Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.Bill Gates
This section was originally published in net magazine. The content was heavily inspired by my experience with Sifter, and even today it still hits close to home. It has been edited slightly to fit the context of this book.
Writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard once said, “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” That’s not exactly encouraging for anyone who hopes to create something meaningful–not everyone understands the difference between constructive criticism and pure negativity. So what’s the best way to deal with words designed to wound?
Try to keep it in context: getting criticism is rarely pleasant, but the fact that you’re receiving it at all is a sign that people care. The alternative to bad criticism isn’t good criticism–it’s no criticism. It’s best to take all criticism as a sign of interest on some level.
If your work doesn’t provoke emotion–good or bad–you won’t hear anything at all. People will just move on to the next thing. The choice between having people criticize your work or having people ignore it is a no-brainer. Criticism gives you something to learn from while apathy leaves you isolated in a vacuum.
Quality vs. Quantity
Don’t confuse volume with quality–louder or more frequent criticism doesn’t imply that it’s better or more valuable. The internet, Twitter, and blogs have given everyone a voice. This makes it easier for people to share their opinions and critiques–and easier for you to hear them.
But don’t let the amount or volume of criticism convince you that your work is worthless. If anything, more criticism should tell you that you’re on to something interesting.
Try to recognize the difference between facts and opinion. Critics don’t always make the distinction when they’re commenting on a product. Many will denounce something simply because it’s not right for them. But instead of saying, “This product doesn’t meet my needs,” they might say something like, “This product is complete garbage.”
Critiques founded on opinion mean nothing other than your priorities are different from someone else’s. And if you’re intentionally trying not to cater to those priorities, the criticism may actually be a sign of success. Listen to it, but don’t let it distract you from your goals.
And remember that critics rarely have the full story. This gives them the advantage of not being tied down by old ideas and assumptions, but it means their ideas are only valuable to a certain degree. Just because they don’t have the full picture doesn’t make them wrong, but it does handicap their ability to provide relevant feedback.
It’s important to recognize that there’s almost always some valuable feedback at the heart of any criticism. (If someone were to tweet you just to say that “Your product is garbage,” that probably doesn’t count. But other than that, most criticism offers valuable feedback.) Just because someone does a poor job of delivering their feedback doesn’t mean their opinion is baseless. If you can get past the delivery and focus on the underlying issues, there’s a chance you can find value in even the most negative feedback.
Always reach out to critics. Be civil and friendly about it, but ask them to clarify–start a dialogue. By reaching out with an open mind, you humanize the conversation, and the previously vague criticism may turn into a valuable dialogue. If they don’t respond when you reach out, that’s a sign that they value their own remarks less than you do. Well, that or their spam filters are all jacked up–but either way, don’t let it get to you.
Complaints are more common than praise. People are much more likely to voice negative opinions than positive ones. When people are satisfied with something, they don’t always feel as if they need to write about it. But when they aren’t satisfied, they won’t let you forget it.
If you want to create something of value, you’re going to receive criticism. If you don’t hear any criticism, it’s not because everyone loves what you’ve created–it’s because no one either cares or knows about it. It’s unlikely that either of those options are what you’re looking for. If you can accept criticism as a valuable and inseparable piece of the creative process, you can control how you react to it and how it affects you. Once you can do that, the rest is a cakewalk.