“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” - Sir Winston Churchill
It can be a painful process: working hard to do the best you can, submitting your work for approval, and listening as your project is picked apart by someone else. But Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about being criticized (he did spend some time in the "political wilderness", after all), was right; like pain, criticism draws our attention to things that might require improvement. It helps us see our bad habits and our imperfections. It is the necessary feedback mechanism that, while sometimes harsh, helps us get better at the things we do.
That is, if you get the right kind and are able to deal with it. Some criticism ("Matt Terry's latest article on ECR sucks!") is too vague. Other criticism ("Matt Terry's latest article on ECR should have been in the form of a video blog post shot as a film noir!") suggest improvements that aren't feasible or even warranted under the circumstances. So what exactly is constructive criticism?
Constructive criticism's focus is on improving rather than attacking an individual, team, or methods. It also takes into account the possibility of a mistaken perspective on the part of the critic (so no hard feelings about the film noir thing, OK?).
You can recognize constructive feedback because it tends to be delivered in the form of a verbal sandwich, with positive comments taking the place of bread and constructive comments taking the place of meat. An example: “You know Steve, you always take your photos from just the right angle. You might want to watch your lighting, but overall your work is great.”
For the creative professional, criticism can come from many people and take many forms: meetings with clients, feedback from peers (solicited or otherwise), an email from your boss or comments left on your personal blog or website.
Recognizing constructive feedback is one thing, but what do you do when you receive it?
For starters, understand that criticism isn’t about you as a person, but about your work or the process you undertake to produce it. Don’t get defensive or brush it off but really listen to what’s being said to you. Take some time to think about the comments and figure out what you can learn from them. If it’s legitimate criticism, find out how you can apply the feedback in the future. This will not only make you better at what you do, but will show others that you’re comfortable and confident with your skills.
Criticism also gives you valuable insights and new perspectives on the work you do. You might be an expert photographer, designer, or writer, but your work can surely benefit from the unique life experiences and ideas of someone else.
Above all, value the fact that someone took the time to help you out. After all, the flip side to accepting constructive criticism is remaining blissfully unaware that you could be doing better, or worse, that you’re doing something outright wrong.
If you manage a team or work with collaborators, you’ll eventually find yourself needing to provide criticism. Learning how to deliver it can help you learn to better accept it yourself. Some best practices:
- Be as specific as possible about the issues of concern
- Show the benefits of improving
- Use positive language in describing your concerns
- Be brief
- Diffuse potential anger
- Allow for improvement by addressing issues as they occur, rather than letting them compound into a great problem
Being criticized (constructively or otherwise) isn’t always fun. A quick glimpse through the history books, however, shows that even the world’s most talented, artistic, and skilled people had their critics: one of Mozart’s compositions was criticized for being “too strongly spiced”; playwright George Bernard Shaw slammed Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times, calling one character "a mere figment of middle-class imagination; and English artist and critic Roger Fry concluded that “[Pablo Picasso’s] interpretation of vision is rarely profound”.
These comments may be harsh, but they certainly don’t take away from the legacies of those they were directed toward. Keep that in mind the next time someone shares their thoughts on your work and use the feedback to make yourself even better at everything you do.