I have a new outlook on criticism, which I attribute to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his amazing, must-read (thrice, if you’re like me) new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. As you can easily guess if you’re familiar with my writing, I look on the subtractive side of life: simplicity, elegance, emergent self-organization, and the power of what isn’t there. So naturally I would like this book. Plus, Nassim and I share an alma mater (we received our M.B.A.’s from Wharton).
One of the things authors and artists (who, incidentally, are indeed antifragile in the eyes of Nassim) must constantly live with is criticism. You pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, put it out to the universe in an effort to make the world a better place, and in a few hundred words a critic somewhere shreds it dust. It’s painful.
But that’s because we’re looking at it the wrong way. As a matter of fact, if everyone nods their head in agreement with what you write, you become inconsequential, a shoulder shrug, and your objective of positively impacting the world never gets realized. An idea is only worth something if it causes a change in attitude, thinking or behavior. And human beings do not like to do either, and we by nature resist it. So criticism is an indication of changing minds.
That’s why I’m happy, albeit in retrospect owing to my previously unenlightenedness, that London’s The Financial Times criticized The Laws of Subtraction in rather harsh terms. (You can read the review here, but know that they’ll ask you to register.) The fact that they bothered to spend their energy in a critical review at all is rather heartening. And a funny thing happened: I got more comments and emails from people than from all the other positive reviews combined. An Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer went so far as to email me a message that had me rolling on the floor: “They are allergic to paradox. They confuse intellectual masturbation with critical analysis.”
It goes to Law of Subtraction #1: What Isn’t There Can Often Trump What Is. What wasn’t there in the review? Positive, glowing words of praise. And, sales spiked.
Nassim says it best in Antifragile:
Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book. Consider the Ayn Rand phenomenon: her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have been read for more than half a century by millions of people, in spite of, or most likely thanks to, brutally nasty reviews and attempts to discredit her. The first-order information is the intensity: what matters is the effort the critic puts into trying to prevent others from reading the book, or, more generally in life, it is the effort in badmouthing someone that matters, not so much what is said. So if you really want people to read a book, tell them it is “overrated,” with a sense of outrage (and use the attribute “underrated” for the opposite effect).
In a recent Tweet, he summed it up Twitter-style: ANTIFRAGILE = to benefit from smear. As an independent owner of a small business, a writer of several books, and the recipient of noteworthy critique, I hereby declare myself antifragile.