Embrace Critical Feedback
Criticism is just another tool we can use to improve our work.

For most anyone involved in producing creative work, there is a really valuable tool to understand and utilize. While we all love to have our work praised, a lot of value can come from embracing feedback and criticism. Embracing feedback and criticism is vital to improvement and growth.

A story, which begins back in the year 2000 with an author and choreographer named Twyla Tharp, illustrates this point well.

Twyla was 59 years old at this time, and she was viewed as one of the most influential, respected and successful writers and choreographers in the world. She had decades of experience and success in her creative field. She had a reputation that was pretty much unimpeachable. She had worked with many of the biggest names in the business—people like composer Philip Glass, singer and songwriter David Byrne and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In the year 2000, Twyla Tharp set out to create a new and ambitious Broadway musical. It would be new and ambitious because Twyla wanted this musical to be as much of a ballet and an opera as it was a musical.

This musical’s purpose was to tell the story of a generation of young Americans who grew up in New York in the 1960s. Twyla wanted to chart their lives from the 60s into the 70s—showing the impact that the Vietnam War had on them—and then into the 80s. And she wanted to tell that story by using characters and lyrics from the songs of the famous American singer/songwriter Billy Joel.

Once she had the idea formulated, Twyla worked tirelessly on the project for months and months. She wrote the storyline, striving to capture the turbulence of the Vietnam War and working to demonstrate the social changes that swept through America during these decades. She gave herself quite a constraint, however, by deciding to use only the lyrics that had been written by Billy Joel to push the plot forward.

Twyla named the musical Movin’ Out, after the Billy Joel song by that name. She even got Billy Joel to sign off on the whole thing, and she was also able to get about $8 million dollars in investor money to mount the show. This was no small project!

After about two years of arduous work and pouring herself into this project, the show finally had its big debut at the Shubert Theater in Chicago.

And … it was a flop!

The audience was confused about the plot. The investors were worried about their money. The morale of the cast had vanished—they started to fear that their involvement in this disaster would set back their careers. The critics were brutal in their reviews of the show, and even Billy Joel, who had no expertise with musicals or Broadway, told Twyla that there were some significant problems with the show.

In other words, the critical response was universal. And the tough reviews hit hard!

There was Twyla—just like the soldiers in her musical, who were under heavy fire in Vietnam. She was under the heavy fire of criticism. She was bombarded by it from all directions. Her beloved musical, which was supposed to open on Broadway in New York three months later, was a massive failure. It was a public failure. And it was a failure that had dragged in scores of other people.

So, Twyla had to decide what to do.

She could have become defensive and rejected that criticism. She could have stubbornly continued to believe that she knew better than the critics. Or, she could have become discouraged by the criticism and maybe just have tried to scrap the whole project. Either way, she could have gotten insulted by all that criticism, and she could have gone to her grave convinced that the cruel world had treated her shining masterpiece unfairly.

Those are all pretty normal, carnal reactions to critical feedback. We can easily relate to them, and it’s easy to think that Twyla would have been justified had she reacted in any of those ways.

But Twyla didn’t react in any of those ways. Instead, she embraced the critical feedback! She valued each bad review very highly. She scoured the newspapers to read every shred of the criticism. Each insult was a gold nugget to her. Each denunciation was a prize to be discovered and cherished.

Many of the bad reviews were quite detailed; they went through each scene of the musical to tear it apart piece by piece. Twyla studied these details carefully. She even created a series of spreadsheets about them! She meticulously entered all the negative feedback into the spreadsheets, one data point at a time.

Then, after she had read and catalogued all the criticism, she set to work changing the musical. She improved it. She fixed everything that the critics said was wrong with it. She rewrote the play, re-taught it to all those actors and dancers and musicians, and then, after about three months—still on track with her original schedule—she re-released it on Broadway in New York City.

