How to Use Criticism

In one of the earliest modules in this course, we looked at freedom of thought, and how some forms of relativistic thinking can make us intellectually lazy. A strong version of relativism, you’ll remember, suggests that all viewpoints are equally valid – whether that viewpoint is that ‘the Earth is flat’ or ‘the Earth is not flat’ or ‘the Earth is made of cream cheese and rotates around the moon at a billion kilometers an hour’.

These sorts of claims all deal with objective statements about reality. Ones we can empirically test using scientific methods. But subjective statements are different.

Subjective claims are opinions, such as ‘this movie is bad’ or ‘this book is boring’ or ‘that painting is crap’. Reviews are one area in which a stronger interpretation of relativism is usually called for.


Look at any film or book with multiple reviews, and chances are, you’ll find the opinions regarding it run the gamut from 1 to 5 stars. This is true even of wildly successful series. (Fascinatingly, it seems that audiences tend to rate the later books or movies in a series more highly than the originals – even though most agree the originals are better. Why? Read this article to understand more about selection bias)

Take a look at the criticism one of your favourite creative works has received. Read some of the 1-star reviews. Even if the opinions about your favourite work are overall positive, it’s almost inevitable that someone has said something bad about it. (And chances are, if no one has, it hasn’t been read or seen that widely, or it didn’t engage people enough to provoke a reaction).

A quick test to see whether something is subjective or objective is to consider: should this statement be expected to hold true over time and space?

The statement that ‘the Earth is flat’ is an objective one, because it shouldn’t matter when it was said or to whom. It was wrong when it was first uttered (even though people didn’t know it). And it’s equally wrong now. (As far as we can tell!)

On the other hand ‘this is a bad novel’ is subjective, because it will certainly matter when it is said and to whom.

A book may be well-received by fans of its genre, but panned by everyone else. Does this make it ‘bad’? Of course not.

A book may be popular when it is written, but not make it as a classic. The opposite can happen, too. Many books have only become respected and enjoyed long after their author’s death. Does this make them ‘bad’? Of course not.

How to use criticism

This isn’t to suggest you cannot use criticism to improve your work. Taking an extreme relativist position about your own work is dangerous too. It can make you believe there’s no progress you can make on your creative journey, if every piece of work is as good (or as bad) as any other.

Instead, evaluate the criticism you receive, and how it relates to your goals. If you’re interested in being popular or making money, you’ll need to listen to what your audience says. And what the current trends are.

If you want to be well-respected in your niche, you’ll need to concentrate on the advice in your genre.

If you want to win awards, you’ll need to look at their criteria.

If you want to be published or have your work exhibited or put on stage, you’ll need to consider those organisations’ guidelines and feedback.

Once you know what you are aiming for, you can make decisions about this information and not get overloaded. If you try to take on board every bit of criticism aimed at very different goals you’ll end up paralysed by indecision. You’ll suffer cognitive dissonance. And you may even become unable to create.

If (or when!) you receive negative criticism on something you’ve created, try to separate the subjective and objective aspects. Don’t be fooled by critiques that may look objective, but are actually subjective. For example, ‘This book has too many characters’ is not a measurable statement. For some books, 20 characters may be a lot. For others, it may not be many.

If a lot of your early readers say that your book has too many characters, you may want to narrow the focus to just a few key characters. But there is no magic number for the ‘correct’ number of characters. 

There may be other ways of dealing with the criticism, too. You could make the characters more distinct. Or reduce the number of nicknames they have, to make them easier to keep track of. Consider which aspects of the criticism might be constructive. Ignore everything else.

Creative Confidence: Intellectual and Emotional

‘Life is too short. I only want to do things that I enjoy, or that I think are good or worth doing’

J.K. Rowling

Fear of criticism is one of the biggest reasons people stop creating as they grow up.

We can free ourselves of this fear, by making peace with the reality that we can’t please everyone.

