Life is a full-contact sport, especially on the Internet. If you’re going to step into the arena, bloody noses and a lot of scrapes are par for the course.
The sharp elbows and body checks can take many forms. Here is one of the first Amazon reviews I ever received for The 4-Hour Workweek, while I was still a wee lad finding his Bambi legs on the web: “This book is mistitled. The subtitle should be ‘Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, Join the New Rich, and Become the World’s Biggest Jerk.’ Don’t buy it. He’ll probably use your money to set a Guinness Book record for the most kittens strangled in one minute.”
Ah, welcome to town, kid. Want a tissue?
That was 2007. Over the last decade, I’ve collected a handful of rules and quotes that help me keep my sanity and reputation largely intact. Here they are:
1. It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do.
Even if your objective is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you only need to find, cultivate, and thrill your first 1,000 diehard true fans (page 292). These people become your strongest marketing force, and the rest takes care of itself. The millions or billions who don’t get it don’t matter. Focus on the few who do. They are your Archimedes lever.
2. 10% of people will find a way to take anything personally. Expect it and treat it as math.
Particularly as you build an audience, this 10% can turn into a big number. Mentally prepare yourself before publishing anything. “Oh, I have 1,000 readers now. That means that 100 are going to respond like assholes. Not because I’m bad, not because they’re bad, but because that’s how the math works.” If you anticipate it, it will throw you off less. On top of that, I assume that 1% of my fans are completely batshit crazy, just like the general population, which helps me handle the far scarier stuff. If you (wrongly) assume that everyone is going to respond with smiles and high-fives, you are going to get slapped, you’ll respond impulsively, and you’ll triple the damage.
And you are not exempt from Crazy Town just because you cover non-offensive material. Here is a real, verbatim comment left on my blog: “You are showing a grave example of the white horseman to our children. Shame on you. You’re an evil one who has gained the world and lost your soul.” He proceeded to threaten to deliver me on Judgment Day. It became a real FBI-worthy threat! This was not in response to my post about clubbing baby seals. I don’t have one. It was in response to a blog post I wrote to help raise funds for high-need public school classrooms in the U.S. (through donorschoose.org) that lack sufficient funding for books, pens, pencils, etc.
Anticipate, don’t react.
3. When in doubt, starve it of oxygen.
Here are my three primary responses to online criticism:
Ø Starve it of oxygen (ignore it) — 90%
Ø Pour gasoline on it (promote it) — 8%
Ø Engage with trolls after too much wine (and really regret it) — 2%
I’m not going to cover option number three, but the first two are worth explaining.
The reason that you would want to starve 90% of oxygen is because doing otherwise gives your haters extra Google juice. In other words, if you reply publicly — worst- case scenario, you put something on another site with high page rank and link to the critic — all you’re going to do is gift them powerful inbound links, increase traffic, and ensure the persistence and prominence of the piece. In some cases, I’ve had to bite my tongue for months at a time to wait for something (infuriating BS that I could easily refute) to drop off the front page or even the second page of Google results. It’s very, very hard to stay silent, and it’s very, very important to have that self-control. Rewatch the “Hoooold! Hooooooold!” scene from Braveheart.
But what about pouring gasoline on 8% of the negative? Why would anyone ever do that? First off, we must realize that not all critics are “haters.” Let’s look at a real-world example. Eric Karjaluoto wrote a post called “Is Tim Ferriss Acting Like an Asshole?” in response to a spec design competition I held, which had caused a firestorm. I don’t agree with all of his arguments, but he did have some well-thought-through points that I felt contributed to a more interesting discussion. So I promoted his piece. For me, doing this 8% to 10% of the time accomplishes two things: It shows that I’m open to criticism, and it shows that I don’t take myself too seriously. Both of these things tend to decrease the number of real haters who come out of the woodwork.
4. If you respond, don’t over-apologize.
There are times to apologize when you truly screw up or speak too soon, but more often than not, acknowledgment is all that’s required.
Some version of “I see you” will diffuse at least 80% of people who appear to be haters or would-be haters. They’ll even sometimes do an about-face and become your strongest proponents. Just present the facts or wish them luck, and let them come to their own conclusions. I often use something along the lines of, “Thanks for the feedback. I’m always trying to improve. In the meantime, I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
5. You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into.
6. “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, and you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted.” — Colin Powell
7. “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” — Epictetus
Cato of ancient Rome, who Seneca believed to be the perfect Stoic, practiced Epictetus’s maxim by wearing darker robes than was customary and by wearing no tunic. He expected to be ridiculed and he was. He did this to train himself to only be ashamed of those things that are truly worth being ashamed of. To do anything remotely interesting, you need to train yourself to handle — or even enjoy — criticism. I regularly and deliberately “embarrass” myself for superficial reasons, much like Cato. This an example of “fear-rehearsing” (page 463).
8. “Living well is the best revenge.” — George Herbert
During a tough period several years ago, Nassim Taleb of The Black Swan fame sent me the following aphorism, which was perfect timing and perfectly put:
“Robustness is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who hates it (artists); fragility is when you care more about the few who hate your work than the multitude who loves it (politicians).”
Choose to be robust.
Excerpted from TOOLS OF TITANS: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. Copyright © 2017 by Tim Ferriss. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.