And guess what? After all those changes, Movin’ Out was a smash hit! It played on Broadway for about three years, with more than 1,300 total performances. Then, it went on tour around the world, where hundreds of thousands of people flocked to see it. It ended up winning two Tonys, the Drama Desk Award and the prestigious Theatre World Award!

This time around, the critics and reviewers had only positive things to say. Their vocabulary had completely changed. Movin’ Out became a remarkably successful production, and all for one simple reason: Its creator embraced criticism. She readily received it.

That is not an easy thing for anyone to do. We do not naturally like to admit that we made a mistake or that we produced something of inferior quality. If we really view our work like art and strive to make it perfect, we often pour a lot of our sweat, effort and even tears into it. Herein lies the problem, for the more of ourselves we invest into a creation, the more that creation comes to feel like an extension of us.

The world-renowned educator, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, often wrote about the empirical self. He said that our view of self often expands to include the other people in our lives who we feel allied with as well. This empirical self can also sometimes include the work we create. We can feel like something we labored hard on is a part of us.

This means that we can be quite sensitive when our work is criticized. If we have put our heart into it, and then someone pokes holes in it, it hurts! But learning to not take that discomfort too seriously is an important thing for any person involved in creative work to do.

Winston Churchill once said: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” If we learn to embrace critical feedback and the temporary pain it brings along with it, we can turn our work into something that is even better than we already thought it was.

Critical feedback will not always be delivered in a perfect and encouraging way, however.

The late U.S. congressman Frank Clark said: “Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” That is true, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Feedback and criticism are not always delivered to us with perfect balance and gentleness.

If we seek feedback, which we have to do in order to improve, then we will sometimes be given criticism that is delivered to us in an imbalanced or heavy-handed way. It may not always be entirely fair, and sometimes it might come from a source that we don’t really think it should have come from.

But even if the source is not the most respectable in our view, or if it is delivered in an imbalanced way, we still should not be quick to reject it.

Think about Twyla Tharp and her musical. Much of the criticism that was levied at her was not offered in a spirit of giving and encouragement. A lot of those critics were much harsher than they needed to be because they were operating selfishly—focusing on their own empirical self. They didn’t care about helping Twyla—they just wanted to be viewed as witty writers and have something kind of snarky to say. That’s what sells papers and establishes a name for a critic.

But even with those who were intentionally insulting, Twyla didn’t dismiss the criticism. Even when the feedback was not delivered in the most gentle and diplomatic way, Twyla still considered it and factored it into her revisions. In the end, those criticisms ended up working for her, even though they were originally meant to work against her. In the same way, a person who intentionally tries to hurt us with a harsh criticism could end up helping us, if we take their criticism as it comes and apply it in the right way.

Once, a wise man told his young son that if he took a tumble playing soccer or riding his bike or anything like that, he was not allowed to acknowledge the pain until 20 seconds had passed. Within that time, the pain that had initially seemed so horrendous and offensive to his nerve endings would fade, and he would be able to see that it wasn’t a big deal. The shock would go away, the boy would spare himself the embarrassment of yelping out over nothing, and he would also spare others the stress of fearing that he was actually hurt.

This is a great guideline to apply to emotional hits. It’s a great way to go about embracing critical feedback.

If you receive some jarring criticism about one of your creative works, give it 20 minutes, 20 hours or even a couple of days before you yelp about it and acknowledge the discomfort. Usually, within a few days, that pain and the emotion-fueled reactions will subside. Your perspective will return, and your cooler thinking will prevail. You’ll be able to begin integrating all of the feedback you received into your work—and you’ll be able to improve your creation with it!

Proverbs 19:20 says, “Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end.”

If we “hear counsel,” like the proverb says—if we learn how to embrace critical feedback and work hard to study and grow from it—then we can be wiser for it. We can not only improve that one project we are working on, but we can improve all of our undertakings going forward!

If we really value and embrace criticism, we can improve our work and our overall character from it. We can turn weakness into strength, failure into success, and, like Twyla Tharp, a flop into a hit.

Listen to The Sun Also Rises episode on this topic: