In 1962, a young man named Joseph met a woman named Marina. They lived in Russia together. They shared a passion for art. He wrote poetry. She created paintings. They fell in love and had a child together.
It was shaping up to be a good life until one day in 1972, the Soviet officials came knocking at the door. They stormed Joseph’s apartment, took him captive, tossed him on a plane to Vienna, and informed him that he was exiled from the Soviet Union.
He never saw Marina again.
Joseph was Joseph Brodsky, the famous poet. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. His poetry, mostly written in Russian, was received favorably by pretty much everyone except the Soviet government. They claimed Brodsky’s writing was “anti-Soviet” and over the course of a decade he was slandered in the papers, pushed out of his job, and eventually exiled from the country.
Thanks to the help of some fellow poets, Brodsky was able to find refuge in the United States and soon he had teaching positions at Yale, Cambridge, and the University of Michigan. In 1991, nineteen years after being exiled from the Soviet Union (and what must have seemed like an entirely different lifetime), Brodsky was appointed the United States Poet Laureate.
How to Deal with Your Critics and Detractors
In 1988, Brodsky delivered the commencement speech to students at the University of Michigan. The full speech is shared in Brodsky’s book, On Grief and Reason: Essays. I think it shares a beautiful strategy and method for dealing with the critics, detractors, and negative influences in your life.
“Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur.
What your foes do derives its significance or consequence from the way you react. Therefore, rush through or past them as though they were yellow and not red lights. Don’t linger on them mentally or verbally; don’t pride yourself on forgiving or forgetting them — worse come to worse, do the forgetting first. This way you’ll spare your brain cells a lot of useless agitation; this way, perhaps, you may even save those pigheads from themselves, since the prospect of being forgotten is shorter than that of being forgiven. So flip the channel: you can’t put this network out of circulation, but at least you can reduce its ratings. Now, this solution is not likely to please angels, but, then again, it’s bound to hurt demons, and for the moment that’s all that really matters.”
–Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason: Essays
“It’s the echo that counts”
The impact of negativity is magnified when we talk about it, no matter what we say. We breathe life into poor decisions, bad ideas, and evil people by discussing them over and over again. You wouldn’t want to waste all of your meals on junk food. Why waste your thoughts on junk ideas and your energy on junk people?
The best thing that can happen to bad advice is that it becomes irrelevant, ignored, and forgotten. In the words of Brodsky, “it’s the echo that counts.” Negativity doesn’t deserve a louder voice. Spend your time echoing something worth hearing.1
- The Beginner’s Guide to Grit
- The Best Art Books
- Bob Mathias on How to Master the Art of Self-Confidence
Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for originally sharing Brodsky’s quote.