Why Achievers Are Often Criticised


By Jas Singh

Last week I was at the offices at one of my clients who is a fast growing start-up providing technology systems to the energy sector. They have a unique product which has revolutionised their industry and revenue has been growing by over five times annually the last 3 years. In their CTO’s office, I saw the following quote, beautifully presented in a frame above his desk:

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing”

It really hit me hard. I found out afterwards it was by Aristotle. And it got me thinking about all the successful people I have been lucky enough to work with over the years.

Is taking criticism a precursor for massive achievement?

Why we avoid criticism

All human beings dislike being criticised and most of us generally avoid it all costs. In Napoleon Hill’s famous book “Think and Grow Rich“, analysis of over 25,000 people discovered that after the fear of poverty, the fear of being criticised is the most common of all human fears – even more than the fear of dying!

It’s all to do with our social nature. Over the history of the earth, the main reason for the human races success has been our ability to stick together. It’s a deep rooted human trait and social acceptance is essential for us. Studies have even shown than criticism can cause so much stress that it raises our cortisol levels and damages our health.

Why we criticise

So if criticism is so damaging (and most of us logically know this) why do we criticise others? The answer is simple – it makes us feel better.

Every one of us has a need to feel important. One of the easiest ways to do this is to put others down – it immediately makes us feel powerful, especially the more they react.

Top of the list of people who are criticised are the the innovators. The people who develop revolutionary ideas and challenge the status quo. Human beings don’t like change – most of us associate it with uncertainty rather than opportunity and it freaks us out. Over the industrial age, efficiency has made us lazy – once we are used to buying certain products or using certain systems we are reluctant to change. According to Geoffrey Moore’s famous book “Crossing the Chasm” only 13% of the human population are “early adopters”.

The rest of us believe it or not are pretty cynical.

Even if the new idea is groundbreaking and obvious, the easiest thing for us to do it to criticise.


History is littered with super achievers who were consistenly criticised throughout their career:

– Henry Ford was regularly mocked by reputable establishments when they first heard about his idea for the first motor car. No-one believed it would replace the horse and the buggy.

– The Wright brothers were condemned for trying to take on more experienced and financially backed parties such as Samuel Pierpont Langley in the race for the first manned air flight. There achievements were even criticised post completion with many of the European papers nicknaming them the “bluffers”.

– And who can forget Steve Ballmer’s famous quotes when first Apple released the iPhone! Not only did he mention that it was way too expensive but also that it “wouldn’t appeal to business customers because it didn’t have a keyboard”. Errr..not quite.


Dreamers change the world. But usually any big idea is met with resistance and heavy criticism.

Hiring managers should always examine criticism in more detail to see what were the exact reasons for criticism – often it can uncover possibilities and people who can be used in a much more constructive way. Especially when examining references, rather than dismissing “negative” references quickly.

The safest way to avoid criticism is to sit on the fence – simply to say, be and do nothing. Hardly inspiring.

Next time your hiring, how will you look at criticism?

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