A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a trailer with a very established music producer. To give you an idea: he had recently finished contributing to a Rihanna album.
I was ecstatic for the opportunity. I get to work with and learn from this guy?! YASS!
We listened through the music track I had written and he began picking out potential improvements with the arrangement, mix, production, etc. I scribbled down everything I could, taking no offense whatsoever.
I mean, who was I to question what he was telling me?
We talked for a bit - I had some questions on how to tackle some of the issues he brought up. The session ended with me having some serious homework. But I was STOKED!
I spent five days moving things around, changing settings, making small tweaks. This was me giving my all. I wanted to impress him SO much. By the time we met next, I couldn't think/hear of any way I could do better.
The next step was to watch his face light up when he heard how good I was. Right?
We pushed play and he seemed to like it. He listened all the way through without stopping and even had a positive look on his face. Not the utterly enthusiastic reaction I was looking for, but hey, he was kind of a quirky personality.
When it ended, we sat in silence for a few seconds before I asked "what do you think?"
B+?! Hey! That's not bad! I mean, if he's saying B+, then for most people it's really good! Maybe a few small tweaks and we're good to go. For a second there, I was SO HAPPY!
Then he says, "Unfortunately, we're in a business where it's either A+ or F."
He then proceeded to list off even more homework than he had given the last time we met.
It was a bit devastating - I felt like I had given 110%. And it definitely seemed like I hadn't impressed him. It’s moments like this that can crush your spirit and make you feel like giving up on a piece of creative work.
While in the short term that experience stung, I realized criticism is actually an opportunity and encouraging, though it can be perceived very differently for any creative artist than for most other professions.
For many amateur artists, to criticize their work is not criticizing a thing they did, it is criticizing an intrinsic part of themselves.
There's a lot to unpack here.
First, it's important for an artist to realize the criticism is not about direct attacks on their self-worth. The issue is how criticism is expressed so that it aids communication, the experimentation process, or it's execution - not a personal, intimate artistic failure.
As a creative whenever you put a piece of work forward people will have opinions about it. It will naturally feel like they are attacking your level of skill. You must develop a thicker skin.
Second, the fact that someone is criticizing your work means they think it's worth having a potentially uncomfortable conversation about. Not only that, they think you're worth having that conversation with.
Think about it - we all have people in our lives who we've kinda given up on.
- They always talk about the things they're going to do but never actually attempt them.
- Everything is someone else's fault - not theirs.
- Their idea is so bad that you can't even begin to determine how to communicate everything that's wrong with it.
At a certain point, we stop caring.
We stop saying "I don't know if that's a good idea.."
We stop pointing out what doesn't work or what does.
We stop expecting them to follow through.
Ultimately, we stop taking them seriously. To that end, we stop objecting. We stop trying. We stop criticizing - because we feel the idea is so terrible, or the person won't or can't act upon our input. So why try to help?
If someone criticizes your work, it means they think the potential of your idea is worth being uncomfortable about. It means they think that if they tell you their thoughts, you'll understand them and are capable of implementing them.
Criticism means someone thinks you and your idea are worth helping. It means they think you and your ideas have value and can be better than they currently are.
While my additional homework from the producer was initially disappointing, it also meant we were making progress. My music was worth working on and I was worth talking to. It took a while, but we ended up with one of the best overall tracks I've made. Those sessions became a learning experience in craft and in self.
Be happy if someone is willing to tell you that something isn't A+ and why. Welcome it. Embrace the criticism!
Elliot Callighan is a composer and sound designer, and the owner of Unlock Audio. He also teaches in the film and game programs at DePaul University and is an Officer in the Army National Guard.