How Do You Take In Criticism?

Friends always want to know, “Did doing a TED talk make you famous? Rich?” I’m always direct to answer, “not at all*”.

So, when the LI editorial team asked me to write a 1-year retrospective of what it was like to be a TED speaker, we identified the headline quickly. The piece, found here, argues that TED actually does what it should do… gets an idea to spread. And I proceed to use the editorial angle of “famous” to share details on this point of view.

From the online comments, some people interpreted that I was “lamenting” the lack of fame, and in-person friends said I should stop talking about my personal story because doing so takes the focus off the ideas I have. The whole experience has me thinking about what to do next, whether something require a change.

When any of us receive criticism, it’s a great opportunity to decide what to take in, what (and who) to ignore and also take a clear look at what exactly we’re reacting to, and why.

From the people who assumed I was “lamenting” any lack of fame, I’ll choose to learn that what I thought was humorous left open a door for people to misinterpret. People will do that. Just check You Tube comments. (Pro tip: Never read YouTube comments.) So humorous stuff ought to be better delivered, or left out entirely.

But the friends who worry I’m being “too social”, or “too open”, I wonder if they are actually clear who I am, what I think about, and believe in. (Do they not know I wrote Social Era Rules which argues that community, openness in purpose are key??!) Or, could it be that are working from bias. I see how Sandberg, Mayer, and Barra are criticized online for “a female proclivity to seek the spotlight”, and told they should be ashamed.  At the same time, males of similar rank i.e.  Zuckerberg, Gates, Jamie Dimon do not get similar treatment. (And, before that sentence gets misconstrued, I am NOT arguing I’m at their level, just identifying examples and patterns in broader culture.) I see so often, how women face blatant bias and double standards, as Lauren Leader-Chivee argued on the HBR blog. Also, as Rachel Edidin argued when she asked, “Why do we hate Amanda Palmer” at Wired. Bias isn’t fixable until we acknowledge it.

Picture Courtesy of TED Blog


It is not entirely clear bias is the case, here. And that’s the rough part of this feedback in specific, but feedback in general; it’s hard to parse what is what, and what to take in, and what to leave out.

While the answers are not clear, I know enough to ask questions, to stay in community, and to learn from fellow travelers. If you have any light to lend to this, your take would be so helpful. The question as I think of it … Is there something to change re being “too open”? And I guess the broader question is always – how do you act on criticism, and what works best for you?

p.s. I was at TED this last week, and even thought I was achingly struggling through a respiratory health issue, it was still AH-MAY-ZING.  Loved to see it through the eyes of Amanda Palmer, who managed to bridge TED with the people living AMIDST it.

p.p.s. And * …  I don’t underestimate that TED might very well be involved with the fact that since my 2nd book came out, the volume of people who tune in has grown. The actual numbers from Book II release (September 2012) to now is 10,000 people to close to 1,500,000. I’m not discounting this, but its hard to do attribution to TED, specifically.

8 Replies

  1. Good post Nilofer. The openness is a such an essential part of you that I can’t begin to imagine what your work would be like without it. A lot worse, I suspect.

    The humour question is interesting. Part of it might be delivery, but I think a bigger part is that some people just don’t want to hear the message, so they misinterpret.

    Since you can’t please everyone, humour is a pretty good way of filtering who is in your tribe & who is not.

    And, this is hilarious: “Just check You Tube comments. (Pro tip: Never read YouTube comments.)”

    1. Tim, Yes, some people just want to misinterpret. Another friend told me privately that 90% of all comments are about the giver not the receiver. Not a bad rule of thumb… Which is not to say there’s not truth there to learn from but just realize you don’t have to pick up what others are putting down.

      1. I think that is stat is almost certainly true – most criticisms tell you a whole lot more about the critic than about the idea or person targeted.

  2. As a fan of Penelope Trunk ( and Susie Bright (, I’m probably not a good adviser on the “too open” issue, but it’s interesting that I’m not anywhere near that open on my own blog. I agree with Susie on this: “Not every private vulnerability cries out to be made public. But there’s a power in making stories from secrets, the transmutation of shame into something beautiful and whole.”

    So I say: be open with a purpose. Don’t hesitate to translate your issues into an example that can help some of the rest of us. Thank you.

    1. I often ask “for the sake of what” am I doing something… and your “be open with a purpose” reminds that to apply that question to this. Thank YOU.

  3. Nilofer,

    For a regular human being, to stand out is a terrifying thought… On the other hand, to stand up for something is a sign of selflessness, a realization that we are not same, but one… And ultimately, once everything is said and done, to be able to stand for something means you lived a brave, masterful, and resilient life.

    I believe by championing (and pioneering) #socialera, you have embarked on a noble journey. But, mind you: this is a journey. Had you known where this would lead you, it wouldn’t be a journey, but just a commute…

    Looking from outside, I think your purpose is your lighthouse. That said, the culture we live in overvalues external achievements (not success), which I liken to fireworks. It is very easy, and tempting to get distracted by it. Maybe the criticism you get is just as an early warning system, signalling you the moment the lighthouse becomes blurry.

    The way I see it, If you are true to your purpose, there is nothing wrong with openness. You have ideas worth sharing, and I think those ideas are very lucky that they have a host such as yourself.

  4. Zen meditation practice has facilitated my view of criticism as an opportunity to build a relationship with the critic through gratitude, respect, curiousity and a desire to help. I hope this view is helpful to you.

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