The selfish catharsis of criticising others

“Rare are helpful speakers, rarer still are good listeners, but rarest of all are words that though unpleasant are helpful.”

– Nàgarjuna

The concept that we criticise others for what we dislike about ourselves is met in Buddhist writings and is popular amount (pop) psychology publications. I was wondering if there is any basis to it.

The inspiration comes from criticism I kept receiving from my grandmother. It always came down to competence with her: I was criticised for being incompetent in its various incarnations. Over little things. Leaving the light on in the corridor. Not leaving the light on in the corridor when guests are over. Forgetting to buy something in the shop.

Then there were big things. Any time I defended myself against her criticism over big things, it inevitably transpired that her accusations were based on erroneous assumptions. She didn’t realise how hard I was working or what I was trying to do. Mostly though, it was over small things, especially for not complying with her idiosyncratic world view.

She wasn’t even that tyrannical: she would say to me that I am my own person and I make my own decisions. According to her, what I heard from her wasn’t oppressive and unsupportive, no, it was just her opinion – and she is entitled to one, right?

Naturally, her approach showed a lack of understanding of human emotion, relationships, empathy…

Furthermore, looking back on her life, it’s easy to see why she might see herself as the very thing she is accusing me of, of cautioning me against seeing as how she doesn’t actually mean harm: “incompetent”. Her life was so full of endless challenges: stagnation and lack of opportunity under Brezhnev, hopeful but troubled times under Gorbachev, then turbulent and Darwinian fighting to get by under Yeltsin.

All of the above have left her with no real tradable skills, just the knowledge of how to adapt while not getting accused of something she didn’t do, swindled or killed. By today’s definition of success she’s not all that “competent”.

So was she just trying to counsel me so that I avoid her fate? That may be what she told herself, but I believe the real motivation isn’t quite as selfless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Knowing that she isn’t the picture of competence and success as it is understood in today’s culture, she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.

Any time I would ask her if she has her phone before leaving, she would snap at me: “Stop asking me such nonsense!” It’s not that I felt that she wasn’t independent or indeed was trying to be in some way offensive. However that obviously hit right where it hurt the most: competence and independence.

Obviously, this extends beyond issues like competence and independence. It can be anything at all.

Interpersonal criticism and rejection always come down to the same main point: it’s far less about the person being criticised or rejected, it’s about the needs of the person doing the criticising and the rejecting.

I am not writing this to simply hate on the critics and tell them to get out of here “with their negativity”. The really interesting part is the following. Next time when you feel like criticising someone, ask yourself: is there something about me that makes me criticise this person? It can be fascinating what you find out 😉

Is there any mysticism to this? I don’t think so at all, even though these kind of theories often arise from the more spiritually inclined. I believe this phenomenon arises from recency/attention bias. If something is on one’s mind, e.g. competence, one is more likely to find issues with it in others.

If we were to try and be scientific about it, I would design an experiment like this: interview a person about things that bother them the most about themselves, then interview those closest to them in a random population, without directly letting them know the hypothesis. 

I think an intervention-based trial would be less than ethical, but that could be tried too! For example, criticise person A about trait X and then ask them to find faults in people in a prerecorded video. Thoughts? 

“If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”

-François de La Rochefoucauld

The successniks of Silicon Valley learn philosophy, but search for the secret sauce continues

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
– Robert Frost

“Practical philosopher” Andrew Taggard disabuses founders, executives, and others in Silicon Valley of the notion that life is a problem to be solved, and happiness awaits those who do it:

“Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated,” says Taggart. “We articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.”

Taggart seems to preform a sort of CBT on CEOs. This article also features the term successnik when talking about the Silicon Valley execs. What a gem.

But wait, maybe we have the secret sauce after all?

Harvard/MassGen “psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest” Robert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard…

Now, before we get all excited, it is an observational study of a small-ish bunch of Boston men, so go easy on the extrapolation. But here is the said sauce:

“So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

I asked a similar question of Dr John McBurney – and his answer was community as well. Other research points out that when it comes to relationships, the absence of the negative is far more important than any grand gestures or unbelievable highs in determining whether these relationships will last.

successniks of silicon valley learn philosophy

Given that for millions of years our very survival has been predicated on our tribe much more so than on our personal achievements, it makes sense that we weight it so highly. Evolution carved us out for survival and not for happiness.

So perhaps, somewhere between the first and second step of the Maslow pyramid (that is physiological needs and safety), we’ve been missing community. In today’s society we can pay for the fulfilment of both of those – and that’s where most people are stuck.

Why do people want to be successful? Because it solidly ticks off the bottom two steps of the pyramid. If you are more cynical, let me phrase it this way: hedonism is step one, narcissism is step two.

Maybe the hack is in the fact that having a community provides both physiological and safety cover. Furthermore, unlike money in an of itself, it also let’s us into the higher up steps of the pyramid. I am calling it a “hack” because few people consciously feel community is that important.

Why don’t more people invest into community?

1. “I want to be special”

Blending in with a community is no fun. If you didn’t figure it out on your own, is it worth the same to you? All the cool guys seem to have done it one their own. We know that’s not true, of course.

However, it is hard to have a lot of impact if all you ever do is comply with the unspoken traditions of your community. So in a sense, it does prevent personal accomplishment. It’s important to clarify that you can’t make do with any sort of community: it has to be supportive. A conflicted community (or family) is probably more harmful than being alone based on what Dr Waldinger discussed.

2. “You can’t trust no one”

Indeed, communities do have a way of ostracising people – and generally being poisonous when things aren’t going well. All of a sudden your neighbour of yesterday is making a business out of your misery. We have all heard the stories from wars and famines that illustrate people’s disregard for the life of another in extreme circumstances.

This fact doesn’t stand alone of course. We’ve also all heard stories of altruistic sacrifices around those same wars and famines. And – what if you had been working in an individualistic rather than a community-centred manner: this isn’t a guarantee either because you’ve invested into things that may not have any value in extreme circumstances.

In the extreme, banks collapse, property gets nationalised, political regimes choose new heroes and scape goats… Less extremely, industries rise and fall, changing laws and regulations present new challenges.

If you want to be pragmatic about it, think of community as a diversification strategy. It seems that trusting your own accomplishments over trusting the community is a false path to success – whatever for you feel you need it.

harvard happiness stud role of community