When my wife and I are driving together we often spend the time discussing what’s coming up for our family. I’ll ask her when she’s going to be working late and we look forward to see what trips, events, or projects might be coming up. During a recent trip we had this exchange:
“Can you call the roofer?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s on my to-do list.” I said.
“Is it? Because it seems like you just ignore those things.”
When she said ignore, it felt like a fuse lit in my brain and was about to explode from my mouth before I was able to extinguish it. My counterarguments were arranged like German troops ready to march through Belgium.* I was busy, I was trying to write more, I was taking care of the kids, making dinners, cleaning (and so on) and that sometimes I don’t make a phone call before an office closes for the day. But I stopped my rebuttal because I realized something, she’s right. This was a hard pill to swallow in the moment, but it was true and like ripping off a bandage it was the better choice.
For things I want to do, like writing, reading, and exercise I’m very good about scheduling and doing those things. They get alpha priority on my list of things to do. The stuff I don’t want to do gets relegated to the beta list, the if there’s time list.
For example, if a book I really want to read arrives at the public library, I’ll go there immediately to retrieve it. If however, I need parts from the hardware store to fix something, I’ll wait until I have a reason to go into town, like when I have a library book to pickup. I’m selfish with my priorities but didn’t want to be criticized about it.
The Stoics had a few ways to deal with criticism but one of my favorites was explained in A Guide to the Good Life.
“One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me. Suppose, for example, that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case, I am paying the person to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish, under these circumstances, for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I should thank him for criticizing me.”
That’s what my wife was doing. She was shining a light on something I should have owned up to. Like admitting to the kids I eat ice cream after they go to bed, I didn’t want to cop to this offense. Rather, I wanted to divert the argument to how she was being unfair to me. Sometimes when I reflect upon these things I feel quite dumb.
On the other hand, sometimes we are criticized by people we don’t respect or who say false things, and in these cases we should treat them like an “overgrown child.” During my teaching career there was one open book exam that some students came to my office hours afterwards to complain about. They said that the exam was too difficult. But, it was open book I said. They responded that they didn’t like the wording of the questions. It turned out that rather than writing my own question bank, I used the one provided by the textbook authors. In a sense the exam should have been even easier, because the exam questions were written by the same people who wrote the book. Rather than take their feedback – that I was doing a poor job assessing them – I acknowledged that their criticism came from their own frustration.
During the car trip with my wife I recognized that her criticism stood on firm ground. This realization barely stopped me jumping to the defenses and Stoic thinking saved a pleasant trip like a rodeo clown just clearing the fence before a charging bull.
Now I try to consider my critics and the ground they stand on. Are they like the banjo teacher, who will make us better at something we value? Or are they like the amateur painter who believes we too should be painting pastel oceans?
Have you tried this? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.
*The reference is to the Dan Carlin Hardcore History podcast, Blueprint for Armageddon. It is very good.