“I criticize by creation – not by finding fault.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
In a college introductory philosophy course, my professor stood before the class and displayed the following words on the projection screen: “The Ontological Argument by St. Anselm.” Then he spent the next two class periods carefully elucidating an 11th century theologian’s reasoning process about the existence of God. The presentation was quite abstract, but eventually the other students and I began to understand and appreciate the intricacies of St. Anselm’s proof.
On the third day of class, the professor, taking no more than five minutes, pointed out several flaws and logical fallacies in St. Anselm’s argument. In the same amount of time it would have taken me to run to the bathroom and back, he managed to confidently refute a philosophical position that he spent two class sessions trying to explain. His surprising final remarks: Even though I completely disagree with St. Anselm’s conclusion, it remains one of the most brilliant pieces of work I’ve ever analyzed.
Befuddled, I asked, “but how can you say that about something you refuted in five minutes?” He replied, “My job was easy. I only had to find the errors. It takes more time, creativity, and intellectual sophistication to build a new idea from scratch than it does to just tear it down. In introduction to philosophy classes 20 years from now, they won’t be discussing my disagreements with St. Anselm. They’ll be discussing St. Anselm.
In Give it Five Minutes, Jason Fried cautions would-be creators against the all too common tendency to overestimate the value of being able to point out the shortcomings in someone else’s ideas or efforts:
There are two things in this world that take no skill: 1. Spending other people’s money and 2. Dismissing an idea.
Dismissing an idea is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. You can puff some smoke at it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is protect it, think about it, let it marinate, explore it, riff on it, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.
So next time you hear something, or someone, talk about an idea, pitch an idea, or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or it’s too much work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.
Critics get to look smart, but creators get to experience the personal growth, intellectual development, and psychological satisfaction that comes with the risk of trying to build something original or unique. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines while bemoaning the incompetence or imperfection of those who fall prey to fallacy and error, but you can’t create a sustainable and constructive legacy solely by being the person who tears down other people’s work. That privilege is reserved for the builders.
Being able to identify discrepancies, inconsistencies, and mistakes is a necessary condition for progress, but it’s not a sufficient condition until it’s mingled with the ability to parlay the detection of error into the production of value. Criticism is a supplement, not a substitute, for creativity. If something really matters to you, you won’t just pick apart the methodologies and arguments of those who get it wrong. You’ll take things a step further by figuring out ways to get proactively involved in the making of better alternatives.
You can’t criticize a legacy into existence nor can you complain the world into a state of cooperation. If you’re truly irritated by all the things that are wrong with this world, don’t let yourself off the hook by limiting your existence to tearing down the work others. Find what matters most to you and start building it.