Embracing criticism

Getting physical in the arena in Coimbra, Portugal
Getting physical in the arena in Conímbriga, Portugal

I’ve never really had to think about criticism much before. Not because I’m so good that I don’t need it, but because I’ve never really shown my work to the world. Mostly it’s just family and friends who have seen what I create and who have been unfailingly supportive (as they should be!). So far, I think the biggest critic I’ve had to face is myself.

Recently, however, a few posts by design superwoman Tina Roth Eisenberg about critics and criticism have prompted me to start thinking about the topic. (By the way, if you don’t already know about Tina’s site – swiss-miss.com – you’re really missing out!)

The first was a quote from a blog post entitled “The Generous Skeptic” by Seth Godin:

“The generous skeptic has insight into your field, your strengths and weaknesses. She wants you to succeed, but maybe, just maybe, sees something you don’t.

When the generous skeptic speaks up, she’s taking a risk. If you respond to her generosity by arguing, by shutting down, by avoiding eye contact or becoming defensive, you’ve blown it. You’ve taken a gift and wasted it, and disrespected the gift giver at the same time.”

I’m not terribly bad at taking criticism, but, like everyone, there are times when I get my back up. Inevitably, this happens when whatever is being criticized is something that is the result of a big investment of my time, energy, and heart. I can think of nothing more personal than my art – nothing that makes me more vulnerable – so this quote serves as a good reminder to embrace criticism that’s given with the best of intentions.

The second post that got me thinking about criticism was this fantastic lecture by Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability. It’s rare that I will have the patience to watch any video that’s over 2 minutes long, but this one, which clocks in at 22 minutes, absolutely captivated me. I even watched it twice.

I really appreciate what she says about the inevitability of getting your ass kicked when you put yourself out there. It’s kind of comforting to know that it happens (and happens repeatedly) to all artists, whether emerging or established.

“If you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee, and that is: you will get your ass kicked. That is the guarantee. That’s the only certainty you have. If you’re going to go in the arena and spend any time in there whatsoever, especially if you’ve committed to creating in your life, you will get your ass kicked.”

But there’s a certain power that comes with willingly accepting your ass kicking, and that is that you are now in a position to tune out all the unhelpful critics who are sitting on the sidelines, playing it safe:

“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. […] If you’re in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line, and just talking about how I could do it better, I’m in no way interested in your feedback.

So, as I aspire to have my work seen by more and more people – as I prepare to “enter the arena” – I recognize that I am opening myself up to more criticism. Some from people who genuinely want to be helpful, and some from people who are just being jerks. But I’ll just keep reminding myself to brush off the comments that aren’t important and embrace the ones that are, and hopefully even start a dialogue with those generous skeptics. Because in the end, showing up day after day and getting my ass kicked, staying vulnerable, and embracing the criticism of fellow warriors will only make me better and help me grow.

And now, one more quote from Brené Brown for the road:

“The fear is this: I’m scared, a lot of self-doubt, comparison, anxiety, uncertainty. And so what do most people do when they’re walking into the arena and those things are going to greet them up top? What do you do? You armor up, right? This is where I would imagine the old days, that they got all their stuff on. But god that stuff is heavy, and that stuff is suffocating. And the problem is: when you armor up against vulnerability, you shut yourself off. […] Without vulnerability, you cannot create.”


Well said Julie. Showing our work leaves us so vulnerable, but without criticism growth is very difficult — if not impossible. I feel so proud of myself for crying only once during my last IMA workshop. The tears not because of criticism, but rather my deep desire, (and doubts about my ability), to use it effectively. It’s exhausting. :)

Sounds like your recent IMA experience was profound. Looking forward to seeing where it takes you! I’m working through feelings of intense vulnerability and insecurity right now as I try to write an artist statement. Why are these things so tough??

Wow! Thanks Nancie! I’m a huge fan of MAN – you do such a good job curating the site and all its various social media arms – so I’m really tickled that you would share my post. Thanks again! This totally made my day :-)

[…] This can be so so tough, but Julia offered some wise words when she said that sometimes it helps if you just think about your instructor as a person (not some wildly talented mosaic artist up on a pedestal of whom you are not worthy): “Realizing that they are not the best and they do not have [all] the answers, and that maybe, just maybe, they look to their students for ideas, energy, and inspiration makes [it] easier.” Feedback can often feel very personal, but Julia cautioned against taking it personally: “Try not to confuse what you make with who you are. The work does not equal your identity. It comes from you, has your maker’s mark, and it can get better/change. [T]eachers really aren’t commenting on you personally, it’s about the work.” (For extra credit, go read the blog post I wrote about vulnerability and criticism.) […]

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