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Critique V Cristicism: What is Feedback and How do we Use it

As creatives we are constantly navigating the very confusing, vulnerable world of feedback. There is a very fine line that separates the good from the bad and the true from the mean, and when it comes to baring our creativity it can be painful and difficult to sift through it all, especially on social media platforms.

There are several things to consider when analyzing feedback. What kind is it? Who is giving it? Did we ask for it? Why are we taking it? We will get to all of these, but first we need to ask ourselves what feedback truly is.

Feedback is any response to stimulus. In this instance we are looking at feedback relating to our creativity. This could be in the form of an idea or concept, or a literal piece of work. When we create and share our creativity with the world, it is a very vulnerable process, and when we leave ourselves completely exposed to all forms of feedback it can be painful. Feedback itself is not inherently bad or painful. In fact, it can be a wonderful experience when that feedback is positive and loving. Feedback should be useful and constructive. That’s why we seek it out, but we need to be wary when we take it in and put it to use.

In terms of biology - here’s my kinesiology training kickin in folks - feedback loops exist as either negative or positive. Negative feedback loops produce a stimulus to achieve a result and then end (the result of an action taken ends the reaction that began the cycle). As an example, when we get cold, our body’s reaction is to shiver, when we shiver we heat ourselves up, thus returning to a comfortable state and ending the need to shiver. A positive feedback loop perpetuates the action being stimulated. An example of this would be labour, contractions compound because they cause a greater stretch and pressure which was the initial trigger for the reaction of a contraction. The process of a positive feedback loop only ends when the initial stimulus is no longer present or being perpetuated.

When applied to creativity, negative feedback causes a reaction that changes what’s happening until a desired outcome is achieved. Positive feedback reinforces current processes and behaviours.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is: What kind of feedback is it?

Feedback, like anything, is on a spectrum, from wildly positive to downright cruel. This is the juicy stuff. Let’s start with the positive.

Positive feedback is our favourite form. When you get a compliment on a piece of work, encouragement for your ideas, or overall positive affirmations surrounding your creative practice it feels good! It is validating. It can help silence your inner critic and boost your ego. However, even with positive feedback there are pitfalls. When feedback is wildly positive you need to look at the source. Friends and family, those we trust who have the same perspective or function as cheerleaders in our lives can sometimes over exaggerate feedback, especially if they sense we are particularly vulnerable. The trouble with positive feedback is that it can be all fluff and no substance. Weeding out the accurate from the disingenuous can be tricky and end up making us feel worse. False praise is not helpful to our process or our growth as creatives. Though it can feel wonderful to hear that you’re doing a good job, being successful, or generally brilliant, we need to be careful not to let that go to our heads. Keeping our ego in check is just as important as limiting the inner critic.

Critique is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It’s the double edged sword of feedback; the knife’s edge. Critique can either be positive or negative, but ideally, it is detailed, constructive, and balanced. The key to a good critique is in the delivery. This form of feedback is an analysis of a work, measuring the pros and cons, the good and the bad against each other to arrive at a conclusion as to the overall merit of the work itself and identify areas of improvement. When worded poorly, it can be cruel. However, when that delicate balance is struck the constructive advice of a different and often removed perspective can be invaluable to growth. Knowing the things that work, being validated in your efforts is a huge factor in continuing on a creative path, but in order to grow we must be challenges, we must learn and develop, and sometimes we can only see those areas that need work from the perspective of one consuming our work. Ideally, critiques are handled by professionals, or those trusted in that particular creative community. When inexperienced or unfamiliar people give critiques they can be rather scathing, and be more suited to a criticism than a critique, as it should also celebrate moments of strength in the work.

