How To Handle Criticism

Once I sent my drawings to a friend; she liked them and from then on she started asking regularly whether I have made any new art work or not. On the other hand, I am not able to produce artworks on a regular basis, however hard I try. So the next time this girl asked me for any new painting, I didn’t have anything to show. I was also afraid that she would start giving me sermons on the need of a more disciplined life and to be regular in art — all that stuff which I had heard several times from her and others. So in order to escape from rebuke, I searched my hard disk and sent the photograph of a very old painting which I had made long back. She replied, “Wow this is very nice work! I should say your painting skills have improved a lot! Great work!“ This was the first instance of fake appreciation for me. She was trying to tell me that I had made great progress in art but her facts were incorrect. I immediately understood that she was simply passing superficial comments and perfunctory appreciation.

Whenever my new research paper was published, I used to send it to my friends, seniors, colleagues, everybody. Once a senior scientist replied with very encouraging words, “Good work! I always knew that you have great potential for writing good quality and impactful papers. I have seen your paper and it is a very valuable piece of work…” and so on. You can imagine how elated a young researcher would feel and how much morale must have been boosted by those warm words. After sometime, perhaps a month or so, that senior visited our institute and in the course of conversation he congratulated me once again for this newly published paper, but added, “Sorry, I could not see your paper. Could you just briefly tell me what was the main conclusion of your paper?” I was shocked! If he hadn’t seen my paper, how was he pointing out the importance and significance of the results? All the time he was praising my writing and analytical skills without even having read any of my writings. I told him the conclusion in one or two sentences. Once again I felt very upset.

Another similar incident took place couple of days ago. One of my friends told me that my writing skills have improved a lot. By now I have gained enough experience not to be carried away by such appreciation. I have been writing since my childhood and such small pieces of scribbles and jots are scattered in my notebooks, loose papers, Gmail, Yahoomail, Notepad, GEdit, everywhere one could write. Whenever I did not have any new post, I used to share one of those old writings. So here again, I was being told about my ‘improvement’ based on my work from the past.

Hope by now you realise that most of the appreciation that is handed out to you is superficial, empty and hollow. In fact, these are simple and ‘safe’ phrases that are doled out to seekers. ‘Good’ and ‘Great’ sound doubtful so these people want to provide a stronger credibility to their words. So they added ‘you are making good progress’, ‘it is a very valuable result’, ‘your skills have improved a lot’ and so on. Note that it does not mean that you are not making progress or that your work is not good or not important. In fact, these words don’t convey anything. They simply don’t mean anything.

Note that fake appreciation is different from wrong or unjust criticism. Again, I am not saying whether it is good or bad, rather they are just different. In unjust criticism you could consider sharp comments thrown at you just to belittle you or to discourage you. The reasons could be several; for example, jealousy. They themselves cannot sing, and are turning sour whenever a beautiful girl is going head over heals in love with your voice. When the whole audience is clapping hard and screaming their lungs out “One more, once more”, you can’t imagine how much contraction their hearts must be going through. The only way to assuage their wounds is to vent their frustration in the form of disparaging remarks, ugly comments, ridicule and similar interesting gestures. I have seen such treatment handed out time and again to musicians and singers, and to a lesser extent visual artists. Birbal told Akbar that to make a line segment smaller, one should draw another taller line next to it. These people do it the other way round. To make their line longer, they make the other line shorter!

Another ridiculous motivation for giving negative criticism is that it would keep the artist ‘under control’! While in the previous case, it was done out of ill-will, jealousy and superiority complex, here the justification that is given is quite funny — with so much positive feedback, these young blood would swell up with pride and over-confidence and ultimately Big BANG! So to save them from subsequent Hubble expansion, it is necessary to keep the balance of their spirits just as gas pressure and gravitational pressure maintain the equilibrium of a star. So, while the whole world is showering flowers on these creative youth, these ‘kind hearted’ individuals prefer to pull up an umbrella over the youngsters’ head so that all those petals and leaves may not fall over their heads. Second law of thermodynamics says that heat cannot flow from low temperature to high temperature. You cannot raise spirits of people or increase their confidence by disparaging them or pulling them down. That cannot happen. Laws of Physics don’t allow that.