It’s okay for people who aren’t in our target audience to prefer someone else’s work.

Knowing this gives us the freedom to create work that matters.

Negative reviews

‘It’s impossible to create work that both matters and pleases everyone.’

Seth Godin, This is Marketing

If you’re going to use social media, Joanne Mallory recommends deciding from the outset what kind of online persona you want to have. Develop yours consciously. Is it friendly? Professional? Funny? Interesting?

If (when) you get a negative review, think about how your online persona would handle it. Get some distance. Let them deal with it, not you.

Remember: negative reviews give credibility to the positive ones. If all you have are 5-star reviews, chances are people will think they’re all from your friends, or that you paid for them. A mix makes you seem more legitimate. And if there is controversy, it might even lead to more people buying your work, wanting to make up their own mind.

All critics are right (and wrong)

The critic who doesn’t like your work is correct. He doesn’t like your work. This cannot be argued with.
The critic who says that no one else will like your work is wrong. After all, you like your work. Someone else might like it too.’

Seth Godin, Ibid

Letting go gives us freedom. As Seth Godin says, we need to find the empathy to say ‘this isn’t for you’. To even point people in the direction of a creative who may better suit their tastes. In doing so, ‘we find the freedom to do work that matters.’

The benefits of a fragmented market

Back in the day, Godin says, pretty much everyone watched the same TV shows. Wore the same jeans. Liked the same stuff. Now, even the big ‘hits’ are meaningful only to a few, but invisible to the rest. Consider runaway musicals like Hamilton… seen by less than 1% of the US population. Or the much-hyped series Mad Men… watched on a regular basis by, again, 1% of the US population.

Or the super popular Game of Thrones. Even at the height of its popularity in the final season, GoT was watched by less than 4% of the US population. Or Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being one of the fastest-selling books on the planet, with so many copies being discarded second hand stores asked stopped accepting them, the book was purchased by less than 1% of the world’s English speakers.

For creatives, this can be a great thing. We can enjoy the long tail of culture. There’s plenty of viewers and readers left for the rest of us. We don’t need to copy the ‘big guys’ to find our audiences.

Finding your audience

In addition to knowing how much money is enough for us to live, we also need to know how much fame/how many fans are enough for our work.

Author Joanne Mallory reminds us that quality of fans is more important than the numbers. Some creatives try to be on every social media platform, collecting followers everywhere. This takes away time from creating. But it also detracts from the quality of interactions we have. Instead, she recommends sticking to two.

Having too many followers can lead to creatives wasting time and money. You can wind up chasing the opinions of those who will never like your work. Further, many online tools, such as MailChimp, are free for the first 2,000 subscribers. After that, you will have to pay to let fans know your news. So every subscriber who isn’t really interested is costing you money.

Collecting a huge numbers of followers, and then taking their opinions to heart, can be dangerous. If you run a survey on Twitter or Facebook about your new book cover or website design, you want to be sure those who respond are actually potential readers. Otherwise, you may take the advice of people who would never support your work anyway – and alienate those who might have.

‘That’s an artist’s mission: to go beyond one’s limits. An artist who desires very little and achieves it has failed in life’

Paulo Coelho

The courage to be disliked

‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others’

Virginia Woolf

It’s okay to be disliked. In fact, it’s more than okay. It can be freeing. As Koga and Kishimi point out, our desire for recognition makes us unfree.

Real freedom, they say, is ‘being disliked by other people’.

That might sound crazy, so I want you to read it again:

‘freedom is being disliked by other people’

Koga and Kishimi, The Courage to be Disliked

Of course, we shouldn’t strive to be disliked. But according to Koga and Kishimi, when others dislike us, it’s proof we are exercising our freedom. A sign we’re living according to our own principles.

Carry your work carefully

Imagine you have a stone. You’re at the top of the mountain, and you need to transport the stone to the bottom.

You could throw the stone down the mountain, where it will hit any number of sharp objects along the way. By the time it reaches the bottom, it will likely be worn down.

