Dealing with Tough Criticism — Think of It Like a Bucket of Water, Sand, and Gold



“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.” — Dale Carnegie

You can use criticism to change your game, achieve your dreams, and bring out your best.  Criticism is a blessing in disguise if you know how to use it effectively.

Yeah, sometimes the disguise can be pretty bad, but take a look beyond the surface or the sting.

Criticism is an Opportunity to Improve

In my experience, the key is how you look at criticism.  To be effective, you need to look at criticism as an opportunity to improve.  This takes out the emotional reaction and helps you get curious and see what you might otherwise miss.

You also need to look at both the critic and the criticism.  For example, does the critic have your best interest in mind?  Does the critic know what they are talking about?  This helps immediately put the criticism in perspective.

Make Feedback Useful and Actionable

When you look at the criticism, you need to determine if it’s relevant or accurate.  It’s not a matter of defending.  Instead, make feedback useful and actionable.

I find that looking for the actionable insight is the most effective way I can make criticism a worthwhile venture.

In just about any worthwhile adventure, criticism is part of the journey.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  If you have a process for dealing with feedback, and if you embrace it, rather than fear it, you can grow with your challenges.

In the book, Mentored by a Millionaire: Master Strategies of Super Achievers, Steven K. Scott shares a three-step skill for dealing with criticism, as well as a metaphor for thinking about criticism.

He suggests thinking of criticism like a bucket of water, sand, and gold, where the gold is hidden in the sand at the bottom.

A Three-Step Skill to Turn Criticism into Your Powerful Ally

Scott suggests a three-part process for responding to criticism in a more effective way:

  • Step 1. Consider the source of the criticism.  Scott suggests three questions to help you evaluate the source of the criticism: 1) How qualified is the critic? 2) What is the basis of the criticism?, and 3) What is the critic’s motive for the criticism?
  • Step 2. Consider the accuracy of the criticism.  Scott says that with criticisms you’ll find that some are extremely accurate, some are partially accurate, and many are totally inaccurate.
  • Step 3. Take responsibility for your response to the criticism and mine it for gold. Scott suggests responding effectively to the criticism instead of just reacting.  To do so, he suggests writing down the stinging criticisms and look for the gold nuggets that can help you improve.

A Bucket of Water, a Few Inches of Sand, and a Little Bit of Gold

Every bucket of criticism is full of water, has a bit of sand, and if you’re lucky, some gold on the bottom.

Via Mentored by a Millionaire: Master Strategies of Super Achievers:

“Criticism is like somebody grabbing a bucket of that water and throwing it on you.  A bucket of criticism is full of water, has a few inches of sand, and nearly always has a little bit of gold buried somewhere in the sand.  A whole bucket of criticism might have a great big gold nuggets, or it may only have one tiny little flake of gold — one that requires a lot of searching to find.”

The Gold is Hidden in the Sand

Ignore the water, deal with the sand, but hunt for the gold.

Via Mentored by a Millionaire: Master Strategies of Super Achievers:

“When a bucket of criticism is thrown at us, the first thing that hits our face is the water.  It’s cold, and it’s shocking, but it’s really quite harmless. 

All we have to do is grab a towel and dry off.  Some of the sand in the bottom of the bucket also hits us in the face, and a few grains get into our eyes. 

That’s a little more painful and irritating and needs to be removed from our eyes, not only to end the pain and irritation but so we can see more clearly.  And finally there’s the gold.  It’s hidden in the couple inches of sand left in the bottom of the bucket.”

The Gold is the Criticisms that Makes Us Wiser

The gold is the truth.  Sometimes the truth hurts.   You can use the feedback to empower you and grow wiser in the process.

Via Mentored by a Millionaire: Master Strategies of Super Achievers:

“The gold is the truth of the criticism that can make us wiser and help us adjust our behavior, our attitudes, or our words for the better. 

There may only be a flake of truth that really needs to be searched for, or there may be a giant gold nugget of truth that will be of immeasurable value. 

This is what Churchill, Solomon, and Lillian Gish were talking about.  They realized that with criticism, there’s often a measure of truth that can be of great benefit to us and to those we relate to.”

With the process on your side and a metaphor at your back, test drive your ability to respond to criticism and welcome the next chance that comes along to take your game to a new level.

Photo by peasap.


  1. I enjoyed this article tremendously. Sensitivity to criticism in general is revealing of a fragile sense of self-esteem. It is tempting to grovel in self-pity when we are being criticized. However, when we do so, we will not be able to discover the gold within the truth of the criticism. Thanks for the beautiful message that you have for me today!!

  2. Hi JD,
    That’s a very good critique of “criticism”.Sometimes you have to take it with a grain of sand other times you can gain a valuable learning experience from it (if the criticiser has validity). Thank you.
    be good to yourself

  3. I love that, JD: Water, Sand & Gold. So many folks take criticism personally and never find the Gold that leads to tremendous breakthroughs. When it comes to criticism, I like to say we need to learn how to listen without listening. When someone listens, and then adds his own thoughts and opinions, he’s not listening. If I hesitate to empty my mind of its chattering opinion, than I am being stubborn and will never find that Gold. When we learn to truly listen to criticism – ordinary thinking comes to an end and extraordinary thinking will begin. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Hi J.D.,

    Such wise words. Criticism is hard to take, but like you shared, if we can “find the gold”, we’ll be better off in the long run. Of course it’s not easy to say we’re wrong (or have been misinformed), but that’s part of the growth process.

  5. Great review and article here JD – I resonated with all the points and suggestions and must temper myself when it refers to consider the source.

