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inSANity by Lawrence San

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About San


inSANity columns:

I Don't Get No Respect

What's Money For?

The Better You Are,
The Longer It Takes

Nothing Is Possible

When The Bastards
Criticize You

The Theory Of
The Hairy Arm

Always Ready To Walk

Ugly Brides and Other Temptations

Under Fire By The VP of X

Waiting For Aliens

Will The Real Freaks Please Raise Their Hands?

Putting Your Stamp On It

Junkyard Creativity

Two Kinds of Fear?

How To Blow An Interview

Season's Growlings

Booted from the Womb

Rules for Rule Breaking

The Fine Art of Kicking Yourself

Fresh Eyes and Feedback Loops

Little Shop of... Freedoms


There's a rational, professional way to deal with criticism... and then there's San's way...

When The Bastards Criticize You

Look, I'm sick and tired of all this criticism, okay? Clients crit, and bosses crit, and insignificant others crit, and the dork in the next cubicle who probably doesn't even know how to clean himself properly crits. They all have infinite suggestions about what I ought to have done, and when I ought to have done it, and why, if they had done it, it would naturally have come out better... and meanwhile I'm sitting here working at 1 o'clock in the bleeping morning, and they're all off getting drunk and having sex with multiple partners and claiming credit for my accomplishments and... you know what the worst of it is? The worst criticism of all? They accuse me of ranting! Me, ranting! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Okay, I'm calm now. Let's talk about criticism. You're working for this client who doesn't have a clue as to how you do what you do, and has no idea what the underlying issues actually are. The client is making snide remarks which undoubtedly help him bleed off pressure at your expense, and the snidicisms are illogical to boot.

Should you pretend to agree? Argue? Keep your mouth shut? If you keep your mouth shut, won't he take that for agreement that you'll kill yourself trying to fulfill his impossible requests? Maybe he won't even remember the conversation, or maybe he'll be more likely to remember the tone of it than the specifics. Depending on your personality, the specifics may not be the biggest problem anyway. The real issue may be your feelings: how to absorb all this crit from people while staying cool and keeping your self-esteem intact.

To do this, try to remind yourself of two things:

1. Their Evident Inferiority

Are you having trouble absorbing crit because the criticizer's limited understanding marks him as distinctly inferior to you with respect to the subject under discussion? (Or maybe even in general -- heh heh.) Perhaps you can turn this imbalance to your advantage. (I mean inwardly, in terms of your own psychological needs; I'm not talking about "winning" an argument or successfully manipulating your client -- maybe I'll opine about that some other time.) Look, criticism makes you feel bad because on some level you take it seriously, you internalize it. If you cooked a gourmet meal, and a three-year-old child tasted it and spat it out, and said she'd rather have Cheese Whiz, would you take that to heart? If you were walking down the street and a scruffy dog started snarling at you and tried to sink his teeth into your ankle, would you take it as a psychological affront? No, you'd grab a stick and try to hit him over the head! Maybe that's it... always carry a stick when you visit a client and... no, no, don't go there, San, don't go there...

2. It Could Be Worse -- No, Wait, It Is Worse

When the project started, you wisely requested a single point of contact with the client company, and you got it. That means the crit you're getting is probably not really all coming from the one person you're hearing it from, so why should you get mad at him? He's been getting crit about "his" project from his boss and his fellow wage slaves, and he's suffering under it (although not as badly as you are, of course). He's screening out most of what he's getting, and collating it, and aggregating it, and warping it through his own damaged sensibilities, and transmogrifying it through corporate political filters that you can't even imagine, and then he's passing on about ten percent of the original to you. So it's really a homogenized crit-derivative; it bears the same relationship to individual criticism that "Pasteurized Process Cheese Food" bears to a slice of real cheese. It's an amorphous glop of feedback-substitute coming from dorks you've never even met. You're going to take Homogenized Processed Crit-Derivative personally? Come on!

Wait a minute -- I just said that the transmogrifying process means you're only hearing about ten percent of the total original criticism. So the true crit is much greater than you're even hearing! All kinds of people who don't even know your name are walking around blaming you for their problems! They hate you! You're a flop! See, don't you feel better now?

Enough of this childish, self-indulgent introspection. Let's get ruthlessly practical, okay? Let's outline your options, and the likely consequences.

Option 1

Kill every bastard who dares to criticize you. But wait a minute -- that sounds like fun. Will everybody else adopt the same strategy? Blood in the streets! Horror! Civilization collapses! OK, shelve that idea.

