Learn to take criticism well by choosing your critics well

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Do you ever search 43 Things? I love going through it to see what goals people have for themselves. I like seeing where my own goals and accomplishments fit in with everyone else’s.

On 43 Things, 21 people want to learn to take criticism but 77,000 people want to get a promotion. You know what’s wrong with this? The way to get a promotion is to take criticism well, but most people don’t know they don’t do it well.

Everyone knows they are supposed to get a mentor. And in fact, getting a mentor is one of the best ways to get a promotion. But few people understand that the best way to get a mentor on your side is to take criticism well. This means not only hearing it, but acting on it immediately, and reporting back to the mentor that you have done that.

Which means that a key to finding people you can learn from is finding people you can take criticism from. There’s a great discussion on the blog Vineograph about how hard it is to find critics to trust. This is as true for wine recommendation as it is for career recommendations. The conclusion on this discussion is that you have to know a bunch about the person before you can decide if you trust their criticism. But before you trust someone, you have to start listening.

So I listen to tons of people, always looking for new, competent critics who I might be able to turn into mentors. People always ask me how I deal with so many negative comments on my Yahoo column. The answer is, I read them looking for good critics because you never know where you’ll find them.

Do not choose your critics because they are the best at constructive criticism. Your best critics may be totally undiplomatic; you need to find the people who best understand your best attributes. If they understand your strengths, then they understand when you’re not using them.

For this reason, I listen to Michael Kemelman who blogs at Recruiting Animal. He rips on me all the time in his blog. And he rips on people I publish, like Ryan Healy. But Michael is smart (and funny) and I have always known that he understands me even as he makes fun of me.

Last week he confirmed this. He sent me a list of four of his favorite posts, and the list means so much to me because they are posts that are only at the very edge of career advice, and they are my favorite kind to write.

So, here’s the list of favorite posts from one of the harshest critics I listen to:

The Fine Line Between Boasting on a Resume and Lying

Choosing Between a Kid and a Career

Happy Passover from my Blended Life

Confidence Boosters that Work for Me

24 replies
  1. Kristin Balistreri
    Kristin Balistreri says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Your’s is the first blog I’ve ever checked out….and I love it (it could have something to do with the quality advice)! Thanks for the gentle nudge in the January Madison Magazine to get moving on the blog front.

    I heard you speak at Downtown Rotary and really enjoyed your comments.


    Kristin Balistreri
    M&I Bank

  2. Alik
    Alik says:

    You picked good topic to write about!! I love critics – i love good one and I really love negative one even more since it is the greatest source for self improvement and learning. I think somebody already said that, ahhhh Bill Gates it was with “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”

  3. elai
    elai says:

    Just curious, were you always able to take criticism so well? I think it’s such a great skill and necessary if you want to be a success in many aspects of life. I’m just wondering if it was an innate characteristic or did you develop it somehow. If you did develop this somehow during your life, how did you do it and what is the most effective way? For me, I think taking things personally and not embracing rejection has really held me back in many aspects and it’s something i’ve been trying to work on consistently.

    * * * * * * *

    I think a lot of our ability to take criticism has to do with our personality. I know I harp about Myers-Briggs test results all the time, but I am an ENTJ, and I’m pretty sure that anyone who is an ENTJ would take criticism pretty well.

    Also, though, I had parents who doled out criticism pathologically, so I had to teach myself to cope with it early on, as a survival method. Who knew it would be so helpful in my career???

    Anyway, as for you, Elai. The fact that you realize that you take things personally is half the battle. That’s a huge step toward changing it.


  4. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Wow. This is my favourite kind of endorsement.

    a. It’s written on Christmas Eve when only lonely people and minorities will see it.

    b. When you’re praised for being mean there’s less pressure to be friendly in return.

    So, how will I respond on my blog? “Attacked by Animal, Blogger Claims”, “Blogger returns attacks with praise on Christmas Eve.” Maybe something like that.

    Re: being smart: I can get a dozen sincere people who like me to deny it in no time at all.

    * * * * * * *
    Lonely people and minorities? That is the kind of cutting but hilarious commentary I’m talking about…


  5. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    One of the grand ironies of life is that the folks from whom we’d most welcome constructive criticism are usually the same folks we have to drag said criticism out of.

  6. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    Taking criticism well is a HUGE skill that will help a person success.

