November 13, 2023

The judging table contains billions of chairs


What’s your favorite part about competition reality shows?

Is it the contestant’s performances, the judge’s criticism, or the viewer’s reactions?

Personally, I’m only interested in the people doing actual work. These programs have zero value to me outside of the performers singing their songs, doing their dances, baking their cakes, whatever. The rest of the content is superfluous.

But my theory is, most people tune in for the judges. They want insults from the panel.

And the networks know this. Ever since the first competition reality show debuted over twenty years ago, produces always seem to be searching for the ineffable formula to create television gold at the judging table. They seek out unwaveringly harsh critiques from industry experts, that way there’s always a villain to hate, and a hero to root for.

I’m remembering one episode of a cooking show where the judge told one of the chefs that his pasta reminded him of roadkill. Okay, even I’ll admit, that’s good television.

Unfortunately, these shows are enabling a larger societal problem, which is that most people have become critics, not creators.

Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage, but I don’t think he anticipated just how few of the men and women would be merely players. Because these days, the vast majority of the people are sitting in the audience pointing out the flaws in the show. We’ve become a society of unimpressed, constantly disappointed critics who hold unattainable expectations. Rather than actually making things themselves, most people are tearing the work down.

It seems to makes them feel powerful, talented, intelligent, and productive. Like they’re some kind of lifesaving doctors diagnosing illnesses in need of eradication.

My question is, what happens when nothing is good enough for anybody? What kind of society do we live in when the default mode is to destroy rather than create?

This can’t be good for the evolution of our species. And it’s ironic, because billion dollar technology companies tout this philosophy about how we’re all creators now. Everyone has a global platform to share and express their ideas.

But that’s mostly public relations. It’s stockholder rhetoric. Copy for the quarterly earnings report.

Because let’s not bullshit ourselves here. Only three percent of people are actually creating. Most people are just criticizing it. The world has become one giant transcontinental reality show where the judging table contains billions of chairs. And it’s horrible programming.

I’ve been navigating this phenomenon for most of my career. Particularly when I started working at agencies and startups. It quickly dawned on me that in any given organization, the vast majority of employees are going to be criticizing, not creating.

The way they’re going to contribute is by pointing out flaws in other people’s work. And they’ll cleverly frame it with terms like constructive criticism, agile iteration and helpful feedback. But it’s mostly just code for, I don’t have the ability and courage and permission to do this myself, so instead, I’m just going to shit on your work.

As the old saying go, those who can, do; those who can’t, criticize.

This infuriates me as a creator. There’s nothing worse than having to listen to critical feedback from some schmuck who has not done, and refuses to do, any actual work.

Look, I know who I am, what I am worth, have a thick skin, and have a strong internal locus of control. But sitting through some critic’s evaluation of my work can still make me feel rejected and under appreciated. I notice this strong desire to reach across the table and smash their face into a stapler and say, here asshole, why don’t you try writing ten thousand words every single week, and I’ll sit back and pick it apart like a goddamn buzzard eating a rotting carcass.

Whew, a little free floating hostility there. That was cathartic. I feel better.

Anyway, let me shift gears a bit here. Because part of the issue about critics versus creators is understand where each other is coming from.

Years ago, one of our company executives was shooting holes in my work, and something occurred to me in response that was new feeling. I left that meeting and asked:

Wow, I wonder what’s missing inside of him that needs to be filled up?

This may be the key to understanding critical people. Compassion for their psychological experience. After all, highly critical individuals have proven to be unhappier and show a higher risk of depression.

A study I saw in a psychology journal revealed how destructive criticism, rejection, and humiliation are processed in the same part of the brain. It’s the part that regulates our feeling of pain.

In short, critical people are unsatisfied with their lives. They knock down the external to bring up their own internal state.

Think about it. Haven’t you ever noticed that about happy and fulfilled people? They’re the last ones to criticize. Because they don’t need to. They already have internal peace. There’s nothing to prove. Being right isn’t important to them. They accept that if they’re not going to add something to other people’s work, there’s no need to take anything away.

And so, they simply thank others for their work, and tell them to keep doing what they’re doing. They offer encouragement rather than analysis.

Now, it doesn’t exactly make for a good reality show, but television is poison anyway.

Look, if you’re feeling rejected and angry and people’s criticism of you work, keep perspective by remembering a few things.

One, most people don’t create things, so the moment you make anything means that you’ve already accomplished a victory worth celebrating.

Two, if you create something that’s worth being criticized, congratulations. Better to be condemned than ignored.

Three, if people want to spend their lives being unimpressed, constantly disappointed critics who hold unattainable expectations, then that’s their problem, not yours. I hope they have good health insurance.

And four, everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. The more critical someone is with your work, the more you should ask yourself, wow, I wonder what’s missing inside of them that needs to be filled up?

Maybe we should pitch a reality show to the network where we take all the asshole judges from all the competition shows, line them up outside of the building, and then force strangers to give them hugs.

And the first judge who starts crying, wins.

Emmy awards, here we come. Now that’s good television.

What happens when nothing is good enough for anybody?