Let’s face it, no one likes having their work criticised. For some people it can be soul destroying, they might wander off into a corner and never return. Others can take it on the chin, but it still shakes their confidence. Everyone wants people to compliment their work, no matter if those compliments are hollow and meaningless. Therein lies a major problem. Nobody wants to hear that they could do better. They only want to hear that they are awesome. Well, let this post tell you why it’s good to have critics and how to use critics!
What is Criticism?
In short, criticism is when someone says that something is not good, not good enough, or can be improved. Whether you are a hotel, an electrician, or a photographer like me criticism can be applied to every profession. Criticism generally falls into something not being good, not being good enough, can be improved in some way. Most people tend to focus on the first, because this is generally the harshest and has the most impact. Let’s break these down…
- Not Good – Generally speaking this type of criticism is the result of one or two scenarios. The work is simply not good, or it is actually good but is coming from someone that is jealous (we will touch on this again later).
- Not Good Enough – The work is good, but it’s not up to the standard expected. This generally comes from customers when they have a specific expectation and the work does not meet that expectation. Generally speaking, they are right in these criticisms whether the work was in fact good or you failed to manage the customers expectations. A lot can be learned from this type of criticism.
- Can be Improved – The goldmine of criticism. This type of criticism is rare and when you come across it you should sit up, take notes, and apply those notes. The reason that it is rare is because it most often will come from industry peers (the non jealous ones) and they are offering you FREE advice on what could be improved.
We will touch on all of these types of criticism again.
There are four very broad categories of who will criticise your work. Customers, friends of customers, friends and families of you, and industry peers. With social media as prevalent as it is today, people can (and will) easily post pictures of work and can instantly leave an opinion on it. Your customers are the first to see the work, then their friends and families either for good or bad. Your friends and families will see it next when you post it on Facebook and then your industry peers will see it through varies groups, blogs, or organisations. Four groups of people may seem like a small number, but the reach of those four groups is massive and criticism can come at you from all angles.
Sorting out the Good from the Bad…
I touched on it earlier, but there is a subgroup of people that criticise…jealous people. They are a subgroup of your industry peers. These are people that, well are jealous of you. It happens in all industries and it can be for a host of reasons. Your work is superior to theirs, you have clients they wish they had, or you once made a criticism of their work that they took personally. Picking out the jealous criticism is usually fairly easy, but be careful here. Sometimes the jealous criticism actually has something useful in it…though this is generally not the case. The jealous criticiser only ever leaves comments that are critical and never offer comments of encouragement. The jealous criticiser usually criticises something minute and minuscule in relation to the work. Finally the jealous criticiser makes “I” comments. Not the useful “I would do this..”, but the “I can’t believe you did…” or “I could have done a better job”. 90% of the time, it’s fairly safe (and encouraged) to simply ignore the jealous criticiser.
The rest are just people that see something and are offering an opinion…and these are the criticisms that you should pay attention to. Sometimes what they are criticising is unavoidable, or cannot be corrected. In these cases, just acknowledge the criticism and move along. Most of the rest will be useful. The key here is to not take it personally! Unlike the jealous criticiser, these are NOT attacks on you personally, simply on the work. Sometimes they can be harsh, and sometimes it can be very hard to swallow. However, you should ALWAYS take criticism on board. Sometimes we don’t see simple things in our work, and others do. Take it on board, see how you can use it.
Using Criticism to Grow
This is the crux of the post. To often, when people don’t hear what they want (i.e., “that work is amazing!” or “that is the best thing I have ever seen”), people pull back and sulk or they lash out. For some, criticism is NEW to them. This is especially true in the creative industries. Most people don’t start to really hear criticism in the creatives until their work is being seen more broadly. When someone is just starting out, their prices usually reflect this and customer expectations are lower (remember I mentioned this earlier) and when you exceed those expectations (no matter how low) you will be lavished with praises. For many, this continues on for awhile, and they get quite used to it. Then someone criticises something! Oh no!!! Typically this person reacts VERY badly to their first real criticism. They lash out, they say “they don’t know what they are talking about” or “I would like to see them do better”, etc. If this person doesn’t utilise the criticism this is the start of a downward spiral. Actually maybe downward is the wrong word…a plateau spiral (does that even make sense?). What I mean is that this is where the person becomes known as a bit of a diva and where their work stops improving. This person will only develop a spiteful attitude and their work will always be the same.
Those that can overcome that first criticism, or ideally immediately take it on board, are the ones that will be successful. The first criticism can be a hard pill to swallow. Not everyone will take it lightly, most won’t. This is fine, so long as you learn that criticism is a good thing once you get over the first one! A persons that has learned this will leave comments like “oh, I didn’t even notice that!” or “thank you so much, should have…” you get the idea. Now this may sound like I am saying to take on board all criticism, but I am not. You do need to know and learn what criticism offers you value and what criticism doesn’t. This comes with time and growth. As you grow you will encounter different criticisms and this is all part of the growth process.
If you don’t have any critics you need to work on getting some! If you don’t have any it is most likely down to two reasons. Either your work is not getting enough exposure and not enough people are seeing it. Or, you have set extremely low expectations from the people that do see your work. The second is more often than not the reason you don’t have any critics. For me, in the photography world, this is easy to spot. The person offering family portraits for £50 and you get all the images on a disc. That is usually 100 or so images on a disc, so in essence the person is paying £.50 a image. For £.50 an image, the customer doesn’t have very high expectations and neither do their friends and families and neither do your peers. What you need is to set your standards high and strive to meet them. When you start falling short on those expectations you will start having some criticism…USE IT. Grow with it!
When you set high standards, this is often when you will find the jealous critics jump on board. I will never forget when I first experience a “hater”. I was at the SWPP convention in Jan 2014. I had just been awarded my Fellowship, something I had worked extremely hard for and something that less than 1% of photographers ever achieve. As a result, my images were on exhibition in the hotel lobby. I was walking by one morning and two guys were there looking at my images. I overheard one of them say “this crap is never a Fellowship with xxx society”. I couldn’t believe my ears, but not in the way you think. My first thought was “I have haters! I must have truly made an impact!” That might sound extremely egotistical, but it’s true. Had those images just been on display without the fact that it was awarded a Fellowship, they wouldn’t have made any comment. But because I had achieved something they had not yet achieved, I had made an impact, and I was rather proud!
If you don’t have critics, you need to raise your game, simple as. Push yourself, push your abilities, make an impact, and most of all increase the expectation of what people expect to see from you and your work. Then you will have critics, and then you can really start to grow.
When it’s Time to Quit
This is something that I feel passionate about and why I have included it into this blog. For me there is one reason you should quit…when you feel you have already achieved your best. Some might think that is a crazy statement, but let me explain. If you feel that you have already produced your best work, and that you will never be able to create something better…quit. There is no point in you going on. Why would you? As long as you feel that way, you will have lost desire and motivation.
My philosophy as a photographer is that my next photo will be better than my last. I am to improve with every single photo I take. Yes, I may look at something and think “damn, that is awesome”, but that is usually followed up with “I can do better.” Why? Because I am my own worst critic, and I have reached a point where I have lots of critics and I LOVE it. They help me, they push me, they made me better.
Do you have any critic stories you can share? Has a criticism motivated you and made you better? Hopefully if one knocked you back, this post will help get you back on track.
Leave comments and stories in the comments section below!