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.

Use More Inspiring and Fewer Soul Crushing Words

Earl NightingaleThe gravelly voiced sage of personal development, Earl Nightingale, once said, “We become what we think about.” For me anyway, this is an incredibly powerful statement. To help us become the next and even better version of us, our opportunity is to become far more aware of and precise about the language we use when we think our daily 10,000 to 60,000 thoughts or speak with others. 

We all intuitively know that words and thoughts carry positive or negative energy. They inspire us to create the next multi-billion dollar business or demobilize us so much we can barely face the day. They bring us internal peace and fulfillment or consign us to a life of turbulence. Yup, I truly believe mere words are that powerful.

So how can we be more conscious of and deliberate with the words and phrases we choose and use in the moment?

Here is my starter kit for you.

Use These Three Sets of Words More Often

1) “How can I XXX?” — Derivatives for this include “how can we,” “what can I/we do in order to build/do/achieve YYY…” I can’t think of anything more powerful and empowering than this term. It urges positive thinking and action. It encourages the modeling of those best characteristics other people exhibit that you seek to incorporate into your own behavior. It drives learning, creativity, innovation and productivity in your personal and business life — individually, across teams, and throughout a company.

Pay extremely close attention to the people you encounter or read about in your everyday life who consistently use this expression. Observe them, learn more about them, and study their patterns. These are the folks you want to learn from and spend more time around. They are probably the people in the most senior positions at your company. Incidentally, I just dropped a big hint. If you don’t engage with people like this, find them on the Web and make them your fictional friends and mentors. No, I’m not kidding. For example, let me introduce you to my pal Richard, who can teach you a lot. Oh and another thing, BECOME the person who repeatedly utters this term!

2) “What else could this mean?” — Ahh…the indignities of life. That person who cuts you off on the highway, bumps into you on the sidewalk while immersed in their smartphone, repeatedly interrupts you during meetings, or the many other thousand small skin abrasions of daily life. I don’t know about you, but unchecked, my first tendency is to get judgmental and become angry because I feel like they’ve “offended me.” And this type of thinking is incredibly negative and energy draining. Hint: becoming “offended” WAY less often, if ever, is a powerful practice that I’m working on.

Instead, we always have the opportunity to create an alternate positive explanation and not take how we are seemingly personally treated…ummm…personally. That person who just cut you off on the highway? What if she/he has an acute stomach disorder thingy going on (need I say more?) and needs to get to a restroom ASAP?

Tony Robbins is big on the “what else could this mean” way of thinking, and he is not alone. The deepest of spiritual and philosophical texts teach there is no “meaning” in anything except that which we give it. I’ll save going deeper into this topic for another occasion, but I suggest you think long and hard about the concept of “meaning.” Short story: whatever in life you give meaning to as being outstanding or heinous, I guarantee you there are plenty of people who place an opposite meaning on that very same thing.

3) “That’s awesome!” — Derivatives include “amazing, excellent, fantastic, cool,” etc. What if more of us on the planet appreciated the vast number of wonderful little things — the every day things, as well as the big things? This is an expression we can use often with others as long as we do it sincerely. As an example I can’t help but think of Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff, one of the most affluent people on the planet, who speaks all the time with the passion and fascination of a child at Disneyland. Every seventeenth word out of Marc’s mouth is “amazing!!!” He is not kidding around. And what the HELL is wrong with THAT?

Or we can use it when thinking and observing inside of our own minds. Here is a wacky narrative I often play in my head: I sometimes think of “transporting” myself along with a technology innovation I risk taking for granted back in time by a few decades. For example, what if in my current 53 year old amazing physique and positive mindset, I strolled into my apartment back in Brookline, Massachusetts thirty years ago (1985) to find my 24 year old roommate Bob sitting on the couch and watching an episode of “The Golden Girls.” I’d turn off Bea McArthur, coolly stare into the distance, whip out my iPhone 6, remotely fire up the stereo, and start wirelessly BLASTING some Tame Impala thanks to AirPlay and of course an AT&T wireless router hidden somewhere in the apartment. Yeah that’s right…so much of the stuff we are blasé about is AWESOME!

Honorable Mention: “Thank you.” Do we ever say or hear this enough? I think not. There is nothing quite so lovely as uttering or hearing a sincere and heartfelt THANK YOU.

