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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The flip-side to failure

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”

– Oliver Burkeman

This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.

“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”

About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure.  I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.

Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.

After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”

So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.

If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.

I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.

I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).

Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.

And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.

Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.

Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.

To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”