Criticism 101: Deal with it…

June 25, 2018

There has never been a time where criticism was more abundant than in this day and age. Fueled by the unlimited amount of information people can gather on top of the accessibility of the means to express their opinions, criticism is always right around the corner…

Dealing with criticism, whether you are the one providing it or the one receiving it, can prove to be quite difficult. I assume we all recognize the destructiveness that criticism can have and I hope most of us realize that it can be just as helpful as it can be devastating. In this article I would like to offer you some information and tips on how to deal with criticism.

The necessity of criticism
I understand that some people would rather avoid criticism altogether, however, there is only one way to do this which was put into words best by Aristoteles; “To avoid criticism, Say nothing, Do nothing, Be nothing.” But to deal with criticism in the best way possible is not to understand why you can’t evade it but to understand why it is necessary.

Either negative or positive, criticism provides you with an external view on your creation. Whether it is a small remark about a tiny detail or a full-fledged essay about a major production you just did, you can learn something from it. It makes you think about what you did and why you did it. It provides you with a way to improve. While the improvement of your work process or the end product itself is extremely valuable, there is another reason why Criticism is so important… Criticism is a form of communication…


Creativity, INC by Ed Catmull. An absolute must read!

“The Brain Trust”
While it may seem like a ridiculously obvious statement, criticism is first and foremost a form of communication. Not only is it a way to express your opinion but criticism, in it’s best form, will spark a discussion. To explain this I would like to say something about ‘the Braintrust’ of a company we all love; Pixar. For anyone who read ‘Creativity Inc’ by Ed Catmull (one of pixar’s founders) this might sound familiar. For anyone who has not read it yet, I truly recommend you do.

In his book Ed states; “Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them… go, as i say, ‘from suck to non-suck.” To do this, they created the Braintrust. The Braintrust is a collective of different Pixar creatives with a knack for storytelling that periodically come together to provide peer to peer feedback on each other’s projects. In the Braintrust candor is valued above anything else (candor as in forthrightness and frankness – the ability to share ideas, opinions and criticism). According to Ed there are two reasons as to why the Braintrust is so important to their creative process.


Criticism from those who have walked in your shoes is more valuable than anything else…

Expertise and empathy
The Braintrust is made up of a group of colleagues that have all been through the same creative process as the ones they review. In other words, they understand what the creator is going trough and have the ability to provide useful advice. Or as Ed puts it; “If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are the patients, then the Braintrust is made up of trusted doctors.”

No authority
The Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. He or she can reflect upon all the feedback, the identified problems and the possible solutions provided and come up with their own solutions or adjustments.


Losing the forest for the trees
Another reason why it is necessary to incorporate criticism as a basic addition to your creative process is so you ‘don’t lose the forest for the trees’. As any creative will acknowledge, it is common to get so immersed into the creative process that you lose your overview and stray from the initial core of your concept.

The remedy for losing the forest for the trees is a healthy dose of criticism. Be sure to have someone on your team that knows the rationale (the very core of your concept) but is not involved in the creative process of that project. In this way when the creatives have done their job and present the first version of their end product this person can reflect upon the idea and make sure it still conveys the core message.

The dark side of criticism
While the merits of constructive criticism are evident, the destructiveness of negative criticism is undeniable. Today it is extremely easy to provide negative criticism to those who dare to do something different, often protected by the anonymity of the internet. Negative or even destructive criticism means giving an opinion about something with the sole purpose of showing that it is wrong, fake, bad, nonsensical, etc. It is about emphasizing the downsides of something without providing possible adjustments or feedback. It is focussing on ‘can not’ or ‘should not’ instead of ‘can’ and ‘should’. Furthermore it is often, naturally, taken very personally.

There is only one way to deal with this kind of criticism. First you need to be able to recognize when criticism is negative. Ask yourself; ‘Does it provide any suggestions on possible improvement whatsoever?’ If it does not… Take a step back. Let it rest to avoid taking it too personally. The next thing you should do is ask yourself; ‘Is this fair?’. You will discover that most of the time, truly negative criticism is not fair at all. If it is, you need to ask yourself one final question. ‘Is it actionable?’, can you do something about it? If any of the above stated questions is answered with a ‘no’, simply ignore it, because it can be of no use to you.

What shouldn’t you do?
Concerning criticism there are a great many things that you shouldn’t do. I could list them all but I suppose many of them are too obvious. The most important thing you shouldn’t do is let emotions get the better of you. This means that you shouldn’t take criticism too personally, do not overreact, do not refuse to believe anything and never, ever, hold a grudge.

What should you do?
Again, I take it I do not have to explain the merits of giving actual constructive criticism. When receiving criticism it is important to stay as objective as possible. Evaluate everything that is being said, take note of the possible solutions and learn from it. Then choose which direction you take. Are you going to follow their solutions? or are you choosing the third option and go your own way? In the end it’s up to you.

A piece of wisdom by Anton Ego
I would like to end this article by providing a quote from the character ‘Anton Ego’ from Pixar’s Ratatouille. I had this framed and hung up in my office because, for me, this puts criticism into perspective. It reminds me that I can choose to ignore truly negative criticism and yet possess the power to nourish the new and unexpected by providing useful criticism in order to protect ‘the wow’…

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends” – Anton Ego, Ratatouille.