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Posted almost 7 years ago

It's Not The Critic Who Counts: Handling Criticism of Your Business

There you are: two days ago, you sent out your first batch of marketing letters, to 200 property owners in your city. Today, the phone rang; you were so nervous, you let it go to voicemail.  You listen to the message later and find it's a person politely asking you to take them off your list. Bummer, but no problem, you think to yourself.  When the phone rings next, you build up your courage and grab it on the third ring. On the line, you find a seller who *might* be interested in selling and is willing to chat with you--you're pumped! 

Soon, the phone rings again. You pick it right up, and then it happens.  The person on the other end of the line has come absolutely unglued.  They can't believe you'd have the nerve to send them this letter.  If their house was for sale, there'd be a sign in the front yard, jerk.  You're just like all the rest of them--a lowlife trying to scam people and steal properties for pennies on the dollar.  You should be ashamed of yourself.

You put the phone down, and you're shaking--literally. Running through your veins is an odd cocktail of adrenaline, anger, sadness and confusion. You kind of want to cry. You kind of want to call them back and ask them sarcastically if they verbally assault Pizza Hut every time they send out coupons.  And finally--and most dangerously--you kind of want to quit. 

This, my friends, is entrepreneurship--welcome to the most important first inflection point of your young entrepreneurial career.  This is your moment: are you going to be able to withstand the beginning of a constant onslaught of criticism, doubt and skepticism? Or are you going to throw in the towel? Because I can assure you, this is NOT a one-time occurrence.  This is reality in the world of blazing your own path, of going against the mainstream way of living, and of pursuing what you want in life.  

It Is Not The Critic Who Counts

Theodore Roosevelt once delivered a speech called "The Man In The Arena," in which he dropped some of the absolute most insightful, comforting and encouraging words I have ever heard--I think of them weekly if not more often:  

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Boy, do I love that quote. 

Criticism Comes In Many Forms and Many Contexts

I wish I could tell you that a once-year angry seller phone call is all you need to learn to handle.  But the truth is you need to get your mind right and your callouses developed, because the headwinds of ongoing criticism will find their way into your world in many ways, and will present themselves in many different packages.  Here are a few I've experienced in my entrepreneurial career.  

  • People Implying That What You're Doing Is Unethical:  When you're leading an entrepreneurial life, and especially when you are buying real estate outside the mainstream channels (i.e. you're marketing directly to sellers, buying off-market, doing creative financing, etc.), people will assert that what you're doing is wrong, unethical...even illegal.  
  • People Telling You Your Business Model is Shady:  I've had bankers look at my debt structures on properties, review my promissory notes with sellers, and tell me that what I'm doing is just too sketchy for their comfort zone, and they won't lend me money.
  • People Assume You're Just the Same as Someone Else They Had a Bad Experience With:  Just today, a seller emailed me and said that she could only assume that because I sent her a letter, I must be just like the other shady investors she's come into contact with.  
  • People Not Believing Your Intentions Are Genuine:  Once, in my previous business (a branding and marketing agency), we decided to take on a pro-bono client. We put the word out that we were looking for a great cause to support (for free!), and asked non-profits to apply.  I was beside myself with shock when at least one person publicly accused us of running some kind of a scam with ulterior motives. Unbelievable.

The Real Problem With Criticism:  Self-Doubt

So why is criticism a problem? Frankly, it's not a problem in and of itself. Where criticism becomes a problem--potentially a big one--is when it causes self-doubt.  And let me assure you from personal experience, it's very easy for criticism to morph into self-doubt. 

When that banker reviews your loan package and then calls to say "sorry, we're not comfortable with the way you do business," (i.e. "we think you're shady") it's easy to start wondering, "geez, maybe I AM shady?!" That voice in your head--the one we all have--starts to take over.  It tells you there's probably a good reason why what you're doing is not mainstream--because it's wrong or unethical.  It reminds you how good it feels to be liked, and how bad it feels to be questioned.  It makes you feel dirty, ashamed and embarrassed. In short, it makes you consider quitting.  

How To Handle the Inevitable Criticism, and Squash Self-Doubt 

If you are going to live an entrepreneurial life, try to buy real estate, and make your own way in the world, it's not a matter of "if" you will face criticism and self-doubt--it is absolutely, 100% inevitable.  It just comes with the territory. Your goal should not be to try to avoid criticism, but rather to develop your own way of handling it as effectively and as expeditiously as possible.  What matters most is that you learn to take it in stride, don't let it over-affect you, and most importantly stay on your course.  Here are a few tips on how to do this.  

  • Refocus On Your Vision: When I face criticism and self-doubt--or simply when things aren't going as well as I'd like them to--I have to step back and revisit the bigger picture.  I have a very clear vision for the life I want, why I'm doing what I'm doing, and the legacy I want to leave (and I hope you do too...if not, we'll discuss that in a different post!).  When I start to feel doubtful, I step away and find a quiet place. I close my eyes, and I picture my vision.  I visualize myself leading that life, and I feel what it will be like to lead that life, achieve those goals, and have that impact.  In other words, I reconnect with the higher purpose of my work, and I remember that my mission greatly transcends any roadblock I encounter.  
  • Keep Perspective:  I have a tendency to let individual challenges cause me to lose sight of the appropriate context.  When fresh criticism is right in my face, just 5 inches from my nose, it seems like the biggest and most urgent thing in the world to me.  Once I'm able to step away for a little bit, regain a sense of perspective and cool off, I quickly remember that my life is bigger than any one particular challenge I may face.
  • "Impress Yourself":  I have a good buddy who once dropped some insanely insightful knowledge when being interviewed by our mutual mentor.  He said the most important thing you can do is "impress yourself."  I think of this so often; to me, it means asking yourself the question:  "are you living life and conducting yourself by your own code of conduct and your own standards?"  If the answer is yes, then you can rest easily at night knowing you're living up to your own code, regardless of what the critics are saying.  Because that's what matters, after all.  It's a beautifully simply challenge: make sure that every day you impress yourself, and self-doubt will never survive long in your mind.  
  • Focus On Gratitude: When the going gets tough, take some time to revisit all the things in your life that you are thankful for.  It's virtually impossible to stay in a self-doubting funk when you literally--in writing--make of list of everything you're grateful for in your life.  Whether it's your health, your friends, your spouse, your dog, a deal you just got, your team winning the Super Bowl or just a nice evening out, there's always so much to be thankful for.  Focusing on gratitude will help you clear your mind of the residue of criticism and self doubt.
  • Remember That Their Criticism Is More A Reflection of Them Than You:  When you think about it, a critic's harsh words are much more a reflection of their own mindset, views and station in life than yours.  Frankly, many of these people may just be venting because of frustration in their life.  You may likely just be the unlucky target when they need to release their tension.  Their venom is rarely as personal as it seems.  
  • Bonus Tip:  Memorize Roosevelt's Quote. I mean it--literally commit it to memory.  Pull it out when you need a pep talk, and remember:  have you ever walked through a park and seen a statue of a critic?  Nope. The world celebrates the people who actually DO THINGS, not the people who comment and criticize the doers.  

Keep Going

Criticism and the impending self-doubt are inevitabilities when you're leading an entrepreneurial life.  Don't fear it; embrace it.  When people are criticizing you, it usually means you're on the right track; you're doing something worth noticing.  Keep your focus, keep your perspective, and most importantly....KEEP GOING.