choices- and convince themselves that that ‘choice’ is the right one.

    I’ve also made the decision to never listen to criticism/ feedback from anyone who doesn’t genuinely inspire me- whose out there building something meaningful and living life on their terms and true to the person they really are. For me, this is what the gift of life is for

  3. A critic trashed my book. Then a seven-year-old said my cookies tasted like laundry soap. What I learned from a very, very bad day in the arena…

  4. Otiti says:

    I’ve just watched the video and am still reeling from the impact. It really is all about how we choose to show up in the world and what we’re putting out there, WHY we put it out there, because we can’t get away from the fact that we influence each other on a daily basis. Life is so tightly interwoven that insights from one discipline revolutionise actions in another. Artists learn something new from engineers, music teachers show business people a different way of doing things, and bakers show sculptors that it’s all in the wrist, baby. Anyway, I digress.

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing this interview because it encouraged me to keep showing up with my truth even when I don’t feel qualified to voice it. I haven’t actually been called out or publicly criticised before, which leads me to wonder if I’m playing it safe. We’re all here to be radiant souls and give our best, but it can be hard to embrace that when life gets you down.

    The courage to show up in the arena and risk blood, sweat, and tears reminds me of a post I wrote in August, . I found myself going back and reading it right after I watched this interview because the words are in the same vein: Be present. Make your days count. Live your truth and cynics be damned.

    I didn’t mean to write this long but I can’t stop buzzing after watching the video. I definitely need to get a copy of Daring Greatly. Thanks for sharing, Jonathan!! 🙂

  5. I was homeschooled so I wasn’t exposed to a lot of harsh criticism from my peers. Some would argue that that made me more sensitive to criticism but actually it has made me really strong.

    I don’t worry about what other people think as much as my friends do. I have tried a lot of things and realize that they all won’t work. And in the process I’ve had a lot of fun.

    I’m currently taking a speech class in college. I’ve never done any public speaking before and I love it. I enjoy the feedback from my prof. She gives specific and valuable information to help me improve!

    Who ever said that homeschooler are unsocialized misfits was wrong!

  6. Eva Papp says:

    One of my closest friends, who’ve I’d leaned on through the visualization and unsteady steps of my blog launch, dosed me with heavy criticism at one of my most vulnerable moments. Now that was hard, because if you can’t trust the feedback of your close friends, who can you trust? It kinda put me in a tailspin, and caused me to doubt myself. But only for a while. I thought deeply about what she had said, and reflected it against what I knew in my heart. In the end, she lost. I’ve continued to move forward with my project, and while I still love my friend, I’ve changed my boundaries toward her. She’s no longer in the inner circle of my project, which is ok. I love her anyway, and we still have lots to share. Even the people who love us most can’t always be there for our big journeys. Important lesson for me.

  7. Jessa Slade says:

    I’m a writer and whenever I take a particularly hard hit, I go online and read the one-star reviews of The Hobbit, Dune and Pride & Prejudice. Sadly, there are one-star people in “real” life, but they are not my people. Onward!

  8. Marcelle says:

    Just want to say thank you sooooo much for sharing these enlightening conversations with us, week after week. I really look forward to them and always come away feeling inspired. This talk, in particular, gave so much food for thought that I’m gonna go straight back and watch it again.
    I’m one of those “outside the arena” and don’t want to look back with what ifs. Fear has held me prisoner in my own life but, with the help of these kind of conversations and a bunch of spiritual books that have found their way to me, I realise that I need to get clear about my intentions and values, and take it from their.
    Thank you for the insights! You have no idea how much I appreciate this work you are doing. Finally got my copy of Uncertainty… looking forward to reading it. 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the Good Life Project, Marcelle. I’m loving being able to create the show for everyone.

  9. I grew up in a segregated community, school and church in the 50’s was very fortunate to be surrounded by teachers and leaders who urged us to pursue our educational and personal goals and push against the restrictions others tried to put on us. “Knowledge gives you power!” still rings in my ears to this day.

    As I moved out of that cocoon into the larger world I faced fear of being criticized, judged and even blocked from my goals. But somewhere inside I had decided to go after what I felt strongly about even if others around me couldn’t see it or understand it. It was not easy, but a number of opportunities arose where I had to jump in the arena or be miserable in the bleachers.

