Personal  •  July 21, 2015

To Be the Best You Can Be

This morning, I was sitting in a group “worship” of Quakers where precarious personal feelings were shared. It is an environment where judgment and criticism are shunned so that the participants would feel safe to express their deepest, personal feelings. This is by no means unique to Quakers. Even in a corporate brainstorm sessions where people are encouraged to pitch in any ideas — stupid, boring, or brilliant — the same rules apply. Ultimately, it’s not that criticism is bad, but that it induces fear in people, and fear prevents people from opening up. But in most cases, this differentiation is not made, and criticism is perceived as a destructive force. What is actually destructive is fear, not criticism. Without the latter, we as humans cannot grow.

I assure you that I’m not bragging when I say this: I’m driven to be the best I can be. What I mean by “the best I can be” isn’t anywhere near the best in the world, or even the best among the people I know. For instance, I’m obsessed about becoming the best mango cutter that I can be. Every time I cut one, I try to improve upon the last. But this doesn’t mean I’m better than others. In fact, there are people who cut and sell mangos on the street every day, all day long. I observe them every time I see them, and they are clearly better than I am, but that does not discourage me, only inspires me to improve my mango-cutting skills further. Does this simply mean that I have Type A personality? Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a relentless drive, and it’s hard for me to find others who share the same drive. It is the number one factor that makes me feel like a foreigner; the fact that I was born in Japan is a lot lower in that ranking.

When I was in art school studying fine arts, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by others who shared my drive. Most people were committed to be the best they can be, so they intuitively understood that their feelings would have to be hurt in that pursuit. Some students ran out of classrooms because the teachers or other students said something about their artworks that hurt their feelings. In an ordinary environment, the person who hurt their feelings would be reprimanded, labeled as an asshole. But my school was different; nobody was apologetic for hurting someone’s feelings, because they were committed to be the best they can be. Someone who hurts your feelings is not an enemy but a friend. I find refuge in this type of community.

In one episode of “Girls”, Jessa is forced to participate in a group counseling session in her drug rehab. She spells out what she believes to be the truth: Another member in the group is a closet lesbian. Everyone in the group is outraged by her behavior and one of them says she no longer feels “safe” in the group. I wonder: “Safe” from what? Safe from truth, is what it is, although these people would never admit it. What if Jessa was wrong? It doesn’t matter; the fact that she believed it to be true is a valuable piece of information if learning something about oneself is the goal. Why do the conventional world condemn this type of behavior? Why doesn’t it condemn the attempt to shoot the messenger instead?

You can probably sense the bitterness in my tone. Yes, I feel bitter because all my life I’ve been oppressed by this tyranny of feelings. The only reason why most people can get away with this tyranny is because they are the majority in this world. I call it “tyranny” because those who put feelings above reason are not neutral; they judge and condemn those who put reason above feelings, like they did in the scene from Girls.

If any criticism, observation or opinion happens to hurt someone’s feelings, the first question we should ask is: “Does it hurt because it’s true?” If so, what is hurting the person is not the person who said it, but the truth. We should not shoot the messenger. If it has no truth value, and it was intended solely for the purpose of hurting or insulting someone, then yes, it makes sense to condemn it but most of the world makes no such distinction. They automatically shoot the messenger.

In the end, it comes down to this: Are you committed to becoming the best you can be? If not, it would make sense that you do not value criticism. No pain no gain. If gain is not what you are after, then pain becomes irrelevant and pointless. If you can make it clear to me, I would leave you alone. And, it goes both ways too; you need to leave me alone also. Don’t tell me to stop criticizing or hurting other people’s feelings. Not everyone is like you; there are actually people who appreciate criticism and brutal honesty in order to be the best they can be.