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As freelancers, we often have to walk the tightrope between pleasing our audience and holding true to our artistic or professional vision – it’s presumably why they hired us in the first place, after all. Especially for creatives, criticism comes with the job. In fact, one good argue that criticism is the natural response to art.
Critic’s words have power: not only does your audience listen to them, but the impact they can have on the artist’s psyche can make or break a career – if you let ‘em. As in all things, the key to processing critical feedback, good or bad, is with balance. As artists, we have to be open enough to allow criticism to take us in new directions and to higher heights, but we also must be confident enough to know who has the final say when it comes to our work – us.
When I receive criticism, I use a few different filters to help me determine whether to follow the critic’s line of thought and see where it takes me in my work, or tune out the schmuck.
1. Do you respect the critic?
When you’re debating whether or not to take criticism to heart, try stepping away from your reflexive emotional reaction and ask yourself – do you really respect the person criticizing you?
Do you respect and admire their work? Do you generally respect their opinion? Do you find them thoughtful and perceptive?
If the answer is yes, you may indeed want to closely consider their perspective, and find out what you can learn. It might not take you anywhere and compel you to change anything, but if a mentor, a loved one, a respected fellow artist or a trusted friend raise an uncharacteristic eyebrow at your work, it’s worth taking some time to figure out why.
But if you don’t respect the person criticizing you – if they’re a rival whose work you can’t stand, a parent who never really understood you anyway, or some friend from college you’ve just grown apart from – why stress over their feedback?
Sure, occasionally these types to get a crystal clear view of a weakness in your work and jump on it with glee (you’ll know it when this happens), but more often than not they’re just seeking out unkind things to say. Don’t let their thorny words get their hooks into your sweet, sensitive little artist’s soul.
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2. Seek out people whose opinions you DO respect.
Does their opinion actively affect you?
When we run into unpleasant feedback, it’s easy to feel like the answer to this question is “YES, OBVIOUSLY IT AFFECTS ME, I HAVE BEEN SWEARING AND THROWING THINGS AROUND THE ROOM FOR HALF AN HOUR.”
Your emotional reaction may indeed be justified – and more importantly, you can’t help how you feel! But don’t wallow in self-recrimination, if you can help it. Does this criticism actively affect you?
Is the person giving you criticism a client? A potential client? Are they someone you’ve entrusted to help you: a mentor, a teacher, an advisor?
If they’re NOT one of those people, you can dial down the urgency of your emotional reaction. If their criticism has no power in your life than the power you give it, then take control of the situation a decide whether you can use the feedback productively. If the answer is no, move on!
3. Does their criticism help you grow?
Here’s a hint: the anonymous Internet commenter who wrote that your article “suCKz!!1!” is not good for much… except raising your blood pressure.
While it seems that the internet has made everyone a critic, all it’s really done is unleash a whole lot of trolls. Learn to discern between trollish behavior aimed at undermining you right where it hurts – no, not there! I mean your insecurities.
That’s right. Trolls have a super special skill for taking note of whatever it is that’s discomfiting you that day: an errant cowlick, the fact that you’re single, or a stupid typo that you failed to catch. As artists, vulnerability and imperfection is the salt that flavors our work, but it also leaves us open to people who would like to bring us down.
Remember, dear artist: There are irrational, cranky, angry people out there in the world – people who do not like dolphins, or cookies, or the cast album of Hamilton, or any number of things that are pretty empirically excellent and awesome. When you encounter criticism that’s intent on tearing you down, realize that you may be dealing with one of those people.
Heck, even a rational person having a perfectly lovely day may just dislike some of your work… and that’s okay!
When you’re struggling with whether or not to believe criticism, ask yourself if it’s likely to make you grow – if it can contribute in any real way to your work. Is it thoughtful, incisive, and worthy of reflection? Does it give you options to explore? If it DOESN’T, chalk up the experience to “character-building” and let it slide off your back.
Ultimately, criticism is only productive if it can help you produce. If it doesn’t come from a respected source or help you to improve, let it just be noise. You don’t have to listen!
Kate Shea 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.