People hate criticism.
Writers, artists, scientists, your Mom – no one wants to hear all the ways they’re screwing up. The only thing they hate more than the criticism itself? The jerk who doles it out.
As a self-proclaimed critical bitch, I like to think I know something about criticism.
But the general presumption about critics (I think) is that while we know how to dish it out, we can’t very well take it in. I’d like to take this moment to disparage that idea (not for all of us, but for some of us) and tell you writers, artists, scientists, mothers – I too, have received my fair share of strongly worded criticism.
The best critics, the best artists, the best creatives, I believe, have been on both sides of the table.
In case you’d like a measure of proof, know that my first foray into the arts was as a freshman at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as an oft recipient of criticism. I had arrived on academic scholarship, not on my artistic merits, and it showed. Never in my life had I been the worst in nearly every class. It took about two weeks of tacking my out of proportion drawings to the wall, being told my painting style was “grotesque,” then promptly crying in the bathroom afterward to realize that being an artist was no easy task.
I didn’t become a “critic” until my junior year of college, committing to cinema studies and analyzing my one true love – film. I followed that up with a grad school stint at film school, learning how to craft the things I had spent the last few years tearing apart. I like to consider myself well-rounded.
At this point, I like to think I can take shit pretty damn well.
With that in mind, here are 5 ways to take your criticism with a grain of salt – and get the most out of what can be an awful, intimidating, humiliating experience OR, if you play your cards right, an enlightening, engaging, and enriching one.
Before, during, after. This seems simple, but I can’t tell you how many critiques and note-sessions I’ve sat through and honestly forgot to breathe like a normal human being. I get scared, I get nervous, and I tense up. If I can remember to do nothing else when receiving criticism, I remind myself to breathe. No project is more important than your self.
It’s easy to tune out when you don’t want to hear the bad things, and just as easy to tune out when you’re inundated with a wash of lovely compliments. The important thing is to hear what your critics are actually saying: What are they getting from the piece? What aren’t they getting? Listen just as much to what is being said to what isn’t. Is there something you were expecting to hear that never comes up? Make a note of it. Don’t interrupt, no need to react, just take it in. It’s a lot like taking a downward dog or forward fold in Yoga – a resting pose. At first, it can be uncomfortable, but with breath and practice, it can be the most restorative pose of all. Hearing feedback from others is crucial to the growth of your work.
Know what you want to get out of it
Going into criticism without a clear idea of what you want or need to know about your own work is a recipe for emotional and intellectual disaster. When I go into a criticism session, I always prepare a list of questions ahead of time – and I physically write them down so I don’t forget (or become so flustered and anxious to get the whole mess over with that I forget to ask). Your questions can help you if there’s a stall in feedback, but most of all, knowing what you want to get out of the criticism can provide the best filter for the kind of shit you’re looking to avoid. Some criticism is amazing. Some of it is totally unhelpful – that is to say, weak, thin, not well thought out, misinformed, or even downright mean. And although this is the kind of dreck you’d most often like to avoid, it’s par for the course, and I promise, it will happen. Knowing what you need to learn about your own work will help you sift those unhelpful pieces of advice out from the bits of honest-to-goodness gold a good critic can provide. And yes, sometimes the meanest, ugliest, shittiest people stumble upon the best criticism. It’s up to you to find it.
Present your best work (or recognize what isn’t)
Ideally, you’ll be showing something you’re confident in, which will make listening to the bad ideas much simpler (they’ll just slide off like water). But that’s not reality – there is going to be a day when you’re ill prepared, don’t know what the hell you just wrote/painted/made, and honestly, you could provide yourself a healthy round of ugly criticism. BUT DON’T. Instead, put your work in the hands of your critics and let them tell you what they see. Some of my best critiques have been over work that was absolutely not my best. Complete, finished, perfect work doesn’t benefit from critique – unfinished, incomplete, imperfect work has room to grow. So do feel proud of what you put on display – but if it’s not quite ready, don’t let it stop you. Just know what you’re putting out there.
Don’t make any changes
Really. Not today. Or tomorrow. Don’t make a single change until you’ve had an opportunity to digest (and filter) any and all ideas and information. Not every idea is a good idea. Not every criticism is valid or right for your project. Some of it is. You’ll see which is which much clearer a few days out, and that’s when you should start to comb through it yourself and make the tweaks. What started out as someone’s dig at your hard work could suddenly morph into that epiphany that makes the work shine. It could also just be that – a dig. Your best changes? They may have nothing to do with the criticism you just received. But the ideas? You won’t have them without the courage it takes to put your work out there in the line of fire.
How do you feel about criticism? Helpful or hurtful? Give me your best advice.