When Complaining Is a Good Thing

Sometimes the best ideas come from whining...what are yours?

Posted May 21, 2013

Each year, I take a group of graduate students to Hanoi, Vietnam for a week’s residency.  I’ve spent many years working in Hanoi and I know it’s not the easiest place to visit – it can be hot, noisy, chaotic and so very different for people who’ve not traveled much or to Asia.  So before we left, I remind my colleagues of “the three C’s” that I try to use when I travel or go into some new situation:

  • Don’t compare
  • Don’t criticize
  • Don’t complain

If you travel, you know how easy it is to fall into these three traps.  

“They don’t use FORKS here?  How will I be able to eat?”

“The traffic is crazy and doesn’t follow any rules like we do.  I mean, people run red lights!  How can I possibly cross the street here?”

“The power went out this morning, they don’t have grapefruit for breakfast, and I saw a cockroach by the pool.”

What happens then?  The mind shuts down and it’s hard to get the benefit of being in a new place.  Instead, I urge myself (and anyone who will listen to me) to use the Three A’s:

  • Absorb
  • Ask
  • Analyze (later)

Travel and new experiences can be a time simply to absorb the sights, sounds, smells, feel, tastes, and, yes, even those things that might be uncomfortable.  Rather than criticizing or comparing, I try to ask what’s behind the use of chopsticks, the way traffic “works,” or how people manage when power dies on a regular basis. Then, later, often much later, I try to understand and analyze the experience.

The three C’s and three A’s are good for travel.  But, I admit it, sometimes complaining can be a good thing.

If you think of how new ideas or inventions happen, often it’s because someone complained or criticized the way things are done.  I recently saw two TV ads for products that must have come up because someone whined. 

Ford's minivan with foot activated tailgate

One ad was for a way to open a mini van’s back door with your foot.  The ad said, we often have our “hands full and our feet free” so why not use them instead of fighting with groceries or children or dry cleaning as we try to open those flap doors on the back of a vehicle. Just lift your foot, press a lever, and like magic, the door opens.  Brilliant.

Another ad showed ears.  Like finger prints, our ears come in different shapes and sizes, and as the ad says, they are not all round.  So why should all ear buds be round? I certainly have had the problem of the ear buds popping out. I never complained to anyone except for my long suffering spouse.  Apparently someone whined, though, and Apple listened.  The iPhone 5 comes with ear buds that have a small pointed edge to hook better and stay in your ears. 

iphone earbugs, wired.com

So maybe we need to find the right places to complain and use it for coming up with new ideas.