It is now a well accepted mantra that, on any given internet site, one should not read the comments. The advice has become the modern-day equivalent of not examining the underside of remote, ominous bridges too carefully. And the reason for both pieces of advice is the same: because that’s where the trolls live.
While “avoidance of trolls” is readily classified under the category of “strategies for a much happier life,” the reality is that into everyone’s life a little ugliness and negativity must fall. Not because it’s character building, necessarily (although it can be). Not because that’s how karma works (although it is). Not just because the universe hates you and is determined to rain on your parade (it’s worse that that; the universe is wholly indifferent to your existence). Negative feedback is going to come your way. Sometimes it will be mean, caustic, nasty and biting. Sometimes it will be kindly expressed (and yet still cut you deeper than any file folder ever will). But it will happen.
The cause of negative feedback will vary. It might be “constructive criticism” in a performance review. It could be feedback from a presentation or workshop that you delivered. It could be in a review of a product you were in on. You may even attract comments on a post on the internet. Whatever the specific cause, someone is going to harshly and unfeelingly criticize you or your work.
The big question is how you will react to this when it happens. Some will dismiss it out of hand; brushing it away without further thought or consideration. Others will find it debilitating, crawling under their duvet and not emerging for three days. Many more will quietly bear up, vacillating between seething at the perceived injustice of it and feigning benign indifference. It would probably be helpful at this point to acknowledge that the vast majority of us aren’t going to like the experience, and resent the perceived meanness underlying the comments. But negative feedback is not going to kill us. So there is an opportunity in there to use it to help make us stronger.
I came to negative feedback early. In the early part of my career, I worked in theatre, and we actively sought out feedback on our work. Yes, we sought feedback from friends and family. But more importantly, we got feedback from reviews. Published. In public. In the newspaper. Where everyone can read them.
A good review can have an enormous impact on attendance and ticket sales (both of which are inarguably good things to have a lot of). A bad review, by comparison, can kill a show almost as soon as it opens. I know of many performers who absolutely refuse to read reviews of their performance, lest their ego be crushed (although I secretly suspect that many of them still do). But here’s the thing: it’s rare for a review to be wholly awesome or wholly negative, and not all reviewers are going to agree. You will get supportive feedback, and you will get critical feedback as well. Both are useful.
The interesting thing is the impact that feedback has on us as individuals: we weigh negative reactions as far more meaningful than we do positive ones. Receive twenty evaluations of a workshop or speech, and you might have nineteen that loved it and one that hated it. And like a tongue to a broken tooth, you are drawn to the negative one. You dwell on it. You wallow in it. You believe it to be the whole, unvarnished reality of what happened. Someone will wave nineteen glowing reviews at you in response, and you will still obsess on the one that wasn’t happy.
So here’s the thing: sometimes, people aren’t going to like what you do. Things are going to rub them the wrong way. They are going to react negatively to one thing that you do—or to the manner in which you do that thing—and it will colour the rest of their experience. And some of them just aren’t going to like you. At all. That’s the truth of it. And that’s still okay.
Kevin Kelly wrote an interesting article whose thesis was that creators need to (and can reasonably attract) one thousand true fans[http://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/]. These are the people that adore your work, will go out of their way to experience it and will buy every ticket, book, album, hat, t-shirt and tchotchke you make available to them. While I have some quibbles with the details of his post, the idea is an interesting one with some implications for how we think about negative feedback. For the thousand rabid fans who adore everything we do, there are a much larger number who only enjoy some of it. And there are a few billion more on the planet who genuinely don’t know we exist.
Apart from being a deeply humbling perspective, this also articulates a reasonable spectrum of support that we can actually expect for our work. Some will genuinely adore it, some will appreciate what we were trying to do (even if we didn’t quite fully succeed) and others will, quite frankly, hate it. And that doesn’t count the massive numbers who will ignore it completely.
If we expect appreciation occurs on a spectrum, then we should also expect feedback to be delivered on that same spectrum. There are a few that will always give glowing feedback and unabashed support (thanks, Mom). And there are those that will always rip you apart. I’m going to actually encourage you to question both of those responses; uncritical adoration is actually as useless, developmentally speaking, as unvarnished hate. It’s wonderful to receive, but it doesn’t help you learn and grow.
The hardest voices to hear, the quietest ones, the nuanced ones—the meaningful ones—are those that fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Those who can appreciate, but who can also help to identify what didn’t quite work. Those who were interested enough to explore what you were doing, but critical enough to be able to identify how you could have made it better. Those who cared enough to try, and made the effort to let you know about their experience.
To hear the constructive comments, you need to leave the cozy, shiny echo chamber of awesome adoration. You need to orbit the giant hairball of hate and animosity. But in orbiting the hairball, you need to avoid getting sucked into its tractor beam. You need to strike a balance. If you are going to learn and grow from your experiences (and from others’ experiences of your work) you have to be willing to embrace feedback for what it is—someone’s subjective impression—and value it for what it offers—their assessment, warts and all, of how you did.
Hearing the constructive suggestions and critical comments of our work is unquestionably hard. It is also necessary, if we are going to improve. We need to hang on to the fact that we are doing the work we are doing because we care about it, and we want to do it well. We also need to allow for the fact that we can continue to get better at it—we will never be at a point where we have “arrived” and have no further room for improvement. We need to be open to the idea that, as positive or well received as some aspect of our work has been, there are ways that it could have been better.
Doing this requires reading reviews or receiving feedback critically. By that, I mean that we need to read between the lines and read across different perspectives to get a handle on how things actually went. Even the most unvarnished expression of hatred needs an imperfection to attach itself to; ignore the means of expression, but find that thread and follow it back to its source. What are they picking it, what does it mean and how can we use that understanding in the future?
Above all, recognize that feedback is feedback. It’s wonderful to receive, because it means someone cared enough to comment. Even when it’s painful to receive—because someone didn’t like what you did, how you did it or who you are—there is still some shred of relevance and value. Take what’s useful, and ignore and put aside the rest. Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s just fine.