On Self-Criticism

It seems like having self-confidence is a big deal these days. Dozens of self-improvement articles out there advise people to believe in themselves, to trust their instincts, to stop second-guessing themselves.

The implication seems to be that to be healthy and successful completely excludes self-doubt—and I have a problem with that. I would argue exactly the opposite: that the most successful people are those who have mastered the art of self-criticism.

In 1709, a twenty-something named Alexander Pope wrote an impressively long poem called An Essay on Criticism, in which he gave his opinions on critiquing poetry. He didn’t just write about literary criticism, though: Pope’s poem also includes advice that applies to anyone who shares their opinion with others.

There are several chunks of this poem I enjoy, but this one is on my mind today. Here is some of Pope’s advice to literary critics—and, by extension, to all of us.

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, lines 566-571

What it means

Pope’s main point is in the first two lines: if you’re not sure, keep quiet, and even if you think you know something, don’t be too forceful about it. Diffidence is being unassertive, reserved, even shy—the opposite of a know-it-all.

A “fop” was what people in the eighteenth century called a man who was overly concerned with his appearance. These people are so preoccupied with what people think of them that they can never admit when they’re wrong. Once they hold an incorrect belief, they continue in their error indefinitely.

“But you,” Pope concludes, turning his attention to his reader, “with pleasure own your errors past.” Be willing and even eager to admit when you’re wrong. And each day, Pope counsels, review the day before as a literary critic reviews a poem: with a critical, thoughtful eye.

Why it matters

Here’s my main takeaway from this poem: it’s okay to not be sure.

Humility is a valuable trait. Sometimes, we feel like we have to be confident and sure of ourselves all the time. In college writing classes we are taught not to use uncertain language, like “I think” or “I believe”, because they could undermine the reader’s confidence in us.

But Pope argues exactly the opposite. If you’re not sure, he advises his readers, just keep quiet—and even if you’re sure, don’t assume you’re infallible. When you don’t know, admit it to yourself. And even when you think you’re right, be humble—don’t be too assertive about voicing your opinion.

There’s always the chance you’re wrong, Pope implies. People who can’t admit that to themselves never find out when their beliefs or opinions are incorrect. The first step toward changing our minds is to admit that there’s something wrong with our beliefs in the first place, and those who aren’t willing to take that step never grow.

Perhaps the most puzzling line, though, is the second-to-last one: “with pleasure own your errors past.” When I first read this line, it left me questioning: what do you mean “with pleasure”? What could possibly be pleasant about admitting my mistakes?

It’s not always fun to admit that we’re wrong, that we’ve made a mistake. But there is delight in growing, learning, developing into better versions of ourselves. There is pleasure in breaking out of the errors we’ve fallen into and moving into the light of a clearer understanding of the world.

And that’s the joy of making “each day a critic on the last.” Each day of our lives, Pope suggests, should take into account what we’ve learned from the day before. Each day is a new opportunity to put our reflections on the previous day into practice.

I’m not suggesting we berate ourselves for our mistakes or that we focus on what we’re doing wrong. It’s important to be positive, to acknowledge what we’re doing right. What I’m recommending here is simply to reflect, to evaluate where we’ve been and use that knowledge to be more intentional about where we’re going.

This is healthy self-criticism: not so much to criticize as to critique, to reflect thoughtfully on the day I’ve finished and to live the next day in light of the lessons I’ve learned.

How do you use self-criticism in your own life? I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments!

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