There is a important difference between critical thinking and being critical. Knowing that difference can be the deciding factor in whether you are successful at affecting change or become an ineffectual aggravating irritant.
Now that I have your attention…it will come as no surprise to learn I have a tendency to critique almost every aspect of the world around me. Don’t get too excited about the admission, however. You probably do the same thing. We all do. It’s human nature.
As a general rule it’s easier to criticize than it is to create. Consequently, the line of critics is always longer and louder than the line of people who actually produce something of value — or intended to be of value.
Think about our tendencies for a moment. When we’re in traffic we see what the guy in front of us is doing wrong immediately. We often comment on his or her limited driving skills, too — sometimes in a loud voice peppered with less than hospitable words.
When we watch the government at work we often wonder why it doesn’t work better. Anyone who has been to the Department of Motor Vehicles, stood in line at the Post Office, or climbed aboard Amtrak has to wonder exactly what it is about being connected to government that makes high-quality customer service an almost universally unattainable goal.
And don’t even get me started on Congress, the FAA, or the latest scandals coming to light out of Washington D.C.
Having said all that, it’s important that we all know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being critical. It is that tendency to observe, evaluate, and critique that allows us to learn, to grow, to become better people.
Assuming, of course, that we do more than just criticize others.
And there’s the rub. Most of us limit ourselves to the singular task of being critical — we side-step the subsequent tasks of thinking up a better method of getting the job done, or partnering with someone we recognize as competent and on the right track. And very few of us actually get up and actively lend a hand in an effort to help solve a problem. It’s just not our way. And that tendency becomes a self-imposed limitation that’s detrimental to us.
Certainly I have dished out my share of criticism in person, in print, and even on video. As regular readers know, I’m not the least bit shy about sharing my observations or of putting a label on them, whether positive or otherwise.
But I have also learned an important lesson: Simply pointing out the failings of others is not a constructive plan. Complaining does not improve the situation. Disparaging others does not automatically elevate us or our argument.
Consider this: In virtually every community where some form of administrative hierarchy exists, the same dynamic plays out. A small group of dedicated people work to resolve problems. They often disagree. They sometimes dislike each other. But they persevere. These people are leaders of the community, often to the consternation of others.
A larger group of people constitute the nay-sayers. These people are unhappy. They dislike the status quo, yet they are resistant to change. They speak up in opposition to new plans proposed by the leaders of the community, however they rarely make an effort to gain support for an alternative plan. Rather, they focus on drumming up more opposition. These people are rarely leaders of a community.
The largest group of people are disconnected, disinterested, and perfectly content having no role in the process of leadership. They may not be happy with the direction things are headed, but they are more focused on the tangible aspects of their own lives than the intellectual, political, or theological machinations of the leaders or the critics. This group represents the majority in most populations, and while they care about the future, they have come to believe they have no personal involvement in setting its course — so they roll with whatever happens and just do their best to keep their heads above water.
Which group you or I belong to is really of little consequence. What matters is the realization that no matter which group we’re in, we can transition from one to another. We can move up or down on the ladder, and we can do it more than once. The determining factor in which way we move is simple. Are we leading, critiquing, or just living with the issues that affect us?
For those who want to be leaders, act accordingly. Watch, read, listen, and discuss the issues affecting you and your community. Critique the process, the participants, and proposals being made. Then participate openly, positively, and with an open mind. Build consensus. Develop partnerships. Make a difference. Know the difference between critical thinking, and being critical. It matters.