Why are we so weird about our ideas?

By Andrew Boulton

November 8, 2019 | 7 min read

There are very few character flaws that will prevent you from succeeding in a creative career. In fact, a great many of those deficiencies will be precisely why you do succeed. But there is one particular characteristic that no professional creative can possibly be without. And that is to do with their relationship with feedback.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

/ Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Colour blind designers, copywriters with a disregard for apostrophes and creative thinkers with a restricted imagination can all cheat, disguise or otherwise soften their failings. But if you are unable to accept and administer challenge you will find a creative life to be a miserable and perpetually hostile existence.

A creative director I know, who cheerfully recounts the stories of bruising and belittling presentations to her superiors, once said to me that feedback is the breakfast of champions.

And, while she is entirely right, the chemical and evolutionary make-up of our brains is determined to stand in the way of such valuable wisdom.

The human brain’s natural response to criticism or contradiction is one of fear and self-defence. It sees criticism as an almost primal threat – reasoning, from the shadows of its caveman past, that being wrong is an excellent way to get yourself gobbled up by a mammoth or accidentally set up home in a barely dormant volcano.

Anyone entering the business of paid creativity has to be able to strangle the instinct to flee from, or fight against, criticism – partly because it will be too exhausting to spend your whole career in this manic state of preservation, partly because feedback is pretty much the only gift of value this industry can provide.

The author and journalist Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error says “being wrong is hard and humbling and sometimes even dangerous. But in the end it is a journey and a story”. In other, less good, words: being wrong provides you with drama and peril and decisions that need taking. Being right provides you with, aside from smugness or relief (depending on your personality), precisely nothing.

Feedback, the giving and taking of, is one of those industry obsessions that compel us to seek out – and then rather manhandle – evidence and understanding from the scientific world.

A study that, a few years ago, seemed to be everywhere in creative circles was by Dr Carla Jefferies who, in my inadequate simplification, suggested that a failure to give constructive feedback is more about protecting ourselves than the people whose work we are commenting upon.

It then becomes a cycle of withholding, a pattern of silent abuse where none of us learn and none of grow because none of us are prepared to say there is a better way to do what we’re doing.

The idea of ‘killing your darlings’ is something that every creative will encounter, hopefully, in the formative years of their creativity. But what few of us are taught is that it is just as important to kill our bias. Our bias, our understanding of the way the world is and should be, makes it impossible for us to listen to – or indeed respect – anyone who sees things differently.

With this sort of mindset – what the psychologists would call ‘fixed’ as opposed to ‘growth’ – we end up holding a stick that offers nothing but shitty ends. You still have to hear criticism, but you are unable or unwilling to learn from it. It’s a little like a climber tumbling off a cliff, breaking their leg and still not having learned to tie a more secure knot for next time.

The fundamental misinterpretation – and perhaps misrepresentation – of criticism in creative practice is that it is somehow about power. It is not, or at least, it should never be that.

Feedback should be about generosity – the generosity of observation, challenge and suggestion that can make your idea better. Seen in these terms, and not as platform for dissolving your confidence or demeaning your efforts, feedback becomes something to be treasured.

Perhaps because criticism has often been adopted as a tool for vendettas and one-upmanship, it has earned a reputation for savagery and demolition. A famous criticism often, but not accurately, attributed to the humourist Ambrose Bierce was that ‘the covers of this book are too far apart’. A witty put-down, undoubtedly, but this branch of weaponised feedback is not criticism in a true or meaningful sense.

Instead, consider this thought from transcendental philosopher, and all-round serious sausage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his journal: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

Criticism is not about you, your sensitivities, your upbringing, your art or your haircut – it is about the work. And, during the working day, these distinct continents of planet you may have nothing at all to do with each other.

As you can see, the nature and purpose of criticism has preoccupied artists as much, if not a great deal more, than scientists.

One particular quote that was hastily superimposed onto an inspirational sunset and ubiquitously pinged across the echo chamber was from Will Self in a Guardian feature about writers and their relationship to, and experience of, failure.

Self said “a creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism” and you can see why it was so heartily adopted by the creative community as, at best, a mantra and, at worst, an incantation against the meanies who don’t like your words or pictures.

What is missing for me is the idea that a creative life can very much be sustained, and indeed propelled, by criticism – providing the receiver sees it for what it is and recognises how they may use it.

I much prefer an observation from the same article, from the writer Howard Jacobson. He says that “art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn't art”.

Similarly, many people arrive in creative practice based on what could be called failures. We, or at least our minds, have failed to follow an ordinary path. We have failed to conform to the idea that the world is fixed and cannot be manipulated into something better. We have failed, spectacularly and irretrievably, at being conventional.

We turn up to day one of our creative lives, perhaps unknowingly, as veterans in failure. If only we could bring the same degree of perspective and clarity to our creative failures – and use them as a way, the only way, to become better and braver at what we do.


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