Paul Arden: “do not seek praise, seek criticism”

One of my friends recently got one of the best birthday gifts an ambitious guy can get: the modern self-help classic It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by former creative director for Saatchi and Saatchi Paul Arden. The marketing maverick died in April, but I think about his common sense lessons on a daily basis.

At first, the book seems kind of cheesy, like most self-help books. Yet as soon as you’ve started reading, it’s what you call a page turner. It will probably take you 30 to 45 minutes of your life to read it and I promise you, some of Arden’s one liners will stick with you a life time.

I for one, always act upon the following statement:

Do not seek praise. Seek criticism. [..] If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?’, you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer.

The creative genius himself, Paul Arden

The first time I read this, I must have been around 19 years old. Now, three years later, I apply it to almost all my work:

  • Three months before BLOG08, the international blog conference in Amsterdam (this Friday), Edial and I organized a dinner for some of Holland’s best bloggers. We presented our plans and asked for their ideas. What followed was 30 minutes verbal fire of criticism, several blog posts with interesting discussions beneath it, and a couple of 500-words emails with tips and ideas. These advices eventually shaped the conference to the gig it is right now. For instance, we’ve added interactivity sessions.
  • I’m writing a Dutch ebook about blogging for people from the creative industry. But before I publish a definite version, I ask my readers and Twitter contacts to review excerpts of the chapters. Just like the Wired editors do. The criticism of commenters will definitely make the book more valuable for future readers. At least it will represent more than just my opinion.

Although receiving compliments is far more satisfying in a superficial kind of way, I learned to value criticism more. Most of the times, it improves my work and when I don’t agree, I can always reject it.

Only take advice from people who have done great things

So before I finish this post, I’ll have to ask what you think of my personal mantra? Do you agree? Or do you think it might be dangerous to follow the criticism of just anybody? During The Do Lectures, Four Hour Work Week author Timothy Ferriss said he believes that one should only take advice from people who have done great things themselves. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this.

Author: Ernst-Jan Pfauth

Ernst-Jan Pfauth is mede-oprichter en uitgever van De Correspondent. Hij is geobsedeerd door innovatie in media en journalistiek. Daar schrijft hij elke zaterdagmorgen een nieuwsbrief over, waar ruim 2.400 vakgenoten op geabonneerd zijn.

11 thoughts on “Paul Arden: “do not seek praise, seek criticism””

  1. My mantra is trying to learn from every single human being. Everyone has done great things. Everyone. In their own way, they’ve done things you’ve never dreamt of doing. Nobody’s boring. Although it can seem to be when you first meet them. But everyone has an outside and an inside.

    So if you only take advice from people who have done great things from your own perspective, you’ll become more and more narrow minded in life. Because when you always value ‘great things’ from your own point of view, you’ll never get out of the box.

  2. You know when the advice is good because it speaks to a part of yourself that is vaguely aware there was a problem. I depend on feedback too, and the line: “How can I make it better?” is neat. People can often tell you if there is a hitch but rarely the solution. However if anyone has a problem with my writing, I have to listen: “Responsibility for communication lies with the communicator”. In other words, it’s my problem – not their fault for not understanding!

  3. I was lucky enough to have Paul as a boss for 7-8 years. He wasn’t always easy. But you either had to accept that or not. He always wanted to be better. So to improve he taught you how to forget the ego that always wants praise. And instead to be open to improvement by listening to feedback.

    I was also lucky enough to have helped start the Do Lectures. And I think Tim’s point about only taking advice from those who have done the great things is just common sense.

    Learn from those who have done it. Or are busy doing it.

    I was lucky to have learnt from Paul.

    He was a great school.

  4. wow guys, thanks for the great comments!

    @Peter I absolutely agree with your first paragraph. Though sometimes it’s a challenge to discover this with some people. Your second statement sounds reasonable, but when I think about it: I met a guy Friday who rowed the ocean. Though I would never try that, don’t fancy rowing at all and I’m not particularly sportive – I would take an advice from him as he has done something great. But he’s not at all in my tunnel vision of bloggers and journalists.

    @Elisabeth trusting your instinct is indeed very important. Though Paul Arden wrote a second book, saying: whatever you think, do the opposite.
    That challenges your thoughts about intuition ;-)

    @David, I’m really glad you stumbled upon this post. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. The Do Lectures got me really inspired, I’d love to be there next year.

    What do you think about Peter Evers’s comment? He basically says you can learn from anybody, but you think you have to learn from those who have done it. Or are busy doing it.

  5. I simply can’t disagree with you, Peter. Being a journalist I would make myself deaf and blind if I’ld only listen to people who have done great things. It simply wouldn’t work: my public is the crowd, not (only) the expert. And don’t forget that anybody that doens’t know a lot about something has the advantage to ask questions out of the blue. Their like kids which are always asking: why is this, why is that?

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