Each week, I receive an avalanche of emails reacting to this column. While some agree with me, a good number disagree, some quiet strongly. This comes with the territory.
I often find myself directly in the line of fire, having to deal with harsh criticism and sometimes personal attacks. But this is what makes a columnist. We writers are a stoic folk, tough as they come, made of thick skin and an endurance that lasts a lifetime.
We take criticism — constructive or otherwise — with courage, stoicism and fortitude. Criticism is the juice that flows in our toughened veins when we retreat to our creative, introverted caves. It is every writer’s nightmare to write and have nobody critique, criticise or react to their work. It means that nobody read.
In the close to four years I have been running this column, there are few slurs under the sun that have not come my way. As a result, I believe I am qualified to advise you on how to handle criticism. Few columnists have borne the kind of criticism that I have faced over the past few years. I will admit that initially, the criticism got to my heart.
Nothing prepared me for the mental strength and emotional stamina required to run a weekly, somewhat controversial column. At first, the brickbats made me doubt myself and my writing ability. I spent quite a number of sleepless nights contemplating whether to give it all up and just walk away. However, the stubborn fighter in me did not allow me to give up.
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I began to ask and answer a difficult and fundamental question about myself. “Who is Njoki Chege?” The day I learnt not to define myself, my talents and my future by what the critics said about me is the day I was set free and my life truly began.
People criticise you for different reasons. Frankly, some are just jealous. Others are resentful because your success highlights their inadequacies.
Others are bitter that you took a short time to achieve what many take years to achieve.
But I have this to say to the young people; some will criticise you because you represent something they no longer have — youth and energy. Others will criticise you because of the institution you represent, while others will criticise you simply because they are disillusioned.
Most criticism comes from a place of insecurity and a deep sense of inadequacy. The bugging question most critics are battling with is “Why her/him and not me?”
Lastly, some will criticise you because truly and honestly, you need to pull up your socks. Criticism always has a layer of truth, which is why you will ignore criticism at your own peril.
When all is said and done, critics make us better. They build us and make us stronger than we ever thought we would be. Critics may aim to discourage you, but if you took the aspect that you need and leave out that which you do not, criticism actually propels you to the next level of achievement.
My advice in dealing with criticism is quite simple; if people criticise you, it means you have drawn some level of attention; that you are important enough for them to talk about.
In this life, you are either the one being talked about or the one doing the talking. You choose. Take the meat and leave the bones. Process what you think is helpful but never make the mistake of internalising the bitterness. It will destroy your soul.
Critics might knock you down, but chin up after you are done crying. Never allow critics to define you. It is a dangerous path to let people project their shortcomings and bitterness on you and to live under the shadow of people’s skewed perceptions of you.
Finally, be gracious to your critics. Don’t try to be a smart mouth and answering them back. I realised the only way to silence your critics is by doing better, taking on bigger challenges.
To be honest, I would never have been so ambitious were it not for the drive to prove my critics wrong. It is more profound to prove wrong those who underestimated you than to disappoint those who overestimated you.
There you go. Take criticism like a stoic columnist. Get over your heartbreak, get busy and prove them wrong.