Fire Your Inner Critic

Sep 6, 2017

Most of us are our own worst critics. It’s easy to understand why. After all, no one knows us better than us. Who better to uncover and critique all our foibles, follies and failures than our own inner critic?

There’s a fine line, of course, between self-criticism and self-awareness. Maturity requires that we view ourselves with objectivity and correct those faults that can be corrected. The kind of criticism that comes of self-awareness and that leads to self-improvement is a prerequisite for happiness and love.

But when it comes to work, self-criticism can be crippling. Carl Richards, a certified financial planner, author, and regular New York Times contributor, makes that point in his fine article for the Times, “Free Yourself of Your Harshest Critic, and Plow Ahead.” Richards argues that we accomplish much of our best work when we stop critiquing and just do it.

“Think of how liberating it would be to free yourself from the role of being your own harshest critic,” he writes.  What might happen if you took all the energy that goes in to judging your work and put it right back into the wellspring of creating the work instead?”

Writer’s Block

Richards article mainly concerns writing, and the common experience of writer’s block. But he notes that letting go of your inner critic is good advice for “anything meaningful you do. Singing, painting, entrepreneurship, giving financial advice, museum curating, boat building, skiing, whatever.”

Like Richards, my own experience with the shadow side of criticism concerns writing. I was a journalist for 15 years before tackling PR. Most days, my livelihood, to say nothing of my self-esteem, depended on my ability to crank out large amounts of decent copy on deadline. As a newspaper reporter with daily deadlines you either get over writer’s block or you get out. There’s no time for self-criticism when they’re holding the front page for your story.

It was after I left newspapers to become a freelance magazine writer that my self-criticism blossomed. I blame my editors. I learned shortly after starting to freelance that deadlines mean something very different for magazine editors than for newspaper editors. Magazine editors give their freelancers early deadlines, days or weeks before they intend to actually edit the article. They do that to guard against precisely the sort of writer’s block that often crippled me.

Yet, ironically, it was because I knew that my deadlines were fake and therefor moveable that my self-criticism could work its evil. With several days to write, no beginning was ever clever enough. Writing is rewriting, as every good writer knows. But when you reach the hundredth rewrite of your lede, you know you’re in trouble.

The Godfather of Gonzo

I’m reminded of the story of Rolling Stone Books editor Alan Rinzler who, in trying to wrangle the manuscript for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail out of legendary procrastinator Hunter S. Thompson, ended up chasing the godfather of gonzo journalism around a hotel room for 48 hours with a tape recorder in hand. Unable to write, Thompson literally dictated the bestseller.

I never reached that point. What saved me, every time, was a deadline. Faced with no alternative but to produce, the words flowed. In the end, I simply lowered my standards and trusted that what came out of my experience and craft would be good enough.

In his article, Richards quotes a letter from reader Chip Scanlon. Scanlon, a writer himself, recounted how he overcame writer’s block: “I do my best to not have any standards at all. I abandon my standards. I urge myself to write badly, and once I do that my fingers begin to fly, and the inner critic is powerless.”

Does your inner critic ever keep you from completing work? How do you overcome it?

Todd Stein

Todd Stein is an award-winning communicator with more than 20 years' experience driving business growth, brand awareness and investor confidence for technology startups, mid-sized companies and Fortune 500 corporations. Prior to joining Amendola, Todd led public relations for Allscripts, helping catapult the healthcare IT company from a niche electronic health record provider to a global healthcare powerhouse in the span of six years. Todd also worked for 15 years as a freelance journalist for numerous West Coast and national publications. He has been honored by the League of American Communications Professionals; by the California Society of Professional Journalists; and by PRSourceCode's 'Top Tech Communicators' survey.