Inner Critic Incarnate: 6 Lessons From Negative Reviews (Hint: They Don’t Kill You!)

It was early 2009 and I felt like my book was being suffocated by fear. Scratch that — I was actively suffocating my book WITH my fears. They had the Microsoft Word file in a choke hold for almost six months and they weren’t letting up.

I remember going for one of my weekly walks with my dad and I told him I thought my book was crap. A pile of meaningless clichés. He swiftly corrected me, saying that even if I didn’t finish it — even if I published it that very day — it would help people. And that I would be crazy to give up on it. At the time, about five percent of me knew he was right. So I clung to that five percent like my life depended on it.

My fears around putting my ideas out to the world seemed insurmountable. Somehow they ballooned in my mind to an alternate reality universe where as soon as my book hit the shelves, people would start pointing and laughing at me, calling me a motivational hack who didn’t know anything and who had no right to write a book.

Inner Critic Incarnate

Much to my amazement and delight, when my book finally did come out in March of last year it was celebrated by friends, family and all of you, and strangers started to hear about it too. Glowing reviews poured in on Amazon, and the next year Target picked up 15,000 copies for their stores.

I’m also proud to report that I am now earning royalties, which many books never do. My first $10 check came in last month and I couldn’t be more proud. I had the honor of being the closing keynote at Find Your Passion conference at Pratt this past weekend, and was overjoyed to meet several readers who said the book really helped them through a tough time.

I’ve had a few throw-tomatoes-at-me reviews, but thankfully not many.

The other day another one-star review came in . . . and it bore an UNCANNY resemblance to the very same negative reviews I was giving myself during the great writer’s block of 2009.

Many people would probably advise me not to give it the time of day by airing it out on the blog — but this one taught me some important lessons that I would be remiss not to share.

First, for your (re)viewing pleasure:

If you’ve never thought about anything ever this book is for you
I got 300 pages of what seemed like listening to a complete moron talk about how stupid they are (my interpretation). Seriously, 90% of the advice this woman gives is completely laughable as I would expect anyone who’s made it through college to already know these things. Her advice on dating and relationships are embarrassingly naive; they sound like a self-important 14 year old girl talking to her 8 year old sister about love. Please. What’s more, it’s shocking someone with so many problems is a life coach. This woman is crazy, like the type of person you just try to have little to nothing to do with because of her stability issues (I wouldn’t be surprised if she lies crying on the ground for hours after reading this review).

The idea of a review like this TERRIFIED me back then.

But imagine — if I had walked away from my book just to avoid a review like this — nobody would have read it. No one would have benefitted. For every one review like this, there are 20+ emails or interactions that share what a positive impact the book did have in someone’s life. And you know what? This reviewer has EVERY right to hate my book! I will be the first to tell you that it’s not for everyone.

If I had shut myself down because of fear, I would have given away all of my power. I would have never finished (or even started) my book. I would have caved to cowardice.

I would have said that a future negative reviewer’s opinion of me is more important than my own. And I am better than that. We all are.

I’m not here to rip this reviewer apart. I appreciate him more than he probably realizes. Nor am I crying in a ball on the floor (though I will say it stung). I am actually celebrating.

Here’s why . . .

6 Things I’ve Learned From Negative Reviews:

  1. They show that you’ve DONE something. You’ve created something. You’ve pushed through your fear to ship something that matters to you.
  2. Your work has spread to a wide enough audience to get real, honest feedback from people who aren’t on your payroll (friends, family, people who love us no matter what).
  3. Negative reviews will come in, but guess what? THEY DON’T KILL YOU! Shocking, right? Our inner critics would have us believe the world will come crashing down, but it doesn’t. They might sting, but that’s it. It’s no gaping wound.
  4. It’s an opportunity to re-examine what you DO like about your work AND what you don’t. The review can’t hurt unless you agree with it on some level. Use that information to make your work better next time. Is there anything you would do differently?
  5. Negative reviews are a sign that you’ve done something different enough to piss someone off. Points for creativity!
  6. I am LUCKY to have the “champagne problem” of a few negative reviews. Of reviews at all! I am very grateful my work is out there, and that it has garnered as much interest and support as it has.

So, I’d like to say thank you to the people who have taken the time to give me a review at all. To read my work and care about it enough to talk about it to others; out of 108 reviews, 4 one-stars ‘aint bad.

If we spend our lives just avoiding criticism, then we’re not living much at all.

As one of my former Google colleagues David Kim often reminded me, “Don’t let compliments go to your head, or let criticism get to your heart.”

I’d love to hear from you in the comments: how do you handle negative reviews?
Anything I missed in terms of what we can learn from them?

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