Navigating Negativity: How to Learn From and Love Your Critics
To start, a quick story about learning from (and loving) your critics.
My friend was about to upload a collection of new songs to YouTube. The new material was a major departure in sound from his previous music. Additionally, the songs were a year in the making, over which time a number of changes in his life – both good and bad – had taken place. The new music seemed to carry some of that weight.
The upload finishes. My friend (let’s call him Byron, since his real name is Byron) sends a quick email announcement to his newsletter base. A couple more updates on various threads and sites. Byron steps back from the screen, grins, and pretends to pop a champagne bottle.
Mission accomplished! Terrific. Ready to move on, I said something indicating as much. But I don’t think Byron heard me. I look over and he’s back at the computer. He’s ready for the jury.
“Love it. When are you coming to Seattle?”
A few more light, approving comments in that vein. Then we land on this chestnut:
“This new stuff is total garbage. Please stop.”
We laughed. How ridiculous! Could anyone take such armchair idiocy to heart? Pass the fake champagne, please.
Luckily the comments continue and folks get the convo back on track. More friendly affirmations of the new musical direction. But a moment later, another stray cat:
“Oh shit – that reminds me. I need to take out the trash. Sunday funday y’all.”
Things kind of spiraled from there. The chatter irrevocably shifted to weekend chores and ventings on city waste management.
Thinking back on that scene, I see that it wasn’t the individual negative comments that shook us up – after all, the large majority of feedback was resoundingly supportive. It was the realization of “Oh right, we really have no control over this side of things.” What we were missing was a frame of reference and a way to make sense of the spectacle. We were dogs chasing a laser pointer.
The world of digital naysayery can be tough to navigate as a creative. But criticism doesn’t have to debilitate artistry. In fact, with this basic framework, I think any artist can conquer, learn from, and even love their critics. And yes, you’re free to critique the framework.
4 Ways to Navigate Negativity
1. Recognize your role
Part of being an artist is offering yourself to judgement. Some would even say this is the whole of being an artist. Whenever we put a creation online, we’re consenting to the fine print that says we’re implicit in other people’s unpredictable reactions. Sorry, them’s the rules.
This doesn’t mean we must accept blame or full responsibility for everything that ensues. But we should at least acknowledge that we’re willfully throwing out the first pitch.
Many famed actors and artists of the past refused to read reviews of their work. For those now working in the digital sphere, where creator and community are often ingrained, the hear-no-evil approach is simply not an option. Though if the originator of the thing can take some level of ownership over the situation, they’ll find a sense of control comes along with it. From there, it becomes infinitely easier to cope with any resulting negativity.
2. Rise above the noise
If Ratatouille taught us anything, it’s that a good critic plays a valuable role in the world of art and culture – as a champion of the new and the undervalued. A comment, however, does not make one a critic. This distinction is key when trying to filter out the noise.
The main point of difference between a substantive comment and a throw-away is that substance describes what it sees. A critic knows why they like/dislike something, and is able to explain why. The late great Roger Ebert defined it this way: “A good critic teaches you something.”
If someone responds negatively without trying to educate, that comment is probably not worth your time. Consider it debris. The wind brought it to your feet with no rhyme or reason, so step over it or put it in the recycle bin. What choice do you have? The bigger you get, the windier it’s gonna get. Fortunately, you don’t have to love these critics because they are not really critics. See how I maneuvered there to abide by the title of this post?
Kenna, the creator behind Modern Soapmaking, has overcome much personal criticism as she’s built her business. “Part of growing both as a creative and an entrepreneur is to recognize that opinions aren’t facts” she says. “Whether you ask for the feedback or you get it without request, you have to learn to separate your personal feelings from the business side of things.
“One of the biggest struggles I had when I first started Modern Soapmaking was putting myself as the face of a brand, and handling the opinions that would come from that.Maybe someone put down your new product. That’s okay, they aren’t the ones who it was made for. There are people out there who are the right people for it, who will love it and adore it, and feel it was made just for them.”
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3. Mine for Gold
They may be couched in snark or phrased horribly, but hot dog if some negative comments don’t contain nuggets of wisdom. We might stand to learn something that could better our craft by mining for insights.
Lee Hammond is a painter and author who’s written extensively about how to navigate stinging criticism. “Human nature is funny that way, for some can only see the negative” she says. “And you would think that with all the positive remarks I receive, I would be able to disregard the negative, but that’s not always the case.”
Lee once told the story of her hesitation to engage with someone who’d written her a lengthy piece of hate mail titled “I used to be a fan.” Following much distress and internal debate, she decided to respond.
“After reading and re-reading this email, I decided to learn from it” she says. “Actually, he had some valid points under all of that negativity. I decided to reach for those and apply them, and flush the rest.” With this mindset, Lee and many other artists have been able to benefit from their harsh criticism.
4. Stay Human
Sometimes response to an off-base comment is warranted. Why? Because justice demands it, that’s why. Still it’s all too easy to come off looking petty or foolish when responding directly to criticism, even when the response is justified.
There’s no magic template for rebuttals, but things typically work out best when responders remains themselves. So avoid the trap of adopting a PR-style persona (unless for comedic effect). Be angry if you like, lay on the sass. Just be genuine when doing so.
For comic artist and illustrator Jason Brubaker, the most natural response is simply to take the high road.
Jason relayed this story: “A few year back I had to take a hiatus from updating weekly on my webcomic because I had to build back up my buffer (and work my day job). One guy got extremely mad at me for not posting new pages. And when I told my audience I was going to start streaming my screen as I worked on pages, he told me I was acting like a rock star and that ‘I was all into myself for posting videos of me working.’ My approach was just to politely wish them luck in finding what they are looking for online. I’m fine if that’s not me.”
All great artists and creators have had to overcome scathing reviews and critical rejection at some point in their careers. The Beatles were rejected from label after label before they hit it big. And after they hit it big, Frank Sinatra and the music establishment proclaimed they were ruin of western civilianization. The foremost art critics of the day called Picasso satanic and said his paintings “leave one feeling cold.” History tells us that on the road to artistic progress, thick skin is its own form of talent.
Now if you don’t mind, I need to go take out the garbage.
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