Are You A Creator Or A Critic?

Sidewalk Sam
Robert Guillemin (aka Sidewalk Sam)

This is the question I began asking myself repeatedly about 10 years ago. Let me explain.

In my 20s I was a raging critic. I had opinions about everything and everyone, most of them negative. Needless to say, this was not coming from a strong and secure sense of self.

Hello Dad, I’m A Cynic

I remember a phone conversation when my father said to me, “Steven, do you need to have an opinion on absolutely everything?” My bet is he saw this quality in me that he wasn’t wild about possessing himself. At the time I believe I returned his question with a criticism. 

Later on in my 30s I was frequently referred to as cynical during dinner parties.

It was supposedly a compliment, as in, “Oh Steve, you make me laugh. I love your cynicism!” But it wasn’t flattering to me.

And then about 10 years ago, I had a friend who repeatedly and enthusiastically suggested I become a restaurant critic. “Steve! I mean come ON. You would make a GREAT restaurant CRITIC!”

My Gradual Conversion

The term “critic” didn’t sit well with me at all. I looked up critic in the dictionary: “a person who judges, evaluates, or criticizes.”

“Yuck,” I thought. “That’s not me! Or is it…? Judging? Being judgmental? Oh lord I need to lose that.”

After pondering this for many weeks, it hit me. The critic generally criticizes something that someone else created. So I looked up the word ‘creator:’ “a person or thing that creates; originator.” Much better! I mean, is there anything more powerful than an originator?

Then I thought: “What if I take some of my considerable energy spent critiquing and instead keep my pie hole shut more often and allocate chunks of time toward creating ANYTHING? I want to be a creator, dammit!”

And in the last decade I’ve learned five reasons why this makes much more sense. Creators:

  1. Operate at higher productivity levels.
  2. Make more money.
  3. Live more engaged, energetic, and fulfilled lives.
  4. Generate more value for those around them.
  5. Have more inner peace.

While I can’t back these claims up with empirical data, this is exactly what spending more time in “creator mode” has done for me.

I’m not going to lie and tell you that POOF, I flipped a switch one day and became a born again creator. There is still a critical demon festering deep inside of me who I need to “address” every day. But I’m continually getting better at this.

Of course one may counter that in the professional workplace, criticism is essential. Many companies pride themselves on having a feedback culture. And I’ve witnessed firsthand how the deliverables coming out of said companies are unquestionably of much higher quality thanks to a battery of high pressure, detailed and scrutinizing reviews, focus group sessions with customers, and dozens of iterations. But let’s make the distinction between constructive feedback and deconstructive criticism.

Create A Better Workplace With Constructive Feedback

For example, consider a PowerPoint deck. What if one of your direct reports shows you the slides she spent the entire weekend building, and you respond by saying, “Wow, this draft sucks. I don’t even know where to begin. Please rethink this deck. I need a workable draft by the end of the day.” How will this feedback help?

What about asking clarifying questions such as: Who is your specific audience and what do they need and want in their daily life? What do you want them to remember about your presentation? What specific action(s) do you want them to take? How have you thought through the organization and sequencing of your story? How can you tell this story more simply and cleanly? 

Now, in addition to providing constructive feedback that helps this direct report rethink her deck without admonishing her to “rethink the deck,” we are actually creating value for that person and our employer, not to mention the audience who will simply be wowed by v27.pptx when it hits the big screens at the Moscone.

Create Anything. Just Do It.

If this notion of spending more time in “creator mode” seems too vague, here are 22 tangible things we can create, and this is just to get warmed up. It doesn’t matter if what you first create isn’t that good. Just strengthen the muscle. OK, here goes: Workout playlist, workout, song, poem, magazine article, blog, book chapter, 10 book chapter titles, website, video storyboard, video, recipe, meal, business plan, marketing plan, iOS app, Kickstarter project, company, charitable foundation, photograph, book case, flower garden. (Why 22 tangible things? Because many decades ago, I owned this album, which clearly made a lasting impression.)

While many of these examples may have less to do with earning a living than others, consider the aphorism that “How you show up anywhere is how you show up everywhere.” I’ll bet that Dana, who comes into work on Monday sharing the great photos she took and edited in Photoshop during the weekend, is more of a “go to person” among her colleagues than Rafael, who drones on in detail about the crappy movie he saw on Saturday night. And when the line inevitably crosses over from criticizing a movie to spreading negative gossip about a coworker, we are then engaging in a humongous spirit and soul sucking productivity drain.

It’s not what the workplace needs. And it’s not what the world needs. The world also doesn’t need another negative Amazon review expressing fury at the indignity of wasting five hours reading a terrible work of fiction with no plot that cost less than nine dollars for the Kindle version.

What the world needs now, besides love sweet love, is more of you and me creating stuff that makes a positive impact on those around us. So now let’s go forth and create.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post is of Sidewalk Sam, the embodiment of a true creator. RIP Sam.

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