How to Survive Criticism

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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As a conscientious kid who loved to please, nothing terrified me more than criticism. While some classmates seemed to delight in provoking adults into screaming fits, even a mild frown from a teacher would plunge me into paroxysms of self-doubt.

So as an adult, I somehow wound up in a field that anybody who dreads conflict and push-back would naturally pursue: newspaper journalism. It was work that guaranteed three things – low pay, lousy hours and constant criticism, from editors and especially readers.

In short order, I was accused via nasty voicemail messages, insulting e-mails and face-to-face confrontations of being a stooge for the school board, taking kickbacks from FedEx, joining the power company’s payroll and lying to a sheriff, whose top deputy made time in his busy schedule to call me up and chew me out.

These attacks were meant to ruin my day; instead, they performed a great career service. They taught me early on how to handle criticism.

First, there’s this basic principle: nobody likes being told they’re wrong. It’s natural to feel defensive when your work or judgment is questioned. So plan for that emotion and do your best to move through it as swiftly as possible.

Then you can get to the real work, which starts with understanding your strengths and weaknesses – not in some casual way that emerges from three minutes of scattered reflection while watching Mad Men but by asking people you trust for honest feedback. They can help you take stock of what you’re good at and what you’re not, and the truth is that we’re not that good at most things. Frankly, without some criticism we won’t get better at what we do.

When a boss lit into me a few years ago about a weak PowerPoint presentation I’d done for an executive, I took a few steps back in the hallway. But I didn’t take it personally. It was immediately obvious that this criticism was right. I’m naturally drawn to words and tend to discount images, but images are what carry good PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t paying enough attention to that, and, in my current career as a PR guy, that’s a real weakness. Calling me out on it prompted great improvement in this area.

That leads us to another principle: not all criticism is equal. You need to distinguish between feedback that is objective and well-intentioned from the unhelpful attacks of people whose own motives are compromised. One of my former newspaper bosses had real emotional problems and a history of berating his reporters; his criticisms were almost never delivered in the spirit of collegiality and improvement. It didn’t take long for most of us not only to discount what he said but also to look for new bosses who knew how to be constructive critics.

Finally, learn from Jesus. The Gospels can be read, among other things, as a case study in coping with criticism. During his three-year ministry, Jesus spent inordinate amounts of time responding to misguided and mean-spirited assaults on his ideas and actions. He listened humbly and attentively, surely recognizing that having people tell you you’re an idiot helps keep you from thinking too highly of yourself. He could also ignore or respond, sometimes wearily, to critics because he was confident in his purpose. Are we confident enough in ours?

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at The Messy Quest. His book, The Messy Quest for Meaning, which explores how to find a calling, was published by Sorin Books.

Image by Jason Armstrong. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.