    HOWEVER, giving criticism is also a skill that few people understand. While this comment you wrote is true —

    “Your best critics may be totally undiplomatic; you need to find the people who best understand your best attributes. If they understand your strengths, then they understand when you're not using them”

    — people also need to realize that just because they CAN criticize does not ALWAYS mean they SHOULD criticize.

    I think that in today’s culture people feel entitled to jump all over other people. Look at the morons who slash you (especially on Yahoo Finance)…..sure, you sometimes (okay, all the time) write things that are provocative…but anyone with a brain knows that is your shtick. It is why you have so many readers. Your purpose is not to make everyone like you, it is to make people think about your topics and then to come back and read again tomorrow. And yet these people school you on what you write as if they are the self appointed “Teach Penelope Police”. Rather than attacking they should just add to the discussion. But nobody understands the difference.

    I think that there is a time to point out constructive criticisms and a time to just let the other person live their life.

    My biggest lesson of 2008 was that you cannot change a pig headed / closed minded / self righteous person who always feels superior….so just don’t even debate them. Instead I just smile and say nothing or nod as if I think they are smart.

    Since learning this lesson my life has become much less stressful.


  7. leslie
    leslie says:

    @recruiting animal
    I am not lonely or a minority and I read it.

    I agree with many of the points in the article. Finding someone who knows how to criticize you in a way you can hear it is one of the most important things you can do for personal/professional growth. And yes, they do have to appreciate your strengths so they can direct you in a way that allows your best self to be in charge. I think of it as a director working with an actor.

  8. Mark Runta
    Mark Runta says:

    The worst reviews I have gotten are the ones which just say good things about me. I feel good but don’t learn anything new. If you want to get better at what you do – insist on knowing where you are falling short. That is how you learn and move ahead.

    Great post!

  9. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    When learning to take criticism, must you also learn to take compliments? Would you need to practice the same type of filter when people compliment you? I’ve always struggled with this…are people brown nosing or are they genuine and happen to agree with you. It seems like this could be used on both sides of the fence.

    * * * * * *

    Great point, Matt. Sometimes I find myself replying to a compliment with a self-mocking comment. And then I think, UGH! I should have just said thank you.


  10. Jerry Matthew
    Jerry Matthew says:

    PT –

    Criticism, by itself, is not a bad thing. Some people equate criticism with failure. Some of the smartest people on the planet have failed thousands of times. Only when they learned to analyze their “mistakes” did they advance beyond their temporary delays.

    I think criticism becomes hard to take when it is personalized. When a critic rips you just because of who you are, what they are saying isn’t worth a dime. If they can tell you why you’re stuck where you are or provide useful, actionable, information on your situation only then do they become worth listening to.

  11. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    I think recruiting animal is upset you treasure his list. It bothers him even more that he knows you are sincere. Life is indeed good.

  12. finance
    finance says:

    You’re really thankful for this post, I’ve been really enjoying checking up your posts from time to time. Looking forward to see your future posts

  13. Dan Collins
    Dan Collins says:


    Your insights are crisp, cogent and full of verve – I love them. Thanks for adding your substantive insight to the noise we all have to surf through. I appreciate it a lot.

    Dan Collins

  14. Dan Collins
    Dan Collins says:

    I have Twittered a couple of your blog items recently without following the protocol that most do – sorry I am still a rookie at it – keep up the good work. Dan

  15. Treasure hunters Roadshow
    Treasure hunters Roadshow says:

    Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Chris Hansen
    Chris Hansen says:

    Pro-critics is at odds with ‘Eliminate all judgements’ in your previous post, yes?

    I like critics of all kinds. I’m smart enough to know what I know, and what I don’t. For those that come willingly into the fray, they had better be prepared.

    My daughter’s music teacher told her once during a lesson ‘I never play anything live that I don’t know how to play note-for-note from memory, and that takes a lot of practice’. I liked his advice a lot.

    The message here is that if you stick to being critical about the things you know, it’s not rubbish. if you choose to do battle with someone who knows more than you do, you probably won’t find out until their shoe is firmly planted on the back of your neck and your face is in the dirt.

    Sometimes it pays to listen a little before opening one’s yap. Learning how to size up situations and opponents is a learned skill that can’t be tought, and which is only acquired from failure.

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