Criticism: take it; leave it; but face it

In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

– Restaurant critic Anton Ego, Ratatouille

Common career advice is to always ask for feedback when your application or interview was unsuccessful. My aversion to feedback or criticism had been deeply entrenched from childhood.  I think this was because of two reasons: the way the feedback was given and I conflated criticism of my work with criticism of myself. 

From my earliest memories, feedback was more of a command: I should or shouldn’t do it this way or that. It’s human nature not to like being told what to do and so I would naturally rebel: I would get defensive, shout, sometimes burst into tears. Once I did this, the focus obviously shifted away from the work to me.

I also believed that the criticism of my work was actually a criticism of who I was. I remember asking for feedback from a job interview. The interviewer emailed me back saying that one of my answers was “a bit odd”. As soon as I read this I burst into tears since only an odd person would make an odd answer. “I’m odd!” I wailed to my Mum down the phone.  

It is understandable why criticism is hard to take, as Oliver Burkeman reminds us in his Guardian column: “We want to feel we’re learning and improving, but we also want to be appreciated for who we are. So even when feedback’s delivered perfectly, we’re primed to react badly, because both needs can’t be met at once.” It’s this tension which causes us to flinch instinctively when receiving criticism, no matter how hard we try to welcome it.

Since I took criticism personally, I thought I had to accept it all and make the changes, without taking the time to think through whether the criticism was actually correct. I did it as a form of people pleasing: if I changed something to suit this criticism, I would also suit the critic. This is an impossible task, especially as people have different views. Therefore, I ended up pleasing nobody, least of all myself.

The epiphany came when I recently submitted a short story to a writers’ group. Most of the critics were positive about my story, accept for a couple of them. The first negative criticism was that my story was not convincing; it was a cliché no different from any other story. The second was that my writing style was too informal and chatty. I immediately wanted to defend my work but instead, I kept quiet and thanked the critics. I respected their honesty and took their views on board.

The key – however – was that I had the freedom to decide whether to accept or reject the criticism. I could do this because I showed up, and the purpose of writing the piece was not to please anyone, but to tell a story. Having confidence in my ability made the criticism much easier to handle, and much less personal. In fact, criticism is – by and large – not personal.

Oliver Burkeman emphasises that it’s better to focus more on how we deal with feedback rather than how it is delivered, especially due to the tension mentioned above: “We all need to get better at hearing feedback,” he advises, but, “that doesn’t entail always accepting it.” What’s more, we ought not to get defensive when we get feedback that we consider unfair. Instead, we ought to try to see where that viewpoint is coming from and to demand more clarity if needs be.

It’s only by subjecting our work to the criticism of others that we can improve it. But it’s also worth remembering the above quote: the job of the critic is easy, and our work will always be more meaningful than the criticism attached to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Showing up

And “Olé!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Olé!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote comes from the writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk entitled ‘Your elusive creative genius’. She believes that the negative feelings people endure during the creative process (e.g. fear, rejection, exhaustion, depression, anticipation, etc.) could be improved by changing their mindset. If we can view our creativity as something that visits us – on loan from the external or divine, for a certain period of time – rather than something which solely comes from within us, then perhaps we wouldn’t take such trials, tribulations and triumphs so personally. She encourages us to show up, to give it our all, but know that the rest is beyond our control and to let it go.

I use this advice when writing. Certainly, there have been occasions when I’ve sat at my computer, clueless as to how I was going to write my next post or article. Remembering Elizabeth’s words, I would then tell myself to show up: to write – write anything at the beginning – and to give it my best; and then leave the rest to the divine. 

But showing up doesn’t have to be limited to the creative process, I try to apply it to every area of my life: my job; my relationships; my hobbies; my commitments. I have begun to realise that when you show up, knowing that you have done your best, then no matter what the outcome brings, you can remain assured that there was nothing more you could do to change it.

When it comes to relationships – romantic, platonic, parental, fraternal – showing up matters even more when they are going through hard times. I remember having to face the demise of a relationship; it was becoming increasingly apparent that our next encounter could be the last. It would have been easier to allow the demise to gradually eat away at ourselves, and to leave the table filled with pain and hurt. Instead, I promised myself that on this encounter I would show up: I would bring my best self literally to the table. I focussed on the process, not the outcome. Because of this, I knew that whatever ensued, I had done my part, well.

Showing up is not only about facing fears or facing the truth, it’s also a reminder that things aren’t always set in stone. Sporting events are a testament to this: all seems lost for a team for most of the match, yet something can happen in the 90th minute to change the course of history. All because that team showed up.

Show up; give it your best shot; focus on the process. You may succeed, you may fail, but at least find consolation knowing that there was nothing more you could do. And then give yourself a big “Olé!” from me.

 

Should we really do what we love?

For last month’s issue of Together magazine, I question whether the advice of “doing what you love” as a career is as helpful as it appears. I always thought it was and I wrote about it in a previous post. Below is an excerpt of the magazine article:

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” The plummy voice of Alan Watts (the English author and speaker best remembered for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West) does haunt me. This line in the video ‘What if money was no object?’ sent me into a bit of a tizzy when I first watched it a year ago. It made me call into question what I really desired from life.

Read more (p. 15-16 of Pdf version)