One night I was doing an appearance in a town where this column runs. A woman waited in line to speak to me and brought a clipping of that week’s column for me to sign.
She handed me the newspaper clipping and said, “You made a mistake.” She pointed to it and said, “You used the wrong word.”
I don’t recall exactly what it was — I can’t keep up with all my mistakes — but it was something simple like using “were” instead of “would.” Nonetheless, it was a mistake that neither I nor the editor had caught. The woman refused to give me any grace about it, to the point that other people began to bristle and defend me. I just shrugged it off.
A long time ago when I found myself in a public forum, where all my mistakes and vulnerabilities as well as my strengths are exposed, I decided that I would profit none by believing neither the praise nor the criticism of strangers. If you embrace the gushing flattery of those who adore you, then the same must be done with those who detest you. It can really throw off your balance and self-worth. It is important to know who you are — faults and attributes — and stay true to that.
Still, I learn from my critics and admirers because both play a crucial role in whatever I achieve. The critics inspire me. The supporters encourage me.
Recently, a friend in the newspaper business shared a letter from a reader that bitingly reprimanded a reporter for her grammar. The critic concluded the letter with something like “any fourth-grader should be able to help.” The editor had responded graciously, citing the stress of the newsroom with fewer reporters and crunching deadlines. He was kind in the face of unkindness.
I shared with him a bit of wisdom that I have acquired over the years.
“I have learned that only people who hover in safe places criticize boldly and unnecessarily. The risk-takers never do. They realize that risk-taking is filled with mistakes. They look to the mistakes their own risks created and that enables them to cut a wide swath for others who step boldly.”
Failing in the privacy of your own home where no one sees it is completely different from stepping out and making a mistake where millions can condemn or find fault. Extraordinary success comes only when extraordinary risk is taken. Many will criticize the politician, the public figure or the preacher, yet those who find fault would never exchange places and take those arrows of unkindness.
My friend Richard Childress is a strong admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. A few years ago, I gave him a framed poster of my favorite Roosevelt quote. I’ll share it now, knowing that a clipping of this column will find its way onto refrigerators and into family Bibles:
“It’s not the critic that counts: the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is really in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, and sweat, and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually strives to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who, at worse, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who never know neither victory nor defeat.”
Maybe it’s the cynic in me but, somehow, I’m sure someone had something critical to say about that, too.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.