Criticism is typically at the negative end of the spectrum where it points out faults and flaws alone. Usually there is no further suggestion or instruction on how to fix said faults, and they are not pointed out with any particular attention paid to one's feelings. Believe it or not, there is a right way to give criticism that doesn’t leave the recipient crushed. Again, the key is to be constructive with the criticism; to focus on things that are fixable, not bashing the work based on an opinion, preference or taste. Backing a negative comment with examples or reasoning lets the blow land easier and makes one more receptive. It also helps when criticism comes from a trusted source that only wants the best for the creative and the work. When criticism is born out of jealousy or its purpose is to tear down a creative's confidence, or comes from an untrusted or unfamiliar source, the sting of negative criticism worsens. INstead of challenging a creative to grow, criticism can have a freezing effect, causing a creative to quit or abandon a piece of work, or creativity altogether. As mentioned above it is incredibly vulnerable to create and then ask for feedback. By being negative we are not giving valuable, useful feedback that can be used to transform a work, rather we are tearing at the heart of the creative behind the work, and undermining all of their hard-won resiliency.

When considering what feedback to listen to, knowing the type of feedback we are getting is important. It allows us to set up expectations, armor, and gives us time to check the ego, ensuring we take away the valuable bits, if there are any to be had, and leaving both the absurdly positive and unnecessarily mean pieces behind.

Onward to question number two: Who is giving it?

It’s not enough to know what type of feedback you’re getting, you also consider the source of the feedback. Are they trustworthy? Are they knowledgeable? Are they objective? These are the most important questions to ask yourself when calibrating another human being for feedback. Someone can be trustworthy without being objective - especially if they are a close friend or family member, however they may not be the most knowledgeable about the specifics of the craft. But a critique group familiar with the craft may not be made up of individuals you know and trust, and they may allow their personal bias to colour their critiques. If we can understand who is giving the feedback, we can appreciate its value for what it is and not read more into it or allow it to shake us to our creative core. Another question t o ask in this category is: is this your ideal consumer? If so, we may be more inclined to hear what they have to say because they are the one we want engaging with our work and will probably be the most willing to be constructive and helpful in the feedback process as opposed to someone we know will not be part of our consumer ship.

Our third question: Did we ask for it?

This helps us to put the feedback into perspective and unravel another layer to see how useful it will truly be. If we asked for the feedback we need to be prepared for it to come in any form. We cannot please everyone, and nothing is ever perfect. This question can help us to get comfortable with that idea before we are on the receiving end of it. If we asked for it we can prepare. If we did not ask for it, we then need to take a step back to evaluate the who and the type to measure its value to us. What was their intention with this unsolicited feedback - good Samaritan, or envious rival? When we feel ready to process feedback we are more open to accepting the different varieties out there from numerous sources. However, if that feedback comes before we are ready, the consequences can be more drastic.

The fourth and final question to consider: Why are we taking it?

When we receive a piece of feedback we need to understand why we are listening to it and implementing it. What is our goal in taking in this feedback? If we are looking to grow and improve, we may be inclined to take in too many suggestions, take too much to heart. On the other hand, if we are looking for cheerleaders to bolster our ego, we may ignore the more negative feedback, staying stuck. Does the feedback make sense with our vision and goal for the work? If so, then we can take it and use it. If the answer is no, then we can leave it behind as an opinion that does not serve our vision or the work. All feedback is subjective, no matter how objective you try to be, just look at the oxford comma debate - its grammar, and yet it is not a hard and fast rule. Looking at why we are listening to the feedback we are given, based on the three questions above, can help us determine how and if the suggestions, the feedback, the notes, should be implemented in our work.

Bonus Question: How can we deal with feedback in a healthy way that helps us grow as creatives, but protects our vulnerable creative hearts from being ripped to shreds?

The simple answer is boundaries. Use the outlined questions to focus and filter feedback received. These questions are all layers of armor you can put on to distance yourself from the emotional responses that feedback can provoke and help you stay objective to your goal and vision for your work and journey in creativity. Something I have done is gone to a trusted person whom I know only has my best interests at heart and wants to see me succeed and I have specifically asked for no judgement, no criticism. By the same token I have approached trusted people and asked them to make notes and edits to my work for me to review at a distance, giving myself time and space to work through the critiques and my emotional responses to them.

It’s not about growing a thick skin. It’s about choosing yourself first, picking yourself as a creative, and backing your work before anyone else. Grow in confidence, create confidently. Recognize that we all have a different perspective, and that sometimes our perspective isn’t the most correct, even when, and most especially when it comes to our own work.

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