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Turning Criticism Into Action

In working with so many creatives and entrepreneurs over the years, I’ve found that typically humans react to rejection in one of two ways.

  1. The Stiff Upper Lip: We put our heads down and try to carry on as if nothing happened, making sure not to demonstrate even a trace of emotion.
  2. We let it all hang out: Tears, rants and all.

Sound familiar?

While these are understandable responses to the initial sting of rejection, neither work as a sustained coping mechanism. The brutal truth of the world of business and entrepreneurship is that criticism is inevitable. Sustaining a fear of failure – in whatever guise it presents itself – can lead to you doing nothing at all.

Success, no matter what certain parts of the internet might want to tell you, isn’t about a sudden flash of victory. Instead it takes time, effort, and dedication to master your field – all of which involves being vulnerable to rejection, and open to the potential inherent in failure.

I remember when I got the first letter back from my editor at Penguin, for the first edition of The Journey From the Center to the Page. In an eleven page, single-spaced letter were perhaps four sentences that involved positive feedback. The rest was the details of everything that needed to change.

And I could see her red pencil that just made these big loops on page after page so I went to bed for forty-eight hours, and allowed myself the opportunity to feel.

My wife peeked her head in and she said, “Are you ok?” I said, “I will be in forty-eight hours.”

And I was fine after that.  

I got back and got on my yoga mat and said, “I can get through this. It’s not going to be a problem.”  

And I did, it was fine. But I needed that forty-eight hour window.  

O’Neill’s Forty-Eight Hour Limit

In his excellent book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, Mark McGuinness tells an anecdote about famous soccer coach, Martin O’Neill. O’Neill said that when his team wins he allows them forty-eight hours to celebrate and feel good about themselves and when they lose they have forty-eight hours to feel depressed.

Then they have to get back to the business of playing soccer.

But that forty-eight hour window – whether you fill it with joy, or leaning into feelings of depression and rejection – must be finite. One of the difficulties inherent in creating a mission-based and authentic brand is that of course, you’re going to care and feel things deeply.

However, in order to create a healthy business and develop, you need to ensure that you’re prototyping and learning from these experiences. You have to master these new skills.

For many people, especially those who have been successful in one particular career or niche, just the thought of receiving criticism for ideas and works – especially creative ones – can be paralyzing.

Yet experience and research keep bearing the same dictum: Criticism and even rejection don’t just “make us stronger.” They actually can embolden our creative ideas and output.

Make Mastery Your Priority

There are always anecdotes about people’s successes that we love to hear. For instance that it’s never too late to make a change, or start something new – even when in your forties, fifties, sixties, or seventies – to launch a new start-up, shift careers, or become a gratified author.

What is less popularly told is that doing so requires hard work plus mastery, in order to learn and hone new skills, and apply new knowledge. And often, as we grow and develop the skills, we’re going to face a large amount of rejection.

Take Malcolm Gladwell’s portrait of Dallas-based author Ben Fountain in his essay “Late Bloomers”:

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief ” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

Creative Courage & Courageous Creativity

That contradiction between wants (“I want creativity and creative change” and “I want things to stay the same”) gets at the heart of where we either can let anxiety paralyze or propel our creative courage and our courageous creativity.

How do we overcome this?

In this age of Google-quick answers and instant e-publishing and three-step app-making, we can easily forget that creative start-ups, next-phase careers, and creative work that matters take time for mastery.

Feed Your Heart

Know that it’s okay and normal to feel this creative tension and the anxiety that comes with it. It’s part of our paradoxical biology. Recognize it for what it is.

But I implore you not to ignore it. You can assess whether it’s worth it. Later. But your Wild Idea could lead to the next raving story that changes a little girl’s or a middle-aged man’s perspective. Or the next solution to our technology malaise. Or the spot-on response to our foodie questions.

Pay attention to the itch, the pull, the call. You don’t have to take a “jump-in-and-take-no-hostages” approach.

Let mastery move you.

Anxiety creeps up when we feel incompetent in the face of our desires. Especially when we feel so competent in other areas.

You want to create a video series but can barely turn on your webcam. You want to write and publish a book, but you haven’t a clue how your journal-shards and napkin-scraps and volumes of Morning Pages add up to a Book. You want to make more time to create, but you lack the skills to work it into your burdened schedule and burdened mind.

List the skills you want to learn and get better at. Doing so objectifies the creative process in any field or medium. It helps you remember that lack of know-how is normal and that you can gain know-how that, in turn, will help you feel more agile, dextrous, and, yes, courageous on your creative quest. Then seek the right allies and mentors – for pay or not.

Don’t think you should be able to soldier your way through all by yourself. Trying to Do It Yourself could be holding you back when what you really need is to Do It Together.

Remember the benefactors.

None of us will save the world single-handedly. But we can save our own patch of the planet. For you, that might be ten people. It might be ten thousand. Regardless of size, your patch of the planet is the group of people united, captivated, and elevated by what you create.

Remember why you started on this path and the wonder that you’re using to create business as unusual. When you feed your heart, you give your best self what it most deserves: encouragement.

If you’re looking for an intimate setting where you can fully engage with the creative potential inherent in criticism, learn from collaborators, and gain a hands-on and one-of-a-kind experience, then consider enrolling in our Brand Artistry Labs.

These 4-day intimate immersions to Create, Experiment, Collaborate, and Earn. Captivate Ideal Clients, Grow an Engaged Community, and Earn a Great Return in Your Heart & Bottom Line. You can learn more here.

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