“Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”— Walt Whitman
People who really make an effort — who put themselves out into the world, eager to build something better — can be particularly sensitive to criticism. You might wonder why someone would try to knock you down a peg when you’re trying so hard.
But while you might be tempted to linger in the sting, allowing yourself to be wounded by criticism is likely a setback you can afford and don’t need. So what can you do? You can take a lesson from some of history’s most important creative figures and take it with a grain of salt.
When Walt Whitman first published “Leaves of Grass,” he didn’t win many fans. Rather, as Maria Popova writes, he faced intense criticism — the kind that can be hard to shrug off if you’re trying to create more and better work.
One thing that helped Whitman push through the noise was a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Whitman’s literary heroes. It was a fan letter of sorts, and Whitman often wore the letter in his breast pocket, returning to it often, to help him push through any moments of self-doubt.
In later years, when the two writers became friends, Emerson voiced concerns and critiques about Whitman’s work, and Whitman was able to take them as they were intended — not as a threat to his artistic vision, but as the useful perspective of a colleague.
Leaders are often presented with a unique bind: mental toughness and the ability to execute a vision are essential, but you also have to be able to learn from others and adapt where necessary.
As CEO of Jotform, a business with over 140 employees and 5.2 million users, one thing I’ve learned is that you have to go through a clear sorting process when it comes to allies and antagonists. Unkind words are plentiful, but some of those perspectives may be constructive, too.
If you’re not a fan of American literature, how about an example from Ancient Rome and Greece that provides a slightly different perspective: In the 3rd century BC, the Stoics developed a different perspective on criticism: it should be viewed as a personal favor when doled out by people who are given ‘mentor status,’ according to William B. Irvine, author of A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt — And Why They Shouldn’t.
In other words, when dealing with criticism, it’s essential to consider the messenger. You might pay extra attention to the words of a trusted colleague, even if they’re hard to hear. Is there room for self-improvement in what they’re telling you?
But you might also reasonably consider ignoring a nasty anonymous comment appended to a blog post. As Roman emperor and key Stoic Marcus Aurelius noted,
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Turn the other cheek and move on to the things that are most important to you.
It’s worthwhile to take a moment and draw a distinction between unhelpful and constructive criticism. On one hand, unnecessary criticism — especially from those who know little about you or what you’re working on — can be highly destructive if you give them any power or choose to wallow in their potential meaning.
But on the other hand, criticism that comes from those who know and love us, those who want us to succeed, should be viewed as a potential opportunity to do better. While strangers hurling insults should be ignored, challenging comments from investors or friends should be carefully examined. After all, everyone has blind spots. So what are they seeing that you’re not?
Even more, when someone cares to offer feedback in a constructive way, don’t make the choice to view it as criticism. It’s not designed to tear you down; it’s designed to help you succeed. And what can be better for self-regard than being surrounded by people who want to participate in your success?
So how can you avoid being derailed by criticism? Here are five tips:
1. Ignore your defensive instincts
If you’re like most people, you might find that your automatic reaction to criticism (regardless of how constructive) is to bristle. But being annoyed won’t help you sort the criticism you can safely ignore from the criticism you can learn from. So keep your cool and just listen.
2. Assess the messenger
Is the person delivering the criticism a friend or competitor? Are they someone invested in your success or invested in your failure? Do they always see the downside of everything or are they capable of focusing on what works? Before you decide to engage with criticism — and it’s always a choice — make sure you consider the messenger.
3. Avoid making it personal
As entrepreneurs, we become so invested in building something, it becomes hard to separate the work from the person. But they are separate, and that’s why it’s helpful not to take critiques of the work too personally. Also, nobody’s perfect! So try to take a step back and view things from an outside perspective — what blind spots might you have brought to the project and how can they be rectified.
4. Don’t forget about the power of praise
If you’re not finding the criticism you’re offered particularly helpful, try steering the conversation in a different direction. While people often focus on what’s not working, it can be beneficial to ask for their assessment of a project’s strengths. According to a 2015 Gallup survey, 67 percent of employees whose managers focused on communicating strengths reported being fully engaged, versus 31 percent of employees who only heard about their weaknesses.
5. Stay true to your core vision and values
It can be disorienting to feel like you’re on the right track and then have someone suddenly tell you that you’re heading in the wrong direction. What if they’re right and you’re wrong? This is why it’s so important to have a clearly articulated vision and set of values that you can return to in moments of doubt or confusion. It doesn’t mean that you should never change course, but you should stay true to yourself.
On a final note, Wharton professor Adam Grant even suggests that you might even consider trying to look at your work with an impartial eye and practicing the kind of criticism you might receive,
“imagining what is the most negative feedback I could possibly get in this situation and then making a list of the harshest comments that you think will come across.”
Because we’re often much harder on ourselves than others, he reasons, the exercise will soften any external critiques you might receive. “Most of us are much harder on ourselves than other people are on us, right? We beat ourselves up constantly,” says Grant. And going through that exercise can strengthen already great work.