Last month someone said I was negative, overly critical, mean spirited, sarcastic and only wanted to throw stones. They said it like that was a bad thing.
Well, I don’t feel like I’m all those things, but then I bet Moammar Gadafi thinks of himself mostly as a cheerful grandpa and petunia gardener too. Hitler was a fabulous whistler; he could whistle whole symphonies. I bet he considered himself a misunderstood musician with an unusual day job. Perhaps I, too, need to step back and re evaluate my self image as a “good person.” Maybe I really am only one petunia bed away from being a mass murderer.
I’m often critical of myself. I can’t stand to listen to recordings of me singing, for example. All I hear is mistakes. I won’t let anyone read one of my first drafts, because they stink. I’m constantly trying to notice what’s wrong with my writing or music so I can fix it. That’s how I improve.
I apply the same standards to the people I’m working with on a joint task. When I was in a music group that featured lots of harmony, I became notorious for this. I didn’t have the best voice, nor was I the best musician. But I could tell when a chord wasn’t harmonizing correctly. I’d point it out, we’d try to figure out why and fix it. When we were done, we sounded better. The others teased me for being critical, but they also appreciated that it’s why we developed a following. When people give me a manuscript to critique, I treat it as if it were my own. That is, I look for what can be improved, not what’s already excellent. I notice people almost never ask me to look at a second manuscript.
I probably developed this trait as a young man doing commercial real estate. Details equated with money and the folks on the other side of the table always hoped you didn’t notice what was “wrong” with a contract. Once, a lawyer asked me, under oath, what I had done with the specific proceeds of a sale. I said I paid it to the bank. Later, he demonstrated that I had actually deposited the “specific proceeds” into my checking account and then written the bank a check for that amount. No difference in my mind, but the words “specific proceeds” have a legal meaning I didn’t understand. Everyone agreed I had paid all the money to the bank, but it didn’t matter. That detail cost me twelve grand. Somehow, we seem to remember expensive lessons. I watched friends lose their homes because they used the phrase “assumes and agrees to pay” rather than the phrase “subject to.” Once, I convinced a judge that my definition of the word “hardship” in a certain situation was superior to the definition adopted by the State of Colorado and its team of high powered attorneys. Doing so saved my “team” over a hundred thousand dollars.
On the other hand, I’m not very critical of most things. My wife has been harping on me for 40 years to pay attention to the way I look. She often says, in exasperation, “Kenn, you HAVE to look at yourself in a mirror before you go out the door.” I’m not at all critical about the rolling junkyards that I drive, or the rats’ nest of trash within them. My office is not navigable without a map. My back yard always looks in need of a Superfund reclamation grant. If I paint a wall and a few splatters get onto the carpet, I’m willing to overlook that in the spirit of being a positive person. Nor do I feel critical of my friends. I recognize that this one talks too much, that one never accomplishes anything, the other one sabotages himself at every turn– but I don’t really care. It’s just how they are and they have other admirable qualities. I don’t try to fix them, I’m just happy to know them. I accept other people’s music even if I’d do it differently.
I’m overtly optimistic when facing tasks. Of course I will finish writing the book; of course we’ll refinance the property; of course we’ll have a nice crop of tomatoes. And even, yes, sure, I’ll get my office cleaned up. But maybe not today. Where I’m negative is when looking at a project I’m working on and trying to decide if it’s “good enough.” Is this the best language for the job? The best chord for the song? Are there any hidden problems with this contract the way it’s written? What could possibly go wrong? What’s the worst case scenario and how do we avoid it?
I think we need to be optimistic about goals, but pessimistic during the process of getting to them. Of course I’ll finish writing the book. But what’s wrong with this paragraph right here? How can I fix that? I think people tend to get this backward. They feel, deep inside, that some goal isn’t attainable. Without that optimism, you can’t get anything done. On the other hand, insisting that you (or the people you’re working with) feel positive about each step of the process means that you can’t improve.
Which means you’re a lot less likely to attain the goal.