Like most people, I learned the value of critical feedback the hard way. Sitting in a room with twenty people, a piece of my artwork (my heart and soul) hanging on the wall, waiting for the critique to begin. This took place three time a week at least when I went through art school. In the beginning, I was defensive. When I heard critical feedback, I would come up with reasons for why I did what I did, how people just didn't understand my genius, and in general, how most of the people in my classes were utter bastards. It took a lot of energy to justify my horrible artwork, but I gave it my best every week, much to the detriment of my creative growth.
Some time during the first year, I noticed that the work of some of my classmates was improving. a lot. People who I considered crap artists were actually hanging work up on the wall that was quite good; interesting, well crafted, and clearly thought out. Way better than mine. Frankly, it pissed me off. So I studied them. I decided to find out what they were doing, and slowly, frighteningly, it dawned on me. All of those people were actually listening to the critical feedback they were receiving, and using the advice in some cases. They were not getting defensive or agro during critiques. In fact, when their work was being critiqued, instead of defending the work, they were asking follow-up questions.
At first I was at a bit of a loss. It was so painful for me to sit through class while people told me everything that was wrong with my work, but then, something shifted. I started to listen in a different way. Instead of hearing insults and put downs, I began hearing helpful suggestions. I started hearing strategy for improvement. It was very slow at coming, but by the second year, I was regularly writing down suggestions and integrating them into my work. By the third year, I was actively seeking out critical feedback. By the fourth year, I had a select group of people I relied upon to be brutally honest with me, and my work? It was transformed. It was in a place it could not have been had I gone through the program alone.
That was the difference. Without critical feedback, I would have gone through the program alone. With critical feedback, I had a team of artists vigilantly looking for ways for me to improve. I had a team. I left that program a better artist, yes, but I also left with a skill not many people have; the ability to seek out and use critical feedback from others. In the work world, this is a rare quality. Having it means the difference between good work and great work. It is the difference between run-of-the-mill and genius. This is in no way overstating this ability; it truly, and in every way separates the little girls from the Badass Ladies.
If you, like me, are not all that awesome at taking critical feedback, I will give you some suggestions to get yourself used to it.
- Ask someone who knows and loves you what they think of you. Ask only for feedback that is positive. Ask them what they think your five best traits are. After this, ask them for one way they think that you could improve. Only one. Before you ask, resign yourself to not respond. Hold yourself back from defending. Hold yourself back from deflecting. Instead, turn that critical feed back into a question. For instance, let's say your friend tells you that you are insensitive to their needs. You immediately turn that into: "Am I insensitive to their needs?" At this point, this is a simple grammatical exercise. Ponder this for a week at least. Come up with ways that you can improve.
- Ask someone that you work with, whom you trust, what they think you can improve on. Just one thing. Do the same exercise. Turn it into a question and answer that question.
- Ask for feedback that is directive. Instead of asking what you can improve on, ask how you can improve. Have them give you their ideas for what you can do to be better. For instance, ask your boss, "if there is one thing you think I should work on improving, what would that be and how would you like to see me go about it?" In this way, you are directing the flow of information in manageable chunks, and letting your boss know that you want to do better.
- After you get very comfortable with the above exercises, start going to people you do not know as well, people you don't trust as much, and ask for feedback. If it is at your job, go to people in a different department who are affected by the work that you do. If it is a social relationship, ask people who have at least two degrees of separation from you. At this point, you can start to develop your next skill, the ability to choose what to use and what to throw out. Sometimes advice and feedback is simply a reflection of the giver, and very often, not valid. It is your job to determine which type of critical feedback you are receiving and act accordingly.
- Finally, gather your group around you. Choose three to five people who you know to have an understanding of your goals, values and ambitions. Use them regularly to garner feedback. Become a champion.
When you are comfortable with this stuff, taking critical comments and feedback from random people becomes that much more valuable, and frankly, welcome. You will start to look at critical feedback as a gift, and the more you are open to it, the more you will improve. You will be in a place you never could have imagined. You will have the perspective of many sets of eyes, the thought processes of many brains. You will be A Force to be Reckoned With.
This, like most other strategies for improvement, takes time. You must be truly comfortable with critical feedback in order to use it well. So get started early. Use every avenue available to you to practice. After a while, that practice becomes part of your life, it becomes automatic. You will start to do it without thinking about it. It will become a part of your anatomy.
This is where your life starts to become something. This is when you start to fly.