Criticize by creating.

That’s one of my favorite sayings, attributed to Michelangelo.

It’s a useful mantra that acts as a reminder to put energy into additive acts, instead of nitpicking. It requires risk and humility to create. You might fail. The critic sits back in the safety of inaction, poking holes in stuff he’d not have the courage to create.

Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to know when you’re criticizing and when you’re creating. But not always. And you can’t always tell from the outside what constitutes an act of creation for another person.

My son loves the art of film-making and storytelling. He can spend hours telling me all his (very strong) opinions on what movies got wrong and right (even those he’s never seen!). I think most of it is interesting conversation, but not always. Sometimes it slips over into that realm of criticism that distances him from the kind of work the creators put in. But it’s not the act of critiquing a film by itself that’s anti-creative. It’s hard to describe when it is and isn’t, but I can vaguely sense the line.

I keep telling him to start a blog or YouTube channel where he does movie criticisms. Even though he’d still be critiquing someone else’s creation, his critique would move from a low-risk, low-effort offhand commentary to his dad, to a higher-risk, higher-effort act of creative criticism. He’d have to make a channel, risk his reputation publicly, open himself to counter-criticisms, and feel the pressure to make thoughtful, valuable critiques.

I know plenty of creators whose main creations are critiques. Painters and writers and musicians and even startup founders are critiquing the world by creating an alternative to it, or a parody of it. Sometimes the critique is implied by the creation, sometimes it’s explicitly stated. Writing a criticism isn’t inherently non-creative. The person who writes it has to be honest with themselves, and know deep down with their knower whether they are indulging in avoidant critique or real creation.

Social media adds more murkiness. Is a Tweet about something you don’t like an act of criticism or creation? I don’t think there’s a bright line, but for me, the lower the effort and risk, the more likely I’m being indulgent, ingrown, and critical. The higher the effort and risk, the liklier I’m creating. The real test is how I feel afterwards, and how much I care what others do in response. Genuine acts of creation are real and self-fulfilling. I don’t care whether others like or share them. Critiques, on the other hand, tend to make me more anxious to see who will support my claims.

So a funny, clever, interesting, or heartfelt Tweet or thread can be an act of creation. I’ve seen many that are, and made a few myself. But a responsive, reactive, gotta-get-my-say-on-x-in Tweet, or comment on someone else’s Tweet tend to be critical and non-creative. Especially if the thing you’re responding to is someone else’s creation or creative Tweet that got a lot more attention than you wish it did. If there’s envy in the mix, the odds are high you’re not creating but critiquing.

That’s why daily blogging is so good for me.

I have several Voxer threads with friends where we share barbs and jokes about various topics and news of the day. Those are sometimes deep and enlightening, but mostly an outlet for witty criticisms. I enjoy them, but if that was the only medium through which I was sharing ideas, I think I’d warp into a holier-than-thou critic. Facing the blank page every morning and posting something that might be seen (or ignored) by anyone forces me into creator mode. It makes me better.

The bottom line is this: only you can really know whether you’re engaged in creative or critical acts. Only you know if you’re leveling up and bringing your ideas into the world to improve it, or lowering others and shooting their ideas down. Be ruthless with self-knowledge, and be honest about what you find.

And go create something you’re proud of today.