I want to return once again to President Obama's answers to questions from the young people at his My Brother's Keeper town hall. These were some of the most fascinating exchanges I've seen with the President. He opened his own processes up in a way that he's rarely done before. From my own personal experience, that's what mentoring is all about. So perhaps it should come as no surprise given the context.
There was a second half to President Obama's response to the question about how he deals with the judgement of others.
But I do think that one of the things, as you grow up you start trying to figure out, is who gives you constructive criticism because they’re invested in the same things you are but maybe can see some things you can’t, versus folks who are just -- what did somebody say -- hating, somebody just hating, just haters -- I won’t go there, but -- (laughter) -- but people who maybe are providing less constructive criticism where I can’t really use it because no matter what I do, there may be something else that they’re criticizing. The object of it is not to advance a goal.The President laid out a three-pronged approach to determining whether or not someone is providing constructive criticism:
And so one thing you should learn is if somebody is being constructive in their criticism, usually they’re not criticizing you, they’re criticizing your actions and what you do, and are giving you something specific. So if a coach is coaching Chris and just says, you’re a buster, you can’t play -- that’s not constructive criticism. If they say, Chris, right now you’re dribbling too much and you need to move the ball around because then five guys are going to touch it and we’ll have more motion -- that becomes constructive criticism.
Well, that’s true in your lives as well. So you can usually tell -- if somebody is being constructive, they’re telling you something specific that you can change, that you can test to see if it’s going to make things better. And if they can’t, if all they’re saying is you’re not worth nothing, then that’s probably not something that you want to pay a lot of attention to.
- Does it advance a common goal?
- Is it a criticism of what you do or who you are?
- Does it include a suggestion for how to improve?
There are times the President's critics on the left share common goals with him. When they're not busy calling him a "war criminal" or a "stooge of Wall Street," they might even focus their criticism on what he's actually done. But the conversation almost never reaches the stage of a real discussion about alternatives. For example, you're not ever likely to hear Glenn Greenwald outline his ideas on a response to al Qaeda or the proper role of spying in a democracy. As long as the critique doesn't include a suggestion for how to improve, its "not something that you want to pay a lot of attention to."
Having watched the President pretty closely for about 6 years, I'd suggest that he has built up a strong enough sense of personal identity that he honestly doesn't let those critiques sink in. Of course he "hears" them, but he doesn't take them personally or give them any agency. Its why he can stay so calm/cool/thoughtful in the face of attacks from both sides. Its also how he avoids getting defensive and is able to maintain a focus on his North Star.
That is something for all of us - not just the young people he was addressing - to aspire to.