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How To Take Professional Criticism

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi
“It’s not personal, it’s business.” – Tom Hanks, You’ve Got Mail (or: The Godfather)

For a very long time, I took criticism personally. Not in a way that saw me cry or retreat or collapse in on myself, but in a way that saw me channel my inner (fictional) mob boss and consider any critic an enemy.

I told myself that I’d “show them.” That I’d prove through my work and my life just how wrong they were. I relished being the kind of person who would debate the merits of an opinion face-to-face, or block somebody who’s out of line on Twitter. I’d make sure I had the last word, and fuel my work with the idea that productivity would be my critic’s downfall. To combat hurt feelings or a tumultuous afternoon by sitting down to make a deadline isn’t a bad thing. But to take professional criticism as an insult is.

When I first started writing (back in 2009 – hold onto your hats), I wore my professional heart on my sleeve. As far as I was concerned, not only were editors’ criticisms my gospel, they were personal attacks on me and my writing. If an idea was rejected or a piece needed an overhaul, I considered it a reflection of how I had failed. Emails with edits were met with butterflies in my stomach and editors’ notes were just proof of how bad at my job I was.

Rejection was another beast entirely. While I considered edits as proof that my writing career was a fluke at best, I saw rejection as affirmation that I didn’t belong in the industry at all. Of course my ideas weren’t accepted (I thought, quite dramatically) – they weren’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. And by refusing to acknowledge a pitch or accept it for publication, editors were being kind enough to let me know. My pitches and my personality were so intertwined that if someone wasn’t into what I wanted to say, I figured they weren’t into me.

We all sit hunched over our keyboards, waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us it’s all over; they know we’ve been faking it

My experience as a wee baby writer is no different from countless others’ – in any industry. Imposter Syndrome has a name for a reason in that, at some point, we all sit hunched over our keyboards, waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us it’s all over; that everyone has clued in, they know we’ve been faking it, and that it’s time to return to that part-time job we hated. With every heavily-edited piece, I told myself I was inching closer and closer to an email asking me never to write again. Criticism, to me, was absolute. It was personal and business.

But it’s moments like these in which you’re given a choice. On the one hand, you can stop and go backwards, and take solace in what’s easy; telling yourself that you tried, and you failed, and there’s nothing left to do but eat pizza in bed and watch Girls. Or, you could actually "take it on board."

By the time 2011 rolled around, I’d gotten better at edits and rejection. Sometimes I’d hear back about something, other times, my work would be peppered with changes from editors who were just doing their jobs. Occasionally, there would be no edits at all. But in each, it wasn’t personal – it was business. I’d begun to accept that being moderated was a part of life; that the point of an editor is to edit, and most editors just want to make you sound better. Most bosses just want to make you do better.
At school, we receive criticism on every piece of work. It's a teacher's job to mark our work, in merciless red pen no less, and not only to highlight the small errors, but to tell us in sweeping statements to do better, in general. Remember school reports? Where we weren't only judged on academic work, but sporting ability, manners, and social skills. When you think about it, professional criticism is nothing on secondary school criticism.

In retail, we’re criticised for our approach to the public – or criticised by the public (which is awful and another beast altogether.) When I worked at a staffing agency one summer, I was criticised for talking too loudly and for my approach to filing and Excel spreadsheets. When I worked in a restaurant, I was criticised for my uniform and early-days mix-up of table numbers. And when I worked at a bank, I was criticised for... everything. I was very, very bad at working at a bank and probably should’ve been fired. (I quit after six months.)

So it’s true: when we’re starting out, regardless of industry, it seems we can do no right. And, usually when coming to terms with our status as flawed humans, we realise we have a lot to learn, that we’re not perfect (despite our desire to be or belief that we are), and that those who’ve been around the professional block a few times have earned the right to assert what they know. This doesn’t mean they can be mean or cruel, but they do have the right to be annoyed. Because I’ll be honest: I know I was when, working in retail, a new employee accidentally locked my store keys in a fitting room which meant we couldn’t lock the front doors. Just like my manager got annoyed with me when I accidentally refunded $3000 to a con artist.
That’s because professional criticism isn’t meant to torpedo you or ruin you or make you doubt why you ever thought you could get a job. Instead, feedback in any industry is usually constructive and re-affirms that you work for a person who trusts and respects you enough to try and help you succeed. Does it suck to be called out? Absolutely. But it sucks even more to work for a person who’d rather watch you flounder and choke than help you build a foundation on which to stand. Especially since if you’re getting feedback on a mistake, it doesn’t tend to be personal.

And even if it is, so what? I’d used my years of being yelled at by customers and less-than-ideal managers (and later shut down by publications) to build my professional armour up enough that if I didn’t hear back from an editor or was outright rejected, I could prevent having a tantrum and start to see the bigger picture: criticisms weren’t necessarily about me. (And if they were, there wasn’t anything I could do.) Everybody has a boss, a budget, and a lot more at stake than the specific ideas or approaches you're trying to pedal.

And sometimes it's easier said than done. On days where I’m tired or cranky or having a particularly bad morning, I greet edit-laden emails with the feeling of wanting to hurl my laptop into the sea. But then I check myself and get on with it, even if it’s with the Legally Blonde-esque feeling of, “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be!”