    One such occasion was when I decided to resign from my teaching job to accept a grant to go after my doctorate. Any sensible person could see this was not the ideal time. But then when is going for a dream ever the right time?

    I was just about to get a raise, had two small kids (aged 5 and 2,) and we had bills that required two salaries to maintain. Fortunately, my husband supported my decision and was willing to live through the life changes that four years of full-time doctoral study brought about. Had he not been in agreement, I had already decided I had to find a way to reach this long-held dream without him.

    Some friends reluctantly congratulated me on the decision even though I’m sure they thought I was foolhardy. To make my decision even harder to understand was that I wanted a Ph.D. just because I had always wanted one since childhood not because I was after career advancement or higher earnings.

    Even though those four years were tough financially, they were an exhilirating time of balancing my academics with family activities, without trying to fit in a full-time job. We all emerged victorious from the experience and my kids (including the 3rd one we had along the way) got some life lessons they would not have had otherwise.

    Jonathan, thank you so much for bringing such compelling guests as Brene Brown. I’ve enjoyed her on TED and am so inspired by her dedication to vulnerability in her research and in her life.

    In my current work as a publishing coach I am so moved by the people who want to write a book, not to become professional writers or bestsellers, but just because they have something to share. Many of them have years of notes or just an idea they’ve held back all because of profound fear of being criticized, judged or shamed. I share with them Wayne Dyer’s urging us to not die with our songs inside us. Now I will add Brene’s metaphor of the arena and bleachers to my speeches and coaching.

  10. James Alexander says:

    Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:
    “It is not the critic who counts;
    not the man who points out how the strong man
    stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have
    done them better. The credit belongs to the man
    who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred
    by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;
    who errs, who comes short again and again,
    because there is no effort without error and
    shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the
    deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great
    devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
    who at best knows in the end the triumph of high
    achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least
    fails while daring greatly”.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yup, that’s where the title of Brene’s book comes from. One of my fave quotes, too

  11. Ann Marie says:

    I truly enjoyed and appreciated this posting. A few months ago I committed to writing. I’ve joined a couple of writing groups to push me “out there”. Though the group leader/members are supportive, at times I find myself unwilling or unable to share what I write.
    Recently the leader said to me that while my voice may be different then the others (who can create a story out of nothing), the fact that I write autobiography or memoir best is no less valid. I’ve embraced that and it’s freed me up a bit.
    I’ve got a long road to go with my writing. Between being kinder to myself and working on the craft itself. But I have a bit less fear now of the criticism I believe is just around the corner.
    Thanks Jonathan & Brene.

  12. Jonathan,
    This is THE most moving Good Life Project conversation yet. I loved Brene the moment I first watched her TED talk. Watching her so comfortably seated on a chair next to you having a real, wholehearted conversation made me love you both even more. We all carry so much ugly pain gathered through the critical eyes and words of others, it is important to be reminded that we are worthy, important, and have talents to share. I love the idea that you are either contributing to the good in the world or not. Some things are absolute. Thank you for being in the arena. And thank you for inviting others in. You, my friend, are changing the world.

  13. Eli says:

    I have been criticised at times, sometimes openly and verbally, sometimes just critical looks or smiles and very often behind my back. I lost some friends because they criticised me behind my back and I chose to spend my time with less people who are however more understanding.
    And I think the answer to how to approach this lies in Brene’s words: “You can’t give what you don’t have”. The critic is the one who does not have the love, the understanding, the empathy, maturity or wisdom to help you instead of criticising you. So he or she can go only that far, that’s the best he/she is capable of. That is why we need to be feel compassion towards our critics. They are like children who haven’t grown yet.

  14. Jaky says:

    My best critics have been my parents. And unlike other social connection who try to speak good about you to please you, they simply spit their thought out on my face.

    In a world where we are surrounded by people who praise us, criticism is important. And family should play a big part in it. Though it doesn’t really matter where it comes from, I think psychologically, there is some strange disconnection from one that comes from family and the one that comes from outsiders.

    Nevertheless, when they are taken constructively, you have the power to turn them into opportunity..

