On Critics, Criticism and Remarkability

So, why haven’t you and your team launched as many Purple Cows as you’d like?


Not just the fear of failure. Fear of failure is actually overrated as an excuse. Why? Because if you work for someone, then more often than not, the actual cost of the failure is absorbed by the organization, not you. If your product launch fails, they’re not going to fire you. The company will make a bit less money and will move on.

What people are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism.

We don’t choose to be remarkable because we’re worried about criticism. We hesitate to create innovative movies, launch new human resource initiatives, design a menu that makes diners take notice or give an audacious sermon because we’re worried, deep down, that someone will hate it and call us on it.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” “What a waste of money.” “Who’s responsible for this?”

Sometimes, the criticism doesn’t even have to be that obvious. The fear of, “I’m surprised you launched this without doing more research…” is enough to get many people to do a lot more research, to study something to death and then kill it. Hey, at least you didn’t get criticized.

Fear of criticism is a powerful deterrent because the criticism doesn’t actually have to occur for the fear to set in. Watch a few people get criticized for being innovative and it’s pretty easy to persuade yourself that the very same thing will happen to you if you’re not careful.

Constructive criticism, of course, is a terrific tool. If a critic tells you that, “I don’t like it,” or “this is disappointing,” he’s done no good at all. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He’s used his power to injure without giving you any information to help you to do better next time. Worse, he hasn’t given those listening any data to make a thoughtful decision on their own. Not only that, but by refusing to reveal the basis for his criticism, he’s being a coward, because there’s no way to challenge his opinion.

I admit it. When I get a bad review, my feelings are hurt. After all, it would be nice if a critic said a title of mine was a breakthrough, an inspirational, thoughtful book that explains how everything, from politics to wine, is marketed through stories.

But sometimes they don’t. Which is just about enough to ruin your day. But this time, it didn’t. It didn’t because I realized what a badge of honor it is get a bit of shallow criticism. It means that I confounded expectations. That I didn’t deliver the sequel or the simple, practical guide that some expected. It means that in fact, I did something worth remarking on.

The lesson here is this: if I had written a boring book, there’d be no criticism. No conversations. The products and services that get talked about are the ones that are worth talking about.

So the challenge, as you contemplate your next opportunity to be boring or remarkable, is to answer these two and a half questions:

1.    “If I get criticized for this, will I suffer any measurable impacts? Will I lose my job, get hit upside the head with a softball bat or lose important friendships?” If the only side effect of the criticism is that you will feel bad about the criticism, then you have to compare that bad feeling with the benefits you’ll get from actually doing something worth doing. Being remarkable is exciting, fun, profitable and great for your career. Feeling bad wears off.

And then, once you’ve compared the two, and you’ve sold yourself on taking the remarkable path, answer this one:

2.    How can I create something that critics will criticize?