Don't Read Bad Reviews
When the Indian-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri gave a lecture at Dartmouth last week, I sat in my seat, jittering with nervous energy. The elegant and eloquent woman sitting before us had long been my literary idol. Her rich, vibrant works about the immigrant experience in America — from “The Namesake” to her short stories in “Interpreter of Maladies” — resonated with me from a young age, the daughter of Indian immigrants, perpetually grappling with the balancing act of several competing identities.
When the time came for open audience remarks, I mustered up the courage to ask her a question. I stood up. The microphone squeaked. She looked at me intently.
“You’re a prolific writer and a lot of your work has been met with critical acclaim. But a lot of it has been met with negative or mixed reviews. How do you handle the negative reviews?”
The audience fell silent, and Ms. Lahiri sat for a few seconds, pursing her lips.
I was implicitly referring to her new book “In Other Words” — that she had written in Italian, not her first language — which had received a searing critique from The New York Times. Lahiri had hit success early on in her career, and I wondered how it felt to know nominally that you were a great artist, but to inevitably create works that did not meet the same early acclaim.
“I don’t read reviews,” she said bluntly.
There will always be people who love your work and people who hate it, she explained. If you start trying to please everyone, you lose yourself as an artist.
Her words landed on me powerfully as the resounding culmination of a feeling and attitude that has been stirring inside me since I was a young girl. Stop caring about the opinions of others. Stop tuning into the minutia.
Careless adjectives have been thrown at me my whole life. As a little girl, I was called “ugly” and “annoying” and “different.” By my early teens, I became “weird” and a “know-it-all” with “gorilla legs.” In high school, I was “arrogant” and “insanely competitive” (and still to my dismay “weird looking”). Now at Dartmouth, I am “brash,” “aggressive,” “blunt” and “sassy.”
For most of my life, I lived with a paralyzing fear of these words and the errant opinions of those who used them against me. With every new criticism, I would pause and attempt to tweak myself, spending weeks agonizing over how to make myself more palatable. But the tweaks would never stick. Was I supposed to make myself blander, to blend in, to abandon all the idiosyncrasies that made me, well, me? If I knew myself to be a kind, hard-working person trying to put out good vibes into the universe, why play tug of war with my critics, usually people who didn’t know me at all, who functioned off the shallow dips of first or second impressions?
As I learned finally in my senior year of college, growing up means mastering the art of loving yourself.
And I wish I could write about the moment I had this epiphany, as if there was just one. But I guess there was one night last month I was having drinks with a friend at Pine who was having a terrible weekend, and after just five minutes of sitting down, he said to me, “You can always make me happy on a shitty day,” and I smiled and thought, “Hmm. That’s nice.”
When you love yourself, living becomes a little easier. And I’m talking about loving yourself not when you’re at your most successful and glorious and kind and funny but loving yourself in your not so glamorous moments, when you’ve failed that midterm for which you studied for days; when you said something stupid to your friend or a stranger when drunk; when you look at your smudged eyeliner in the mirror after stumbling home from a TDX dance party, feeling lonely; when your college love puts out his cigarette on your heart; when you don’t get any of the prestigious internships at banks and consulting firms your friends are getting; when you still don’t have a job, even though it’s Commencement Day.
In loving yourself in all these moments, you start to see yourself as an individual beautiful in all your contradictions, a magnificent package of energy creating and fighting for your place in this world. And you learn to care less or not at all about how you look to your critics. Because they don’t know you. Because they can’t even scratch the surface.
At Dartmouth, I’ve found that most of us fall into the trap of measuring our worth based on a set of arbitrary, external standards. We think these will show others our worth and silence the critics once and for all. But how delicate of a tight rope that is. You want to be in a good Greek house, to be tapped for a society, to be social but not too facetimey and social climby, to be smart and accomplished but not a homebody, to get a fabulous job but not brag about it. How exhausting it is to worry about what people think of us. How crippling and trivial. How small it all seems when you realize that when we leave this place today, we face our future more or less alone. In the real world, you come home after a long day of work, look in the mirror and realize you only truly have yourself. So impress yourself. Forgive your shortcomings. Hug your quirks. The right people will rejoice with you. And to hell with the critics. Don’t read your negative reviews.