Essay

Why Seth Godin is Wrong About Vampires, aka Trolls

By Duff McDuffee on December 17th, 2013 1

In a recent blog post, marketing guru Seth Godin said…

“Vampires cannot be cured. They cannot be taught, they cannot learn the error of their ways. Most of all, vampires will never understand how much damage they’re doing to you and your work. Pity the vampires, they are doomed to this life. Your garlic is simple: shun them. Delete their email, turn off comments, don’t read your one-star reviews. It’s so tempting to evangelize to the vampires, to prove them wrong, to help them see how destructive they are. This is food for them, merely encouragement. Shun the ones who feed on your failures.”

I have pretty much a directly opposite view to Godin’s.

Now obviously some criticism is not very helpful. If someone writes a review of my book and says, “The author is a jerk who can’t write for shit,” that contains no information that is useful to me in improving my writing.

On the other hand, a critic might say something like this:

“[The author] just skips from one shallow and unsupported, but grandiose statement about leadership to another. The one concrete example he gives in the book about how you might actually go about doing the work of leading comes when he describes his early work experience in a software company. He explains how he got the most out of shallow programming resources by starting a newsletter that created a sense of excitement around his project and attracted programmers to it. That’s not only a great idea, it’s a practical example a reader who wanted to lead could emulate. This book needs far more of those examples.”

That is a very helpful review indeed…and comes from an actual review of Godin’s Tribes on Amazon.com (one of the three reviews voted “most helpful”). If I were Godin, I’d love to receive such a 2-star review, for this review provides all-important feedback on how I could improve my writing in the future: tone down the hyperbole and provide more specific examples, and maybe even run those examples by this specific reviewer. (As the saying goes, friends are people who stab you in the front.)

Similarly to negative reviews that say nothing like my first example, most positive reviews provide nothing that is useful for learning or improvement. “You’re awesome!” does nothing positive whatsoever for my personal growth and doesn’t help me to improve any skill.

In general I’ve found that negative feedback is far more informative in terms of learning and growth. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it is virtually impossible to improve without negative feedback in abundance! Almost all music instruction is negative feedback: “ok now play it again but notice the dynamic levels,” “make sure to play those two notes staccato,” etc.

You might object, “but aren’t some critics just vampires or trolls?” Obviously some critical feedback is unhelpful, but if you are courageous enough to ask “can you tell me more?” I’ve found that very often there is some gem in the vile that is actually useful information for learning and growth. (There are also specific methods for learning to respond more resourcefully to criticism.) Sometimes there isn’t, and that’s fine – people can criticize because they had a bad day, or are experiencing hormonal changes, or for a million other reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with you. And indeed all people (not just those other people) get off on hurting others sometimes. But I find it very negative indeed to call such people names like “vampires” (actually vampires are pretty cool really). It is dehumanizing, an ad hominem, and simply a way to maintain one’s ignorance by rejecting helpful feedback.

By ignoring criticism – even harsh criticism – we literally become more ignorant. Certainly negative feedback is not always pleasant, although it is far easier to accept if we have a growth mindset. Rejecting criticism indicates a fixed mindset. Ironically many personal development authors encourage us to adopt such a fixed mindset by rejecting important feedback, and even induce a fixed mindset in themselves and others with person praise such as “you are amazing!” Whether such praise is deserved or not, it has a tendency to set us up to respond poorly to challenges in the future (see Self Theories [Amazon affiliate link] by Carol Dweck for the science that proves it).

Now there is a major exception to this that a friend on Facebook pointed out – in abusive relationships it can be perfectly reasonable to leave and shut the person out forever. If someone threatens your life or stalks you, that is also a great time to exercise the power of not communicating with them ever (see Gavin de Becker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear for practical survival tips). Heck, I’m even OK with blocking people on Facebook that I don’t get along with. But don’t attend a meeting with “vampires”? Are you kidding Mr. Godin? That seems absurd to me. I’m not sure it’s even possible to be politically engaged without regularly encountering people we’d rather not know exist. Somehow we have to learn how to work and live with people we don’t like…and it can even be an excellent opportunity sometimes for personal growth!

It’s a common notion in personal development to shun the “negative people” which usually means the people who are talking sense about the cult you joined or the people in your life with mental and physical health problems. I think the “negative” ones are quite often the ones we should all get to know much better.

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