On the other hand, an equally wrong but positive remark could have kind intentions. Like the appreciation and praise you give to a child. Whenever my daughter makes a drawing of a dinosaur which looks like a snake or a fairy which would give Hercules a heart attack, I always say, “If you had made it on better paper, we could have put it in some exhibition.” Her chest swells with pride as she replies, “Never mind, it’s just a rough drawing. Better work is on the way!” Everybody does this, sometimes to make them happy, sometimes to appreciate not their skill, but their innocence, or perhaps their sincerity, their effort — all the attributes that adults lack. And such positive appreciation given to children is what makes them move forward.

Another similar scenario occurs with those people who are going through some sort of emotional crisis. Literature, art and science — all of them are occupations involving mental effort. If these creative people are going through any mental or emotional distress, they cannot work or produce any type of fruitful work. At the same time, left on their own, these people may spiral down in ever deeper chasms of depression and dejection. They just require some support, even a fake one — you can call it as straw, a ray, a doze of fresh air — that would boost their spirits even if for a short time, after which their own passion would sail them through. We know such people around us, we see them everyday. If you are concerned for them, you definitely want to help them out. But you are not sure how to help them. But you are available, anytime, every time. You just want them to be happy. So when you come across any composition or new work from them, you shower warm, kind and bright words, just to cheer them up. It might be wrong and false, yet kind and well-intended. 

And then the case of research papers! All the time I keep telling young students — don’t take reviewers’ comments too seriously and personally. If your paper is accepted, it does not necessarily mean that your work was good. And if it is rejected, it does not mean that it is certainly bad. It doesn’t convey anything. Several factors contribute to acceptance/rejection of any research paper. But you know, there is no way out. We do depend on the peer-review process for sanity of scientific research. There could be bias and such match-fixing, yet it cannot be avoided. That is the process, and we have to follow it. If your paper is accepted, just celebrate. If rejected, edit it and submit it to some other journal. That’s all.

But then how would you know the merit and worth of your work — whether it be a painting or song or story or a scientific result? We do need feedback, an honest opinion and criticism to appraise our work. And if we are trapped in the net of these fake appreciation, unjust criticism, match-fixing, how can we see the real picture? How would we get the valuable input that would help us improve and progress? Fortunately, we do receive honest and sincere feedback as well. But when we come across even a single instance of insincere criticism, we start doubting genuine appreciation as well. And who knows, after all this confusion, we may end up doubting ourselves and our skills.

The only approach in such a scenario is to develop a detached outlook. After having worked at a composition for long enough, it is understandable that you develop emotional attachment to it. However, if you could break free from that attachment, and look at that work as some other viewer would look at it, then that would make life easier. That is the most genuine and honest feedback you would receive. It is difficult but can be accomplished. It is not something that you can practise and develop; instead, such faculty rises within you on its own. What is required is to give it importance. When you write a short piece, you leave it in drawer or file it up, leave it and forget it. When you accidentally come across it after several days or months, by that time you have already forgotten about it, so the initial attachment has died out. Now you can look at it with fresh and new perspective, and locate the various flaws and merits. Only you can be the best judge of your work. At least until you find someone genuine and reliable. 

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photo credit: Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly 2017-renovation-meeting-8 via photopin (license)

3 thoughts on “How To Handle Criticism

  1. Sunil Deepak

    I think that even when people do read your paper/article/post, in today’s world it is not easy to remember it because we are jumping from one thing to another, all the while listening to music and talking to someone, so we can actually forget, which does mean that someone didn’t appreciate it when s/he read your writing.
    PS: Your comment about Akbar and Birbal and the lines, I had read it in school as part of a story about Vivekanand and it had always been impressed in my mind – its lesson was that don’t try to diminish others, make your own line bigger!

  2. Vinay Nagaraju

    Oh! How I hear you on this! He he, it is rather astounding how hard it is to get honest feedback. In my experience, feedback has usually been:
    1. He is my friend, I can’t be harsh. So politeness wins and I get a useless – nicely done feedback which takes me nowhere. It used to make me feel good at the start, but then I started feeling – the reason I share is to improve and get better results. These very easily started falling into the perfunctory read category.
    2. The hyper critical ones who think how they would have done this and start redoing what I have done. He he this is fairly tolerable if they understand the boundary, but most oft they dont which causes another problem.

    In both scenarios, I do see how hard it is to get honest feedback. It doesn’t seem to be available at ease out there and somethings I wonder – maybe I am being too naive in asking for one.


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