• Advice

Why you should court your best critics

Everyone wants feedback. It's just important to know where to find it. Like anyone who creates pieces for public consumption, I encounter a lot of critics – both helpful and unhelpful. It’s why I generally try to avoid the comment section – but I am only human. Inevitably, for every “I loved this / how wonderful” comment, there are plenty of “I hated this / how stupid” remarks.

It’s difficult for many of us to resist looking for feedback in all the wrong places. We want to be good at what we do, and we want honest responses. It’s natural (and even laudable) to be curious about what other people think; indeed, a moderate interest in feedback can be a road to self-improvement. It only becomes an exercise in unhelpful self-flagellation when we blindly grope for criticism – instead of courting it in a focused fashion.

Crowd-sourcing feedback just isn’t useful. What IS useful is finding mentors and audiences that you really, really trust – and asking them to give you constructive criticism that improves your work, instead of uselessly feeding (or destroying) your ego.

The good news is that these “best critics” are easier to find than you might think.

Although it’s a conventional choice, supervisors or project leaders that you respect are often helpful people to ask for honest feedback. As a freelancer, this can be a little scary – after all, it can often feel like you’re inviting people to examine and catalogue your weaknesses. But nobody is more poised to detail areas of potential improvement than the people who bear responsibility for your work!

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It isn’t a great idea to ask a supervisor for an informal evaluation in the middle of a project. But if you have a good relationship with the person, it’s easy enough to ask once you’ve finished up a gig (or during a lull). Be honest about exactly why you’re asking – you’re looking to get feedback on how you can improve, on what worked, on what might be interesting to re-examine for the next project. Make sure that it’s a friendly request, and not a desperate push for approval. If you can come across as self-reflective, non-defensive, and genuinely curious about how to improve, you’ll up your chances of receiving valuable criticism – and even impressing them. Asking for this kind of feedback has not only gotten me some nice work-oriented recommendations, but also built stronger relationships with existing clients… turning them into repeat employers.

Another good option is **personal heroes. **Think of people in your life whose work you emulate or whose opinion you respect; what would you like to learn from them? Ask them if you could solicit some constructive criticism from them and offer to do something for them in return. Buy them a nice lunch or dinner, offer some favor in trade or (if you don’t know them very well) even suggest a small consulting fee; this makes people take the evaluation more seriously, and shows that you value their time. Often, these would-be mentors will give you feedback for free; but almost nobody will turn down a free dinner, and it’s a nice thank-you. Again, emphasize that you’re looking for honest criticism, not necessarily praise; you want an objective view of how you’re doing.

A third choice is paid professionals. These can be teachers, career/life coaches, or even professional consultants; a little bit of research (and asking around for referrals) can often turn up good options. Whenever I’m feeling a bit rusty or wobbly, I like to take a class from a teacher I trust – it helps me feel like I’m getting a nice hit of unprejudiced feedback, while sharpening my skills.

Constructive feedback is a great tool for continually improving your work… as long as you look for it in the right places. Instead of curbing your impulse to look for feedback, court VALUABLE criticism. Absorb it with an open mind and a non-defensive attitude, and you’ll grow more than you ever thought possible – without ever having to read the comments.

Where do you find your best constructive criticism? Got any tips? Leave them in the comments!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.