Failure and Criticism

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Dear Reader,

I’m not sure if it’s really failure if you never tried. That’s the thing that always stopped me from putting anything artistic into the world – what if people don’t like it? What if it’s terrible? Quite honestly, the first few things you put out there probably are terrible and people won’t like it. At least I’m sure that’s true for most of us.

It’s because very little comes from just having natural talent. I will, of course, leave myself some wiggle room and say that most of us don’t have a born ability to be amazing at any one thing. When I used to hear about “child prodigies” doing some thing or another at such a young age, all I could really think was, “Yeah, sure, they are young and fantastical… but they still had to put in the hours to practice.” Nothing good happens without putting in the time to get there.

Thus, my biggest failure. Until now, I’ve never really tried to put anything out there. I never blogged, I never tried to adapt to the modern world and make a presence for myself on social media. I had one of two ideas, which go something like:

Idea 1: My art or music is so terrible that no one will like it and therefore it’s not worth doing.

Idea 2: Something will be so perfect that someone with power and authority will just reach out and all my dreams will come true! I only need to create that perfect thing...

Sadly, neither of these are true. (You may think otherwise!) It took a long time for me to make it to where I am today and I’m still learning all the time. For example, it’s only been a month or two since wrapping up my first attempt at music and I’ve already learned so much that I wish I could go back and re-mix the whole production. The same is true of anything that I’ve drawn. It’s okay, not great, but a hell of a lot better than it was some years ago.

So over the years, I convinced myself of those two ideas and never really advanced in any meaningful way in my artistic passions. To be clear, I still haven’t tried really. I have never applied to an artistic job, gone to a gallery and asked them to sell my work, or stood on a street playing music. There’s a lot I haven’t tried because it’s a lot of work, it’s new and scary, and I stand to lose a lot by trying to make that change.

Which brings me to 2021 where things have changed. Mostly, I realize, there is no recovering from my past failures. There’s only moving forward and trying again, trying harder, and accepting what comes. An important part of moving forward is also setting reasonable, attainable goals. My 2021 goal is to put some music into the world, figure out how to make the best music that I can, and try to get out there in front of people (digitally, not in person) to find an audience receptive to what I have to offer. If it’s one person (it better be at least one person), cool. If it’s more, that’s even better!

A few years back, though, my main goal would have been: quit my job and sustain my life through art. Ultimately, that goal led to stress, pressure, and disappointment when it didn’t happen. It was too lofty of a goal to jump right into – it didn’t account for the years of hard work and effort that would be necessary to get there. Worse, though, is that having such an unattainable goal also led to a reduction in my own creative output because I was more worried about ensuring as many people liked what I did rather than first making sure that I liked the art myself. And if you want to sell it, you have to love it enough to want to buy it.

I’ve written a bunch about failure, but what about criticism?

Criticism is hard to accept when you’ve done something that you love and all you want is for the people around you to love it too. It can be even harder to accept when you disagree with the criticism. And, trust me, I’m no stranger to this concept. In my household, I’m always asking my wife to give me feedback on my work and she sometimes asks that I offer feedback to her writings.

After all these years, you know the main thing that I have to share? You can’t be angry when someone gives you feedback that you asked them to give. It seems silly to write that down but it’s 100% true. Here’s what happens:

  1. You fall in love with your art.
  2. You think you finished it and immediately call in your partner to give you a review.
  3. Your partner is not as happy as you are and points out some flaws.
  4. Immediately, you’re defensive and a bit angry. How could they not love it like you do?

It can be difficult but that’s the real secret – controlling your anger and disappointment so that people can give you honest feedback without fear that you’ll be hurt. Though it also helps if you ask the right questions or approach the situation in a different way. Here’s what I would advise:

  1. Wait a little while before you ask for feedback.
  2. Don’t ask for generic feedback, ask specific, pointed questions.
  3. Remember that you’re the artist and feedback is something you don’t have to take.

Item one is pretty easy but what do I mean about asking specific questions? Well, don’t ask the question “what do you think about this song?” Instead ask questions like, “Do you experience any specific emotions while listening to this song? Is there any visual that comes to mind when you listen to this song? Did the transition at X:XX sound natural?”

As the artist, you probably set out to create something that evoked a specific emotion or told a specific story. Maybe you’re a writer and you just need to know if the reader could predict your story. Whatever the case, these are specific questions that you can ask and can be helpful in guiding your artistic process. If you wanted to evoke a feeling of loneliness in your song but your listener feels like the song is bright and happy, you’ve probably done something wrong. Better, though, is that the person isn’t being asked to give you a slew of negative comments about your work. They are simply providing the answer to a pointed question.

Granted, you may still be disappointed by the answers you hear and when that happens, you make a choice: Do you revise the work or do you leave it as-is? I typically lean towards setting the piece aside and revisiting it much later and I almost always end up revising the work. Why? After a nice break, the flaws always become more apparent.

I wish I could give you something akin to the “secret sauce” but it seems like this post could be summed up to: Work hard and keep your feelings in check. Also, it helps to adopt an artist name to hide behind…



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