About ten years ago, I got a new boss at work. I’ll call him Dan. At the time, my career as a Senior Designer in the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company was going pretty well. Everyone I worked with valued my work and my performance reviews often read like they'd been written by my mother. Going into my first review with Dan, I had no reason to believe that trend would change.
Unfortunately for me, Dan had other ideas.
When I first skimmed through Dan’s review, I felt like I'd been kicked in the nuts. I probably read it three times before I could even believe it. It wasn’t just unfavorable. It was a full on beatdown of epic proportions. He described in vivid detail all the reasons my design work sucked and I was bad at my job. (Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit there but trust me, it wasn't good.)
Anger and confusion
At first, I was supremely pissed. Seriously, what the ever loving fuck? Doesn’t that guy (As far as I was concerned he was no longer “Dan”, just “that guy”) know how much everyone in the company loves and values my work? Does he think he can just stroll in off the street and decide that after ten years and a long string of nearly flawless performance reviews, my work was suddenly terrible? This joker clearly didn’t know what he was talking about.
For me, this was both a personal and professional slap in the face. I’d always taken my career very seriously and for good or bad, a large part of my personal identity was wrapped up in the success I’d always enjoyed at work. I viewed this negative review as an attack, not just on my work, but also my professional competence. (Spoiler alert: that was a bit of foreshadowing right there, folks.)
After a few weeks of ranting and raving to my wife about this unfair “persecution” (I might have been a tad bit emotional about it), she gently suggested I take a second look at the review, even if it was just to craft a better response to “that guy.” At first, I refused to even consider the idea of validating his ridiculous comments with a response. But after giving the matter some thought, I decided I should defend my professional integrity.
As I began re-reading the review, a funny thing happened. It didn’t seem quite as bad as I remembered from the first reading. The comments I had originally interpreted as brutal and offensive now seemed like professional and well-considered feedback. I took the time to read each observation more carefully and objectively consider the criticism with an open mind.
It didn’t happen right away, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to be honest with myself. I had to admit there was some legitimacy to his viewpoints, and I had to admit there was definitely room for improvement. It was a difficult and humbling experience to say the least.
Any creative endeavor requires a certain level of courage. You pour all your knowledge, experience and creative instincts into creating something out of nothing and then put it on display for everyone to evaluate and critique. It doesn’t matter if the creative work is art, design, writing or music, the personal and professional risk is the same. The work feels like a representation of you and your abilities (or lack thereof).
Unlike short-term creative work, a novel often represents months or even years of writing, editing and all the other countless tasks required to bring a book to publication. After all that effort, it can be devastating to read a critical review on Amazon or Goodreads, mostly because it feels so personal. And because your writing is such an intimate part of who you are, dismissing criticism is a form of self-protection. Trust me, I get it. In the end however, critics have the potential to be a much greater source of growth and development than diehard fans ever will be (even though we do LOVE diehard fans).
So how do you do it? Well, to be honest, it’s not easy. The first step is to separate yourself from your work, at least a little bit. That novel doesn’t represent everything about you. It’s only one piece of work at a given point in time. It’s not a statement about your overall abilities or your potential. Yes, you put your heart and soul into that work but it’s still not a full and complete portrait of you or your writing skills.
Once you’ve gained a little separation between yourself and your work, you can begin evaluating it more objectively. Don’t get me wrong, reading negative comments is still going to be tough. But if you truly want to grow as a writer, take the time to honestly consider whether or not those comments have at least some truth to them. You don’t necessarily have to agree with every opinion, but it’s probably a good idea to at least keep an open mind and give them some consideration.
They won’t all be useful. Some people just like to complain without providing any constructive feedback. You can and should ignore those people. At the same time, when someone takes the time to not only read your work—which is the ultimate goal for any writer—and then takes it a step further by providing you with honest feedback, it should really be considered a gift. The least you can do as the recipient is to accept this gift graciously and not ignore it.
If you’re lucky, the feedback will be insightful and point out a weakness that can be improved in your future work. Maybe it’ll cause you to consider a different perspective. Or maybe it’ll simply inspire you to keep working at your craft. Either way, you’ve already taken the first step. You’ve put your work out there for all to see. At this point, you can either be happy with staying exactly where you are, or you can start moving forward. Don’t worry if the road’s a little bumpy. That just makes for a more interesting journey.
What about you? Do you have any interesting stories of personal growth to share? Do you have any thoughts on creative development? We'd love to hear 'em.