Unsurprisingly, a web search for “dealing with criticism” will yield a lot of results. Advice and solutions have been explored and discussed already by people with a lot of experience in psychology and social dynamics. By going through some of the top results the reader is sure to find a wealth of useful information.
Rather than remixing bullet point lists and coming up with stale advice, what I’m going to do is to go back to the basics. This entry is concerned with the only thing which is really, truly important in the matter. And that is…
To change or not to change
By far, the most important decision a person must make after receiving criticism is whether the changes it implies are necessary or even welcomed. If the answer is “no”, then the next step is to be thankful for receiving the time and attention of the critic and then to move on as fast as possible. We should waste no time or feelings when we decide that a change is not necessary.
If the answer is “yes”, then half of the work is already done because this internal acknowledgement is a powerful motivator. What follows is a mixture of integration and communication with the critic, a mental process which should generate decisions.
It takes humbleness and courage to accept and start integrating criticism, but the rewards can be great indeed. By virtue of having a different life experience, the perspective shared by other persons can become a priceless asset. This is not always apparent, so it sometimes can be quite a hurdle to open the door to change.
Once this fundamental decision is made though, the really fun part can finally begin, which is to find how to integrate the external feedback with one’s own work and thought processes. Finding the best of both worlds is challenging but rewarding.
Tune in to usefulness
Not to waste time, let’s not even bother with destructive or unskilled criticism. More often than not, a person will eventually realize when feedback is being given in an aggressive, spiteful way, when it is incorrect or when it is simply not applicable. We’ve all been in such situations. There are many ways through which one can unmask useless criticism. That web search I mentioned earlier is a good starting place for finding such information. I liked these two^ lists^.
Understanding the importance of the other members of society is vital. The criticized person must single out those that can offer valuable feedback. Good, true, useful criticism can come from anywhere. Being personally involved, friends and family usually offer a passionate flavor of advice, which can be delivered in all sorts of ways, from diplomatic to downright depressing. On the other hand, people who don’t have a close personal connection with the person being criticized are less biased.
It is beneficial to gather opinion from both these camps. The critics can be seen as translators – they receive intellectual information and interpret it based on their own life experience. In this way, we can perceive our work or decisions from different vantage points.
Criticism can quickly become overwhelming not only in intensity but also in numbers. Prioritizing the trusted and respected sources of feedback is essential. And never forget that change is not always for the best and it is equally important to not be led astray as it is to improve. The goal is to reach a more desirable state.
Science, art, lifestyle
When receiving criticism, there are significant differences in the way its worthiness can be judged. Sometimes feedback is given against a set of known rules, whereas other times the frame of reference is abstract.
In exact sciences, the worthiness of a piece of advice can be determined with ease. For example if I write bad software, a fellow programmer will have no trouble to support his opinion with undefeatable arguments.
In art, however, things are much more difficult. Art is a deeply personal experience, so we should try to focus on feedback that pertains to skill rather than the overall artistic direction. This is not to say that we can’t take valuable decisions derived from opinion-based criticism, but it is more difficult to balance one’s art with somebody else’s opinion of how it should look or feel. Yet, many artists have done so successfully and have perfected themselves, increasing their popularity.
Our lifestyle is probably the toughest area when dealing with criticism. It’s not that it’s difficult to realize when the advice is correct, but lifestyle is one of the hardest things to change. It can take tremendous effort to modify entrenched habits and conceptions. But in this case, that intense effort can lead to fantastic strides forward, since all that we do, in all other areas, is influenced by the way we live.
In being able to communicate precise concepts to each other, we humans have an enormous advantage. Receiving, accepting and handling feedback is a blessing of the society we are part of. I believe that this life is one long learning experience, and the most efficient way of learning is from a teacher. Good critics are our own private teachers. Be mindful of this opportunity.