Option 2

What if you don't have a single point of contact, and you're getting crit from all sides? Okay, take it all equally seriously. Why should you waste time arguing with the ignorami? It's their money, after all. Just do what each one says you should do. Wait a minute -- each person is telling you something different. Massive contradictions. Try this, reverse course half-way and try that. Work grinds to a halt. Nothing gets done. Civilization collapses. No, that doesn't work either. Okay, try the opposite track...

Option 3

Ignore what everybody says. Stonewall it. Poker face. This might actually work if they all have lousy memories, if they're just venting. If what you finally deliver is so brilliant, so overpoweringly successful that they're blinded by its sheer brilliance, they'll be so busy taking credit for your work that they won't remember that you ignored all their suggestions and criticisms. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell which crits are just passing thoughts being vented for their own momentary satisfaction, and which crits are tied to their deep, permanent agendas. Hmm... it seems like the stonewall strategy can easily backfire too.

Option 4

Take crit so badly that people avoid giving it in the future. Argue! Fight back! Sulk! Pout! Glower! This sounds like fun, but there are drawbacks:

  1. You actually need criticism in order to get better. You don't need most of the crit you get, of course; most of it is garbage. But the few gems in there can be critical to your future growth. If they don't deliver the mass of garbage in the first place, how will you get to hold your nose and pick through it for the few gems?

  2. If you discourage criticism, you're removing one of the client's chief pleasures in life. After all, his boss is giving him crap, so he wants to pass it on to someone else. He's afraid to give his peers and subordinates too much crap, because he has to live with them every day. In other words, part of your value to him is that he gets to beat you up! It's fun for him, see? If you don't let him have his little fun, he won't hire you for another project.

  3. When the client crits you, it gives him the illusion that he has some kind of control and influence over the project. It helps him justify the thought process later whereby he takes credit for your work. He needs this.

Option 5

Evaluate criticism from different people differently. For example, imagine a compulsively supportive person who's always been 100% positive about everything (yeah, I know, pollyanas like that are sickening, but follow my logic here, willya?). For the first time in the five years you've known her, she mildly remonstrates with you about something you've done. Your conclusion: she's really upset and you should take it very seriously.

Now, at the opposite extreme, imagine a client or boss who never says anything positive about anyone's work, or perhaps occasionally forces out insincere praise through painfully gritted teeth -- someone whose natural instincts are to criticize the hell out of everything and never be happy. You give a project your best shot, and he responds with "Couldn't you have done it better?" or "Jeez, San, (I'm San -- Jeez is someone else), why is this thing green? Green makes me sick!" Do you take this seriously? I mean, should you take it seriously? No, he's just being him. (Compulsive grouches don't realize that they've given up a lot of their power to influence people by being the way they are, but should you let that be your problem?)

Now imagine a third kind of client or boss -- someone who likes some things and dislikes others. When he likes something, he seems really happy to like it, and shares his enthusiasm with you. When he dislikes something and criticizes you, he projects no sense of what the Germans call Schadenfreude (happiness at the misery of others). In other words, when he crits you he doesn't seem to be getting his rocks off by doing so. His responses seem keyed to actual circumstance, and he can sincerely project a full range of responses.

This is the only kind of person whose criticism you should take at face value.

By the way, your client or boss is unlikely to fit any of these three stereotypes exactly, but that's not the point. The point is, are you varying your response to criticism (both your emotional response and any actions you take) relative to where the criticizer falls on this spectrum?

Seer that I am, I know what you're thinking -- that Option 5 is so obviously the most logical one that there was no reason for me to write this essay in the first place. Go ahead and criticize me, you dumb bastard! (Oops, sorry, little lapse there.) Let me rephrase this using a more reasoned approach: Sure, this all seems obvious when I explain it the way I have, but (as I've said many times) almost everything in life that matters seems really, really simple and obvious once it's... obvious.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Of course, I'm not always capable of following my own advice; I'm not by nature the calm, reasoned, Zen-like individual I long to be. In real life, even when I'm savaged by a Permanent Grouch whose criticisms I know should be filtered out by ten miles of logic, my immediate reaction is sometimes panic and fury. In fact, my reaction to the grouch may be stronger than my reaction to more measured criticizers, simply out of my "there he goes again!" anger. That kind of anger has no logical value in evaluating my own work, but it twists my emotions around and sometimes threatens to shut off my air supply entirely. The analytical approach to evaluating criticism is the only one that makes sense, but it's such a drag!

Look, I've just figured out the solution. All I need to do is become perfect -- totally, absolutely, undeniably perfect (heck, I'm pretty close to that now anyway) and then nobody will have any reason to criticize me! That's it! Okay, I'll start with this essay... I'd better revise it a few hundred more times so it's perfect. Let's see, that means you should be able to read this online in about the year 2030 or so. I gotta get back to work; see you later.

San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.

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