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Become Your Own Harshest Critic

There is a chronic avoidance of resistance and discomfort that plagues our culture. We give everyone a trophy because it's easier than seeing anyone get upset. We take Advil at the first sign of physical discomfort. We text people instead of having difficult conversations in person.

Voluntarily doing anything uncomfortable like waking up early or even walking to the grocery store is labeled as "crazy". People ask "why would you do that?" or "why are you making things so hard on yourself?".

If we're not careful, these common scripts can lead us away from the value of difficult work. Our brains can rationalize just about anything, but the rationalizations can be used to our benefit or detriment. It's just as easy to rationalize taking off early on Friday because you worked hard all week as it is to rationalize working an extra hour because you know you're capable of doing more.

The process of improvement hinges on critical feedback. We take action, receive feedback, and make adjustments creating a continuous cycle of improvement. Without objective feedback, we have nothing to drive the adjustment of our actions, so we continue doing the same thing.

Because our environment has become averse to discomfort and resistance, the external feedback we receive is positive and encouraging. It's easier to tell someone they're doing a great job than it is to tell them they could do better. It feels good to give people positive feedback, so that's what we do regardless of the quality of someone's work.

Critical feedback fuels continuous improvement. But we can't get constructive feedback from external sources, so we need to become our own harshest critics to provide the feedback that inspires growth.

External Feedback

In the cycle of continuous improvement, constructive feedback is the catalyst for growth. Feedback can come from others or it can come from ourselves. Often we seek feedback because we have a biased view of our own work, but external feedback has become just as biased.

Most of us hate confrontation and avoid uncomfortable situations, so when we give feedback to others on their work, we take the easy way out and tell them how great it is regardless of the quality. It's harder to provide critical feedback than it is to provide praise. We have to keep this in mind when we're receiving feedback from others.

This is why a lot of people work with coaches. They find someone who can constantly provide constructive feedback regardless of how great the work is. With a steady flow of actionable criticisms, regular adjustments can be made and every new action is a bit better than the last.

Unfortunately, most people will not provide the same valuable feedback that a coach will, so we can't rely on external feedback to inform adjustments in the pursuit of improvement. Most people will tell us what we want to hear or pick out the best parts of our work to praise, but to make consistent improvements we need to focus on where we can do better.

Another reliable way to get a steady stream of actionable insight is to provide it yourself.

Internal Feedback

Andrew Huberman, a renowned neurobiologist, said "Self-criticism is the gateway to high performance".

Many of the highest performing people in the world are the most demanding not only of others but especially for themselves. They hold themselves to a higher standard than everyone else and no matter how impressive the accomplishment or how great their work is, they focus on what could have been better.

Our brains can rationalize that our current results are good enough after all of the great work that we've done, but it serves us much better to train our brains to do the opposite.

We need to constantly demand more from ourselves. Instead of using positive outcomes to justify taking our foot off the gas, we need to focus on how we can do better next time.

Our personal standards drive our results. If we continually raise our standards, it will pull our results to a higher level of performance. If our results exceed our personal standards, we'll regress back to an acceptable level of performance.

The best in the world are never satisfied with the quality of their work. They are proud of it and pause to appreciate it, but they know they can do better and constantly raise their standards. As they continue to raise their personal standards, they continue to improve their results even when the entire world is praising them.

Maintaining Balance

While being our own harshest critic will drive constant improvement, it can discourage us if left unchecked. Unchecked self-criticism is a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. To balance out constantly asking more of ourselves, we can lean on a weekly practice of gratitude and bragging to even ourselves out.

Gratitude is an excellent counterbalance to the constant drive to achieve more. It's difficult to stay present when we're always focused on what's next and what can be better. Stopping to be grateful for what we already have serves not only to ground us in the present moment, but forces us to appreciate what we've already accomplished. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the little things that we have instead of the big things we're chasing.

Another balancing exercise is bragging. For a few minutes each week, we can flip the script, and instead of looking at how we can do better, we can spend time hyping ourselves up. We can list everything we've accomplished that week and all of the obstacles we had to overcome to get there. Taking a few minutes to become our biggest fan, we can appreciate all of the hard work and impressive results.

After grounding ourselves with gratitude and savoring the opportunity to bask in our accomplishments, we can get back to thinking about how to do even more next week.

Moving Forward

Growth is a simple concept. If we become a bit better each day, we've mastered the art of continuous improvement.

To become a bit better, we need to take action, receive constructive feedback, make adjustments and start the process over again. Each iteration through this cycle leads to better results, but without constructive feedback, it falls apart.

External feedback is skewed overwhelmingly positive because most people avoid the discomfort of sharing critical feedback. We need to become our own harshest critics to supply the critical feedback we need to constantly improve.

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