Take Criticism Like a Pro

“How do you handle feedback?” is a question I get asked from time to time. It’s one I’ve had trouble answering because taking criticism is something I manage well enough that I forget how delicate people can be. Weeks ago I took part in a podcast where feedback was a main topic. I felt afterwards that we kind of made a hash of it because our responses were basically, “Well, feedback is good, right? Right.” I’ve been trying to work out a more helpful answer ever since.

First, feedback is essential to creative growth, just as it is with biological evolution. Without the push-pull of outside forces, life wouldn’t have developed the complexity it has today because it wouldn’t need to. We’d still all be single-celled organisms swilling primordial soup – if that. Of course the process requires death and pain. It’s unavoidable, but beneficial. Just ask someone who can’t feel pain. They’ll tell you their life is a constant struggle not to maim themselves because their body won’t tell them when something’s wrong. For art, the same is true.

But how did I learn to take the pain? I suppose some personal history is in order. First day of art college: the pottery class all got to throw something on the wheel. Afterwards the teacher took a clay wire and sliced all their pots in half. Students whined. Because back in high school everything they made was a precious gem to take home to mommy. This shit, however, would not fly here. Students paid to learn, and that meant dissecting every pot until they stopped sucking.

A similar lesson was carried out in figure drawing class. Students spent days doing nothing but 30-second gesture drawings. They wouldn’t get a good long pose until they’d practiced getting the whole body down in as short a time as possible. This kept students from spending all their time drawing the model’s face, or boobs, or whatever – over focusing on details without grasping the bigger picture. It also taught another valuable lesson: not every stroke of the pen is sacred. It forced students to practice and get used to drawing endless reams of crap.

Every student had to learn how to critique and be critiqued, though these sessions were soft compared to some places online. It was a supportive environment where your work was regularly picked apart. And nearly every student (that didn’t drop out after first year) realized that criticism wasn’t personal. These people were trying to help (even if that help was misguided attempts to get students to stop painting realistically in favor of abstract expressionism because the instructor drank the Greenberg/Rosenberg Kool-aid).

So my answer to how I handle feedback is: training.

Of course finding ways to train your mental feedback forcefield can be difficult, especially if your only available resources are online, where trolls lurk around every corner. The answer isn’t finding some hugbox where criticism isn’t allowed, because these environments are toxic, poisoned by the egos of people who’ve devolved into the creative equivalent bacteria, endlessly eating their own shit and never evolving. To learn how to take criticism you have to seek it out, and that means putting your stuff out there. So what are some ways to ease into it?

Start with the equivalent of 30-second gesture drawings. Whether it’s art, writing, or anything else, start with practice sessions. If it’s just a scribble or a 1000 word story (or blog post), it’s just practice. Emotional attachment is low and it also doesn’t take up much time. Less time equals more opportunities to take in feedback and revise, and less emotion means you might actually try someone’s suggestions instead of getting too invested in your own bullshit.

If someone hurts your feelings, step away from the computer. I know how hard it can be not to hit post after you’ve written a long rebuttal starting with, “No, actually you are the one who sucks because…” But trust me, if you do this all you’re proving is you’re butthurt. Not only that, but people will start criticizing you – personally – for being a mental child. Whereas if you’d kept your fool mouth shut the criticism would have stayed not personal. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched people piss and moan about people being mean to them – for pissing and moaning. The best course of action is to walk away and get some air. Make a nice dinner or something. Also remember everyone hurts when they’re told something they did sucks – it’s what you do with those feelings that makes you either hurt or butthurt. The difference is, when you’re butthurt you’re showing people your butt.

Remember it’s not personal. Take another look at the criticism once you’ve gained a bit of distance from it. Some of the harshest criticism can be the most helpful. I’ve found most pros, in any field, don’t sugarcoat their advice because they’re giving you the same respect they give other pros: no bullshit. When you’re pressed for time, you need a fix now, and that means, “Tell me what’s wrong with this!” Anyone who obliges without wasting time is a saint in that environment. If however you detect it’s not so much real criticism as trolling, let it go.
 There is no sense in picking a fight about it – if it is trolling, that’s exactly what they want.

Don’t be afraid to scrap ideas that aren’t working. If you’re going back and forth trying to improve the same piece over and over, if it won’t come out right no matter how many times you change it, it’s called reworking a piece to death. Move on to something else. Also know you can always revisit the idea later (even though ideas aren’t precious). Sometimes all it needs is that extra bit of distance and experience. You’ll never get there if you refuse to stop grinding down the same old nub. I’ve put down projects for years, only to tackle them later – from scratch – once I’ve finally figured out how to do the idea justice.

If you need encouragement, seek it out in the right places. If you’re posting your work somewhere for criticism, state your needs up front. If you just want a gentle nudge, say so. But don’t overplay your need to be coddled outside a hugbox or your own social media space. You might as well paint a target on yourself. Also show trusted people your early work in private. Usually when you need the most encouragement are the early stages where your work is most raw. No one wants to see your work when it’s that rough – but sometimes you need friends to indulge you, and good friends will. There’s no shame in that.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.