  15. Catherine says:

    I have a trusted circle of friends & colleagues that I turn to for constructive criticism / honest opinions. I’m learning to move away from people who relish criticizing others. The words say more about the critic than their target.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Fabulous interview, Jonathan. And, hey, first, just wanting to say how much I love GLP and I find myself looking forward each week to your next interview. You always seem to tap into the topics I love. So very meaningful. And simply pleasurable to watch.

    And this one! I love a real conversation between two whole-hearted individuals — no small talk here! Appreciating your question about critics – who I’ve chosen to listen to, or not listen to. My experience has been all about breaking out of old paradigms. Leaving a small town for the big city – lots of criticism from back home there. Then leaving a lucrative high-profile corporate job to pursue unconventional work, leaving east coast for west coast (egads!), etc., etc. Every step required following my heart and not listening to the voices representing the context I was leaving. Recognizing the criticism for what it is (fear mostly), these major shifts are becoming easier and easier… and still, requires some conscious internal pep talks.

    But, I have to say that the BIGGEST critic that I choose not to listen to (most of the time) is this internal voice that compares me to others. She will always find someone who’s doing something better, faster, smarter, cleverer, bigger, kinder, etc. The more I love that voice – that part of myself who is afraid to expand into new realms – the more I appreciate that what she wants most of all is attention and reassurance that she’ll be safe. And that I can give her all that without shutting down my plans and projects for living my fullest life.

    This is a very timely reflection for me. Thank you for the opportunity to explore even further.

    Elizabeth ~

  17. giovanna says:

    Tks, tks, tks so much for all this!

  18. Brian says:


    This is one person you have made a difference with. I love the GoodLifeProject and forward the interviews and posts to a wide variety of my friends, relatives, and colleagues. However, this interview with Brene Brown really hit home today, at this very moment, and at a time when I am really having to keep myself together on a project that can bring real meaning forward.

    I like to remind myself and others of the Humane Accounting Scale. In the total exchanges that create life in this existence, the positive transactions far, far, far outnumbers the negatives. It’s not even close on that measure. We tend to concentrate on the negatives because they are so few that they are notable.

    Remember this when negativity flows your way. You enrich so very many people with your positivity and grace. Keep it going brother.


    PS You mentioned RUSH. Awesome!

  19. Jonathan: A quick thought about this juicy conversation. Sometimes even people who are in the arena, building something they and others value, may not be *just* critics.

    I discovered that, much to my surprise, when I shared the ms for my book with a woman who, because of our shared history and common purpose, I was sure would relate to it or at least comment fairly. Instead, she tore unkindly into my words for reasons I spent the next hours trying to understand. To the credit of years of personal growth work, I kept the baby after tossing the bath water. But having culled her valid points, I came to see that most of her words had nothing to do with mine. My truth-telling apparently triggered something in her she wasn’t willing to look at. So, my sense is that to be useful it’s not enough for a critic to be in the arena; she must also be self-aware and supremely compassionate!

  20. Several years ago I threw caution to the wind and quit my corporate job and began training in the complementary health field. My husband fully supported this total change in life direction. His extended family, on the other hand, was not amused.

    One day I was informed that there had been a family meeting and it was decided that they didn’t agree with my new chosen profession and I should stop. I was told that they loved me but felt that I was being foolish and I was to get a real job. I just looked at the family spokesman and told him that I loved him too but they were entitled to their opinion and I was entitled to mine.

    Several years later I had a good laugh when I realized that God denies us nothing and we deny ourselves everything. Other people will try to keep you small because they are afraid for themselves. Marianne Williamson’s poem, “A Return to Love” is my constant reminder that God has never intended us to be small.

  21. Caroline says:

    I love this post and I’m a huge Brene Brown fan, her TED talk on vulnerability changed my life. This post is so timely for me as right now I feel on the edges of the arena about to step in and it’s terrifying but so absolutely necessary, because if there is one thing I cannot stomach the idea of it’s deathbed regret. Life is short and we need to share our glorious gifts! 🙂

  22. Julie Lichty says:


    Your work, your message, your approach is so authentic and impactful. Just when I think I can’t love an episode more, I do. Your discussion with Brene was exceptional. Please, please, please stay the course. It’s definitely making a big difference my little corner of the world:-) and I’m sure beyond.

    Julie Lichty