Avoid These Three Sets of Words

1) “It is what it is.” — I have searched long and far, and am hard-pressed to think of a more negative and disempowering expression. Of course I realize the intent of someone using this term is to soften the blows of life’s smaller and larger stresses that none of us can seemingly change for ourselves or others. But it’s an incredibly passive and negative way to perceive the world. Do you remember that we were just talking about “meaning?” Stated differently, it NEVER is what it is. “It” is only the meaning we give it. It’s what we make it. And in my book this is true in every case. Example: How else could you express the meaning of a death of a loved one after a long and harrowing illness than by saying, “It is what it is?” Here is one way, and I speak from experience, “I guarantee you they are in a better and more peaceful place.”

2) “That’s sad.” — Derivatives are that “XXX (person, person’s life, or situation in general) is sad.” First of all, let’s acknowledge that since virtually everything we experience is subjective, then what one states as being sad may be so…to them. But if I see the homeless person on the street eating out of a trash can, is there a chance I might think this person is doing better than she had been 24 hours ago? Is there a chance this is a temporary situation? Is there a chance she is simply happy to be alive? Do we really know? And how does stating something in such negative terms help anything or anybody within hearing range, including that homeless person?

Here is an interesting concept. In this situation, instead of proclaiming the circumstance as sad, we can instead ask ourselves, “What can I do to make the lives of homeless people easier, starting right now?” We can donate a portion of our time or money to a food pantry, volunteer at a homeless shelter on a Saturday, etc. Now how sad is THAT? Because now we are helping instead of bemoaning! We are taking action instead of passively commenting.

3) “That’s not realistic.” — A derivative expression is “That’s not reality.” Now, do you notice a common theme with these terms to avoid? They’re all based on a negative view of the world. And because this term in particular is highly cloaked, it is uniquely dangerous. By “cloaked” I mean the person using this term can say, “Hey, I’m not being pessimistic. I’m being REAListic.” Hint: That’s a key expression pessimists use, because they rarely define what is REAL as being positive. Trust me on this one as I’m a recovering pessimist. If you still don’t believe me, how often do you hear someone say, “That’s not realistic” with a positive connotation? Here is an example.

BOBBY: “Hey Johnny. Wassup! I couldn’t be more pumped. I’m just about to get my engineering degree from Cal Poly. And I’m confident I’ll land a great job immediately. Hell, in five years I could easily be raking in more than $120,000 per year.”

JOHNNY: That’s not realistic! With a degree from Cal Poly plus your coding skills PLUS your amazing internships, you could easily clear more than $200,00 annually within the next few years. And there are like a gazillion companies in San Francisco alone that are dying for skilled local talent. You were born for this, dude! So get real, and get moving!!

No no no. Instead, Johnny would be telling Bobby that he has his head shoved up his ass and needs to be REALISTIC — that in five years he’ll likely be serving up Loaded Nuggets Munchie Meals at the local Jack In The Box at 2 a.m. to earnest customers who can’t identify what that white sauce is, and living with his parents like all other 27 year old kids do. Because thinking any other way given today’s job market is simply not realistic.

Hint: Innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders of any type are not typically “realistic.”

Honorable Mention: “I disagree!” Hey, are you running for President and practicing your debate chops for the PBS broadcast? Because in my world, that phrase simply separates you from me and encourages divisiveness. And the last time I checked we are all in this together. Now of course you’re entitled to your own opinion and perspective. But may I suggest a bit more inclusively phrased verbiage? EXAMPLE: “Let me make sure I understand your perspective.” Or, “Hey, have you thought about it THIS way?” Or, “That’s interesting, and here’s the way I see it.” And as a last resort.”Well, I see things a bit differently.” Because honestly, when you DISAGREE, aren’t you trying to make yourself right and the other person “wrong?”

Now, if these terms to avoid have sucked the life out of you, then perhaps you’re internalizing how much power exists in ALL the seemingly innocuous everyday words that can fill up our headspace unless we take 100% responsibility for choosing our language more carefully and precisely in every moment. Incidentally, I don’t know any consistently upbeat, energetic, enthusiastic and empowering folks who ever use any of these negative expressions.

The bottom line: Stay positive my friend, with as many thoughts and words as humanly possible! And let’s go forth and create.