Have you ever had someone directly criticize you in public? It’s humiliating right? Earlier this month I hopped on a flight to give a talk at a college that chose The Promise of a Pencil as the common read for all their students. In many ways the book was written exactly for college students, as it’s a demographic that feels the restlessness I experienced and my hope was that through writing about those struggles it would appeal to students seeking to define themselves as well.
My keynote to the student body was scheduled for 7pm in the evening, but they asked me to fly in early to participate in a seminar-style course just before lunch. Of course I was excited to hear the students’ thoughts and share my own, so after arriving I gave a short introduction and then opened the floor for questions. As often happens on college campuses, the majority of students were quite timid at first but one college student immediately raised his hand. I eagerly called on him.
He looked down at his notepad and stated the following prewritten question, “Your book opens with the following Howard Thurman quote:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (click to Tweet this).
Don’t you think that quote is inappropriate to use? There are people like those fighting for ISIS right now who would claim they’re doing what makes them most come alive and yet you’re encouraging readers to follow that type of path.”
It certainly wasn’t the opening question I was expecting, but I explained my intentions in citing the quote and how I believed it was appropriate. He raised his hand again. Another critical question came about the introduction to the book. And another. And another. Over the next hour, while others asked many solid questions, this one kid peppered me with one aggressive question after another. Clearly he had a bone to pick, and for some reason he had an issue with me personally. This culminated with the final question of the session.
“Would you agree with the belief that your book is a glorified self-help guide that masquerades as having a message?”
As soon the words left his mouth he smiled a wide grin. He was trying to bait me into saying something inappropriate. “Well that’s an incredibly negative description of the book if you’d like to categorize it that way,” I said. A few students laughed uneasily to relieve the tension. “I’d describe it as a book that details a personal journey and shares the highs and lows of building a purpose-driven organization as well as the lessons learned along the way. My hope was that it would be beneficial to the reader and gives them the tools to accomplish whatever their dream may be, but you can certainly categorize it as you choose.” I said it calmly, but internally I was ready to explode.
Over the next several hours I worked over email, all the while prepping for my keynote that night. I kept replaying this kid’s questions in my mind. I couldn’t seem to stop my internal fury over it, but something strange started to happen.
Criticism forces us to either derail or defend our beliefs. (click to Tweet this).
I found myself taking out entire sections of my previously prepared talk because they no longer seemed good enough. I reworked the entire presentation in ways I hadn’t undertaken before because I now felt beholden to an even higher standard that this student has set through his verbal daggers.
Suddenly I realized that I cared more about the speech that night than any other in recent memory (and I really care about every speech I give!), and that it was all being driven by this one kid’s critique.
Later that night, I gave what I believe was one of my best speeches to date. It was entirely new and fresh. The feeling in the room was electric and I walked off stage actually grateful to that young man for being my biggest critic that day. As much as the other students from that one class didn’t attack me, they also didn’t help me get better.
Disagreement is always better than disengagement. (click to Tweet this).
It fosters debate. It forces us to fortify our beliefs and ideals. Most importantly, it destroys apathy. So next time you turn in a project or work on an idea, ask for someone to tear it apart. You just might be surprised with how much you’ll discover in your quest to defend it.