Or, you could carry it down the mountain. By carrying your precious stone carefully, avoiding those sharp objects along the way, it will likely reach the bottom intact.

Koga and Kishimi recommend thinking of your work like this. If you cast your work down a mountain of other people’s opinions, you’re likely to wear away any uniqueness it once had. You’ll wind up with a broken, ugly mess the same as any other broken, ugly rock. Carry it carefully instead.

‘Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer’

Barbara Kingsolver

Know Your Audience

It’s important to remember that different audiences have different styles of showing appreciation. If you write political thrillers, you probably can’t expect readers to buy stuffed toys and badges of your characters, like young adult fantasy readers might. If you write classically styled music, you can’t expect your composition to be included on the next summer hits compilation.

As Godin writes, even the way people applaud is dependent on context. At a TED talk, three key people standing will result in a standing ovation. At Broadway shows, even if the audience feels lukewarm towards a performance, a few scattered people can get the whole theatre to stand. But in a jazz club, it’s simply not the done thing.

You need to know your audience. Not just so that you can market your work to the right people and get opinions from those who matter. But also so you can understand what counts for a ‘good’ response in your field. If you’re a writer, for example, what is the average review of a book in your genre? How does that compare to, say, the average romance, or horror, or scifi, or fantasy?

Support others in their freedom

People who have chosen unfree ways of living often criticize those they see living freely, Koga and Kishimi say. If someone feels burdened by their own financial or family or other constraints, they may call you selfish or hedonistic. You may have even done the same to others.

Koga and Kishimi call this a ‘life lie‘. Something you tell yourself so you can accept your own unfree life: ‘An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments, and will instead cheer on the will to be free’.

‘Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing’


Ego and Excuses

We sit down at a keyboard to compose a piece of music or a poem. Or we face an empty canvas or a lump of clay.

And often, we discover our attempts don’t sound or look quite as we’d imagined. Not as good as the work of the composers or writers or painters or sculptors we admire. And not as good as the work we imagined in our heads.

It’s easy to give up.

Many would-be creatives are so afraid of imperfection, they don’t even go so far as to try.

It’s much easier to say “I’d be a great composer if I had more time.” “I’d be a great writer if I could afford a writer’s retreat.” “I’d be a great painter if I had an art degree.” “I’d be a great sculptor if I had better tools”.

And of course, I’d be a better creative if I lived there or then.

These are all ‘life lies‘. Excuses. Stories we tell ourselves, to comfort our egos.

‘Just one thing keeps ego around – comfort. Pursuing great work – whether it is in sports or art or business – is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it. But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence.’

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

The Taste/Talent Gap

Ira Glass describes the ‘Taste/Talent Gap’ which traps so many creatives. We want to create because we have good taste. But there is a gap, which may last for several years. During this time, you make things that don’t live up to your taste. It is during this period, says Holiday, that our ego seems comforting.

We prefer the imagined, genius in our head, over the flawed, productive self of reality.

And that is dangerous. Because if we listen too much to our ego, and invent too many excuses, our ego will eventually kill our creative self.

To be creative, you must create. A composer composes. A writer writes. A painter paints. A sculptor sculpts.

Sitting there fantasizing about painting in Paris or blogging in Bali only makes you a daydreamer.

Beware the silent ego

Many creatives let ego and excuses get in their way.

‘That’s not me!’ you might say. ‘If anything, I’m too insecure!’

Yet ego doesn’t necessarily mean you go around telling everyone you’re the best. Sure, some creatives do. But quiet, private egotism is just as deadly.

If you keep telling yourself you’re brilliant, you can become afraid to attempt anything that might expose the fact (to yourself) that you’re not quite there yet. That’s ego hurting you.

Of course, it’s not just our own judgements of our work we have to contend with. There’s the judgements of others, too. Find out how you can develop intellectual and emotional creative confidence.