    I have a hard time with criticism especially when I do not fine tooth comb through the source. I have had several writing teachers who offered up waterfalls of criticism about my work because a) I was a woman, b)because my style was unique, c) because I had the nerve to attend class, d) and did I not know I was a “special needs” student….I had to take the class to graduate and I had to take 3 classes from the worst fellow….the gold was understanding how people do not understand their own prejudice and how some individuals do need protection.

    I believed Anita Hill and know that sometimes criticism is just a way for a person to vent and sputter their own inadequacies and that women need to be smarter about it…and using it – finding that gold/or getting out of the mine sooner

  6. Hey J.D. – I used to hate to be criticized. But finally realized that I need some criticism from time to time to get a taste of others perceptions of me, or my performance. Not that I get caught up in what others think (well I try not to), but because sometimes it’s challenging to see myself from a distance.

    Some criticism I shake off – some I take as gold. It depends on the source and how I feel it’s being delivered (to help or to harm).

    Thank you

  7. @ Evelyn — There really is an art part to discovering the gold. I think part of the art is keeping yourself safe, while exploring the opportunities that the feedback offers, and choosing what you’re ready to act on.

    @ David — At the end of the day, it seems like a very useful question is always, “How can I use this?”

    @ Rob — Beautiful … the art of “listening without listening.” There is a lot to be said for being able to take something in, let it land gently, then take a look from a curious state of mind.

    @ Barbara — I like your focus on the growth process. I’m a fan of the power of the right mindset, and I think a growth mindset truly helps us absorb and use criticism more effectively.

    @ Patricia — I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that we often see in others, what we see in ourselves. The beauty with feedback is we can always choose to ignore it, or take it all in, or use the parts that helps us the most.

    @ Jk — Intentions are a powerful thing, and the toughest feedback from those that have our best intentions in mind, is some of the best gold in the world. Sometimes tough love, really is tough.

  8. I knew from the title of this article that I would enjoy it. Sometimes it can be so hard to hear criticism, but I always enjoy when I find the nuggets in the sand. They give me something to work on to make my life better. Considering the source is so important here; not everyone has our best interest at heart.

  9. Hi JD,

    First time visitor, but this was really interesting.

    Handling criticism well is NOT EASY. Our natural reaction is to defend ourselves or reflect criticism right back at the person giving it.

    I’ve had to hold my tongue many times after being criticized, even when I knew it was completely incorrect and ignorant of the accuser.

    Sometimes it’s better to take some unjust criticism than to say something rashly that could end up warranting some justified criticism.

    Well, I hope to be back often.



  10. Hi JD .. this is just great and everyone’s comments too – so much that’s thrown at us, takes us by surprise and we react .. if only we could let things simmer down, filter out and then we’d have a chance to see what’s being said or thought about.

    So often it’s the mirror being thrown back – it’s not necessarily our problem (though there’s always things to learn) .. it’s others’ misunderstandings or overreaction, which we then react too in the wrong way.

    Love the three steps again .. water, sand and gold .. the negativity, the in between while we think, the positive as we take something good from it and accept the criticism for what it is … cheers Hilary

  11. It was very hard for me to stop reacting defensively when faced with criticism. I had to learn to put my lips together and hold my mouth shut so I could listen! This is a great way to evaluate and learn from helpful criticism.

  12. @ Lisa — Feedback really is a gift when we know how to use it. I’ve learned to really appreciate the tough feedback, to the point where I really push for it, if I’m not getting it.

    @ Bryce — Thank you. Good point on reflecting criticism right back at the person giving it. I think we learn that habit early on (The saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue …” comes to mind.)

    I’ve always like the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and I think that’s especially true with feedback 😉

    @ Hilary — Great point on taking the time to respond more effectively. I used to underestimate the value of pausing before responding, but it’s a great way to take a more objective view.

    You reminded me that one thing that helps me is that I pair up with the critic to improve. Acting like we’re on the same team, instantly helps see multiple perspectives, and focus on the objective of improvement.

    @ Galen — You’ve learned a great skill for life … it’s like the gift that keeps on giving.

  13. Hi JD,

    For me personally, I believe criticism should be contructive, not destructive. When someone critices me, I take time to evaluate what has been said and if it can benefit me in any way. Thanks for sharing

  14. @ Dia — I agree. I think some people are way better at constructive criticism than others. For me, I’ve learned to turn more destructive criticism into constructive criticism, even if the critic didn’t intend it that way.

    I think some people are so used to feedback falling on deaf ears, they are actually surprised when I quickly act on it.

  15. Wow! What a memorable analogy, JD! This definitely puts criticism into perspective and helps me create that pause before the automatic, often defensive reaction. I know that I often hope to receive feedback, so that I can improve but when it comes to soak it in, it can be really difficult to not take criticism as a personal attack! I’ll definitely be hunting for the gold from now on. =)

    Love that we’ve met and I really look forward to learning more from you! =)

  16. @ Samantha — It sure does help take the sting out of feedback when the search for the gold is on.

    I think part of what makes receiving feedback a challenge, is that a lot of it is non-actionable or it’s not shared very effectively.

    Giving effective feedback takes work. For example, when I give feedback, I try to give concrete examples of what did I see or what did I hear (a focus on the behavior), and then provide alternative actions. I try to be specific, so that the feedback is useful, relevant, and testable. Basically, it’s a bit more work, but it helps to show that my intent is to truly help them improve.

    We have more time ahead of us than behind us, and I look forward to the adventures ahead.

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