Dealing With Criticism Effectively
Being criticised hurts. It should! If it didn't, you would never improve. Here's how to deal with it effectively to preserve your reputation... and your sanity.
The day criticism doesn’t sting is the day to quit. If you’ve become complacent, you’ve stopped learning. You should be confident in the great work you so frequently produce but not to the point that you believe everything you create is perfect. It won’t be. You’re a human being and perfection is not attainable, no matter how hard you try. There is always space to develop and being criticised is a valuable education. If you didn’t feel in some way hurt by criticism, what is your motivation for improvement?
A difficulty in how we handle criticism comes from the fact we are animals. As such, we have animal instincts. There are three dogs who live next-door to me. Every time I empty the kitchen sink, which flows out into the drain outside, they bark. To us, it seems silly. It’s only water. To them, it’s an unknown noise so they react instinctively to protect themselves. Cats behave similarly by fleeing at the slightest sound. There’s a tip in that comparison. Dogs stand their ground, cats run. Sorry cat lovers, but we should react more like ‘man’s best friend’. I’m not suggesting we growl at someone who critiques our work but escaping to safe ground means we lose the opportunity to grow.
Human beings are well-known for fixating on the negative. We’ve been on Earth for at least 300,000 years in a primitive form and around 100,000 in our current state. It’s only in recent millennia that life for most of us became relatively safe. Previously, wild animals with the power to kill us in an instant roamed pretty much freely. Reacting quickly and decisively to a perceived threat was essential for survival. If we ran from a strange noise and it was only the wind, we survived. If we hung around and it turned out to be a tiger, we were lunch. Even with this danger becoming increasingly rare, only in relatively recent decades has war not been part of life for most of us. Where I come from, Wales, my grandparents could recall having to shelter at the sound of a siren. My Grandad was fortunate, his was a reserved occupation, but many of his friends and family would have seen active combat. We are therefore naturally programmed to react to the negative and ignore the positive. Subconsciously, we perceive criticism as a threat and react accordingly, albeit unnecessarily.
The truth is, criticism doesn’t endanger our survival. When we behave like it does, we are guilty of overreacting. It should be painful, but you must not allow it to completely alter your opinion of yourself. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong. You’re human, give yourself a break, look to fix the problem and learn from it. Other times, it will be a question of taste. I recently finished reading La Familia Grande, a book which has earned rave reviews and has been translated into several languages. The topic it covers is very intriguing, and harrowing, but I really didn’t like the way the author had written it. Does this mean Camille Kouchner, the writer, is a terrible author? Of course not. It just means her writing style doesn’t suit my tastes. Perceptions of creative work are very often subjective. If you receive criticism, and you will, assess whether there is a problem with the quality or whether it just doesn’t fit with what your client wants. If it’s the former, accept that your first draft wasn’t your best work and ensure the second is. If the latter, change what requires alteration to suit your client’s needs. Regardless of which it is, learn, improve, but don’t associate your work being critiqued with being awful at what you do.
Humility is also important. Particularly if your first draft wasn’t good and even you can see this on review, but still put it into context. It’s one piece of work, not everything you’ve ever done. Even Al Pacino, Serena Williams, Adele, Billy Connolly, you name them, have suffered off days. So, as long as the criticism is constructive, and if it’s being delivered by someone who values professionalism, it really should be, welcome it as an opportunity to grow. Once everything has been resolved, thank your critic for their guidance, stressing how much you value the chance to improve. After all, they’ve taken their time to help you become even better in your chosen field.