Criticism as Other People’s Stories

Stories are explanations of the world we tell ourselves. They are filled with unnecessary detail, and by extension, falsehoods. Getting involved with stories is how we give meaning to our lives, reenforce our ego, and project that ego – our brand if you will – out in the wider world.

If the above is true, then it also means that when someone makes a criticism of you – if they say: you are X, then they are trying to hire you as an extra in their movie. In some cases, you may even be cast in a main role – as the villain, the victim, the obstacle to be overcome, colleague, etc.

But, we are not extras or actors in someone else’s movie. We are not even stars of our own production. The stories we tell ourselves are narrative fiction, a reduction of our experience to an easily understandable illusion. It’s a filter, designed to create a certain look that doesn’t reflect reality. It’s our ego taking control.

If we want to get to lived experience, we have to break free of the plots created in our head. The easiest first place to do that is to break free from the plots in other people’s heads.

When someone says something to you, the most likely thing they are doing is projecting their own story. They are telling you how you fit in to their story. You may be a personification of some trait they don’t like about themselves, or the opposite. You may be an important piece in making their fiction work, or a bit player. But, no matter what role you are assigned by someone else, you always have the choice about whether to play the part.

Some parts have useful lessons to teach us, and we are obligated to play them by our circumstances. But, even then, you have the choice in whether to believe in the part. It’s one thing to know you are an actor in a fiction. It’s something else to think the role we play is our life.

Most of us think the stories we tell ourselves or the parts we play in other people’s stories are our lives. We need to pause these productions, see them for what they are, and if necessary, play our roles. But, play it knowing it’s a role. It makes all the difference.

Sadhu’s Sugar

“A woman in India was upset that her son was eating too much sugar. No matter how much she chided him, he continued to satisfy his sweet tooth. Totally frustrated, she decided to take her son to see the local sahdu (holy man).

She approached the sadhu respectfully and said, “Sir, my son eats too much sugar. It is not good for his health. Would you please advise him to stop eating it?”

The sadhu listened to the woman carefully, turned, and spoke to her son, “Go home and come back in two weeks.”

The woman was perplexed. She took the boy by the hand and went home.

Two weeks later, she returned, boy in hand. The sadhu motioned for them to come forward. He looked directly at the boy and said, “Boy, you should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.”

The boy nodded and promised he would not continue this habit any longer.

The boy’s mother turned to the sadhu and asked, “Why didn’t you tell him that two weeks ago when I brought him here to see you?”

The sadhu smiled and said, “Mother, two weeks ago, I was still eating sugar myself.”

Moral: If you are going to give advice, take it yourself first.

—Adapted from preilly, “Gandhi Story.”

h/t Tim Ferris. I changed it from Gandhi to a sadhu because it makes better sense to me. There are village elders, sadhus, etc. all over India that are respected in their communities enough to be a stand-in for Gandhi.


“The truth is that charisma is a learned behavior, a skill to be developed in much the same way that we learned to walk or practice vocabulary when studying a new language.”

-Bryan Clark, “What Makes People Charismatic, and How You Can Be, TooThe New York Times. August 15, 2019.

Argues that charisma is presence, power and warmth. When we focus on other people, they tend to notice our attention and the fact that we find them worth noticing. People like to be noticed, and they tend to like people that notice them.

Power seems to be used in the sense of confidence. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. But, most people don’t have too much confidence. They have too little. As a result, the end up doing a lot of complaining: about their lack of agency, about the unsatisfactory things in their lives, etc. No one wants to hear about other people’s problems. Everyone has plenty of their own.

Warmth. In a cold, cruel world, be someone else’s sunshine. Be everyone’s sunshine, if you can. Some people seem like they are born that way. Even if you weren’t, who doesn’t appreciate the effort?

Suggestions for improving your charisma? Learn to tell stories. Our stories make us relatable and telling them to others requires focus, confidence and the vulnerability of sharing ourselves with others, which if it isn’t warmth, it’s in the neighborhood.

Bushman Money Magic

“Jackal [the Bushman trickster god] had been riding his donkey and grew tired. He decided to stop and cook some meat. When the meat was stewing in his pot, he saw some [cattle ranchers] coming toward him. Quickly he covered the fire with sand so they could not see it.

When the [cattle ranchers] arrived he said to them, ‘Look, you black people, this is a magic pot. It doesn’t need a fire to cook food. You must just hit it three times like this.’

Jackal grabbed his whip and hit the pot three times. Tca-tca-tca! Then he opened it and showed the [cattle ranchers] that the meat was still sizzling hot.

‘I will sell you this magic pot for one thousand dollars,’ said Jackal.

‘This is a wonderful pot,” the [cattle ranchers] conceded. So they gave Jackal a thousand dollars, took the pot and left.

When the [cattle ranchers] had walked for a while, they grew hungry. So they put some raw meat in the pot and hit it three times with a whip. But when they opened it, they saw that the meat was raw. So they hit the pot again. But the meat was still raw.

‘We have been tricked!” they shouted. ‘This Jackal, this Bushman, he is a crook.” So they went back to find the Jackal. When Jackal saw them coming, he was scared. So he quickly took the money they had given him for the pot and hid it in his donkey’s anus.

When they reached the Jackal, the [cattle ranchers] said, ‘Jackal, this pot is not magic. Take it and give us our money back!’

‘I can’t,’ replied Jackal. ‘This pot is yours now. Anyway, I have already spent the money.’

But just as he said this, the donkey farted and all the money tumbled from his backside. For a second Jackal was terrified, but then he smiled.

‘Look at this donkey,’ Jackal said to them. ‘It’s magic because you feed it grass and it will shit money. If you buy this donkey from me for a thousand dollars, it will shit more money for you!’

‘Ah, this is a magic donkey!’ agreed the [cattle ranchers]. So they gave Jackal another thousand dollars. And with the donkey in tow, they went away again. As soon as they were gone, Jackal fled with the money.'”

—/Engn!au quoted in James Suzman, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushman (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 241-242.