How being your own worst critic helps you improve.
Charles Darwin knew that applying criticism was the best way to improve the theory of evolution. As a matter of fact, he was among the most refined critics of his own theory.
In a letter to his friend Asa Gray, who was helping with the American edition of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, “About weak points I agree. The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder.”
Self-criticism is a fundamental step in the path to improvement. Ignoring it will do you more harm than good.
The saying, “We are our own worst critics,” is often followed by, “Be kind to yourself.” People who offer kindness to self-criticism want to fend off the negative and counter-productive emotions our inner critic can throw at us. And for good reason. A negative mindset will get us stuck in a rut and unable to move forward.
But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Discard the negativity, yes, but don’t ignore the criticism. Because it’s only by criticizing our work – and more generally our ideas about the world – that we can make progress.
Darwin could have ignored his own criticism, that cold shudder when considering how the eye seemed to defy the theory of evolution by natural selection and random variation. But that is not the way of the scientist, and is not the way of those who are committed to escape the pull of mediocrity.
It was through embracing, not ignoring, self-criticism that Darwin produced a deep theory with broad explanatory reach.
Darwin tackled the problem of the eye head first in Origin. He acknowledged the apparent absurdity of the eye having come about gradually when it is so refined that only a higher intelligence could have envisioned it, then swiftly explained how the emergence of the eye is, in fact, entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.
And the treatment of the eye is only one of several sections in the chapter titled Difficulties of the Theory and dedicated entirely to addressing criticism.
Being kind to ourselves doesn’t mean silencing the inner critic. It means keeping it focused toward providing constructive criticism. In fact, ignoring criticism is the opposite of kindness. It destroys the means of error correction. It gives us no opportunity for improvement, leaving us stuck where we are—the same outcome that the kindness approach tried to avoid.
If you have empathy for your future self and are invested in their success, listening to your inner critic might be the kindest thing you can do.
Be kind to yourself: be your own worst critic.