Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dealing with Criticism

Academia can be a really harsh environment. I once got a peer review that claimed the research in our paper was "crappy." Not exactly professional language, that! The review was so bad that we had to laugh, but that doesn't mean we didn't take the criticisms they included seriously: the next version of the paper was accepted to one of the top conferences in the field, in part thanks to that reviewer's highly critical comments.

Criticism can hit people hard: I heard one woman crying in the washroom while her friend consoled her and told her that really, the prof who had told her off was being unprofessional. Sometimes when a TA tells you your assignment was terrible, when a prof makes fun of you in class, when your paper gets rejected... it's hard to know how to deal. Venting to a friend is not a bad idea, but sometimes you can do even more to build on the otherwise "crappy" experience of receiving harsh criticism.

So here's some tips from on dealing with harsh criticism:

10 Ways to Deal with Harsh Criticism

1. Use it. If someone delivers criticism in a nasty or thoughtless way, you may tune out useful information that could help you get closer to your dreams. Put aside your feelings about the tone, and ask yourself, "How can I use this to improve?"

2. Put it in perspective. There are over 6 billion people in the world. Even though only a small percentage has had a chance to see your work, odds are the criticism came from a small percentage of that.

3. Acknowledge it isn't personal. If someone doesn't like what you're doing, it doesn't mean they don't like you. Their interpretation of your work reflects how they see themselves and the world. Everyone sees things differently. No matter what you do, you'll only please some of them.

4. If it is personal, realize that makes the criticism even less relevant. If someone doesn't like you as a person for whatever reason, their thoughts on your project proposal hold no weight. Your job, then, is to let them make their choice--not liking you--and stop giving them power to hurt you.

5. Turn false criticism back on the critic. If someone says something harsh, seemingly without merit, realize it speaks more about them than you. Your work is not the problem--their attitude is.

6. Look for underlying pain. When someone is unnecessarily cruel, they generally want to get a rise out of someone--often as a way to deflect whatever pain they're carrying around. When you see the pain under someone's negativity, it helps turn your anger, frustration, and hurt into compassion and understanding for them.

7. Look at the critic as a child. Most children are honest to a fault, yet adults take their feedback with a grain of salt because there's much they don't understand about the world. The same can be said about your critic; he doesn't understand what you're trying to do, and therefore is missing some of the picture.

8. Define your audience. Whatever you're trying to accomplish, odds are it's meant to help a specific group of people. If you're building a web application for mothers, criticism from a 65-year old man carries a different weight than criticism from a mom.

9. Take the opportunity to develop a thicker skin. If you'd like to help many people, you'll have to listen to a lot of others who think you're doing a bad job. It's the nature of reaching a large audience--a portion will be unimpressed, no matter what you do.

10. Challenge yourself to keep going. One of the hardest parts of fielding criticism is letting go and moving forward. Don't let one person's negativity convince you to stop what you're doing. Whether you change your approach or keep doing the same thing, keep going. No matter what.