Patience Grasshopper – An Artist’s Guide to Handling (Constructive) Criticism

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I don’t care who your boss is, you’re going to have days where you don’t like them.  Either they don’t like your work, they’re critical of your performance in some way, or you’re just not getting along personally.  Since the dawn of hierarchy, some level of resentment is going to happen whether your boss is a tyrant like Steve Jobs or as awesome as Richard Branson.  A lot people hate it when their boss is all up in their business, but it only happens every once in a while.  However, as an Executive Assistant, my job is to deal with the big guy on a daily basis.  Sound like a nightmare?  It’s not.  With the right attitude it can be rewarding and even (dare I say it) fun!  But the number one thing that will make or break your relationship with your boss on any given day is how you handle criticism (ESPECIALLY if you’re an artist.)

Whether your boss is the CEO like mine, or a creative manager of some sort, they have a method to their madness and you may not understand it right away.  A good boss will try to explain and allow you to understand their reasoning, a less reasonable one will tell you to shut up and do it.  In either case, it’s pretty much certain you’re not going to hit the mark they set 100% the first time, and one way or another you’ll hear about it.  I’ll give you an example from a past experience:

Imagine you’re a designer and you’ve been tasked with designing the newest and coolest flyer for a large event.  They tell you the information they want, and a general concept for the design and you put your creativity to work making the coolest thing you’ve ever produced.  Your friends/co-workers walk by and remark about how awesome it is, making you feel super confident.   Four hours later you cheerfully and optimistically present what might be your best work ever to your (client) boss.  Their response: “This is garbage.  It took you four hours to come up with this!?  It feels.. so.. amateur.”  Of course then you try to explain your vision and concept, but they’re not convinced.  If you’re lucky they’ll explain what you can change and let you take another shot at it.  If not, they’ll hover over your shoulder and literally tell you what to change step-by-step.  I call this “Design Hell”.

Now, in a moment like this, especially if this isn’t the first time this has happened, it’s easy to lose your temper.  There is nothing worse than having your design/pride ripped apart and then being reduced from designer to a voice activated tool for your boss’s design.  What’s worse is when what they’re forcing you to make is hideous.  So you now have two options:  Explode, tell them off, and quit.  Or, you can take an internal step back, get your emotions in check, take a deep breath and remember it’s not about you, it’s about the client.   As freelance or full-time artists, you made a commitment to make art for your client or your company (which essentially makes your boss, you main client.)  This is a different concept than making art for yourself, and one that often involves separating yourself emotionally and getting your pride taken down a notch or two.

What you have to remember is that if you’re answering to your boss, they are answering to theirs, who may very well be the client directly.  Regardless of their communication ability with you, they have a picture of what they want in their head, and it’s probably based on information you may not have been given.  Maybe it’s past experience, maybe it’s a meeting you weren’t privy to and maybe you weren’t given enough of the big picture to get it.  But the point is, for them, it is not personal.  So if you take it personally and explode, or even allow it to simmer under the surface, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.  When you allow resentment to screw up your attitude, not only will you lower your own motivation and performance, but you’ll make yourself seem less professional to you boss/clients which can very quickly affect your livelihood.

So instead of reacting right away, try to relax and have faith in your boss’s direction (regardless of how they may convey it.)  Remember that at the end of the day, even CEOs have a “boss” in the form of the company’s board and/or direct clients.  They are as much under the gun as you are, and their reputation is on the line.  You can have the best design in the world, but if it doesn’t fit with the client’s ideas/culture, it’s not going to work.  The difference between a professional and an amateur isn’t always just raw skill, but the ability to deliver exactly what the client wants.  It’s very rare this will happen on the first draft, so learn to take criticism in any form and communicate positively to better understand exactly what the client needs.  When you hit that sweet spot, all the pain of the process will be worth it in the form of a happy client (which makes a happy boss!)

Post By: Jordan Robinson,  Executive Assistant

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