What Can You Learn From Your Critics?

Kyle Smith

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The 2007 movie Ratatouille tells the story of Remy the rat, an unlikely chef at the renowned Gusteau’s restaurant in Paris. The food critic Anton Ego pays a visit and shares a great insight about criticism in his newspaper review:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. Ratatouille

Critics have their place and you can often learn something from them. Even criticism offered in the wrong way can be helpful if you approach it the right way.

So how exactly do you learn from your critics? When someone criticizes you, there are four key questions you should ask to maximize your growth and learning.

1. What is the source? All criticism is not created equal. If your critic is a negative person you may just be the latest target in a string of verbal assaults. But if the critic is a friend, sit up and take notice. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” A true friend is someone who cares enough to point out a flaw you need to correct.

2. What is the issue? Have you heard this criticism before? Is there a pattern of behavior you need to address? I’m a college teacher, and at the end of every semester I ask the students in each of my courses to fill out an evaluation form. I want to know what I can improve the next time I teach each course. If several good students say the same thing I know I should listen carefully.

3. Is there a kernel of truth? Sometimes there is truth in what a critic says. If it’s delivered in a loving way, it’s much easier to accept. But if someone criticizes you in a hurtful way, it’s difficult to admit there might be some truth to it.

4. What can you learn? Criticism can be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. It all depends on how you use it. It’s a stumbling block when you don’t learn from it and try to discover whether there’s any truth to the criticism. It’s a stepping stone when you swallow your pride and learn something. The lesson may not be pleasant, but it can make you a better artist or leader.

One of my favorite quotes comes from one of the great American Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Teddy Roosevelt

Learn from your critics and let them help you become a better artist. But realize that in the end, it takes a lot more guts to create art than to criticize it.

Questions for Reflection

1. When was the last time someone criticized you? Was there any truth to the criticism? What did you learn from it?

2. Why do artists tend to take criticism so personally?

3. Do you think the work of a critic is easy, as Anton Ego said in Ratatouille? Why or why not?

4. How can you become better at giving constructive criticism to others?

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I write about writing, productivity, and creativity.

St. Louis, MO
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