Should You Listen to Your Critics?


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I think there is no skill more worth cultivating as an adult than the ability to tell whether the feedback you receive on your work was given in good faith, and beyond that, whether it’s worth taking to heart. If you are involved in any kind of creative field (or if you’re a woman on the internet), you probably get a lot of feedback on your work and your life, both solicited and unsolicited. Here’s how to figure out what’s worth listening to and what you should ignore.

1. Is this person invested in your career or personal development? Strangers on the internet tend to have a lot of opinions and they are very rarely useful. The best advice tends to come from mentors or close colleagues: people who know you and your work well, and are invested in seeing you achieve success and improve your work. (An important caveat to this: if you have done something offensive or harmful to a marginalized group, and members of that group are calling you out, that feedback is well worth listening to, and you have a responsibility to pay attention and adjust yourself and your actions accordingly.) However, if a random dude on the internet hops into your DMs to tell you that you are doing a bad job, but out of the kindness of his heart he’s willing to give you a long lecture about how you could do things differently and more in line with what he personally would prefer, feel free to mute the hell out of that guy and move onwards with a clear heart.

2.Is the person giving you feedback an expert? Do they know what they’re talking about when they’re giving you advice? If the person telling you how to write an article or pick audition material or take a photograph doesn’t have any experience or expertise with doing those things, their feedback probably isn’t that useful (especially if it comes unsolicited). You are doing the thing! You probably know a lot about how to do it! Don’t get intimidated into going against your impulses if the person giving you feedback knows less than you. 

3.  Is the feedback actionable? Is the person giving you feedback providing you with action items for things you can change or are they simply telling you that your work is bad? Do they acknowledge potential in your work and interest in helping you make it better? Or are they simply telling you that you’re bad at what you’re doing? If you’re getting feedback that is nothing more than a negative opinion with no recommendations for how to improve, that’s not useful information to keep in your brain. Ignore it, it won’t help you. (And again, because I fear I have to be very clear on this point: if someone tells you “This is racist/sexist/ableist/transphobic etc., that is constructive and actionable feedback, and you should act on it. It is not a personal attack. They are not being mean to you. They are asking you to do better. Listen to them.)

4. Is the person giving you feedback too close to you? Just as feedback from hostile strangers tends not to be helpful, feedback from hyper-encouraging family or loved ones can be just as unhelpful. If a person is too close to you, or if they are invested in you too much to look at your work separate from you as a person they love and care about, they may be too effusive with their praise. My best friend refers to this phenomenon as “love goggles,” as in, “you’re not a good judge of this work/situation, because you’re seeing it through love goggles.” This is why, though I love my mom with my whole heart, I take it with a grain of salt when she says “you are the most talented person in the whole world.” She’s seeing the world through love goggles, and those tend to warp things just a little.

5. Is the feedback you’re getting an anomaly? Are a lot of people telling you you’re doing just fine, but one outlier is telling you that your work is bad? If the person giving you feedback disagrees with the vast majority of people responding to your work, it’s worth considering them an outlier and not letting that feedback get to you. People tend to remember negative feedback more than positive feedback, so bad reviews can tend to stick out more, but if most people are being supportive, it’s worth sitting down and reminding yourself that one bad review is just one person’s opinion. It’s not gospel.

We should all be trying to improve and grow, but it's worth remembering that you can't please everyone, and that's okay. Take advice that helps you grow, even if it makes you uncomfortable, but feel free to ignore bad faith advice! As long as you're doing your best and being kind, you're doing okay.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash