I talk a lot about time. I talk about patience, about dedication, about learning craft, about planting seeds so that future you might reap their rewards. Easy to forget, however, is the critical component that allows us to improve: criticism.
I am not my own worst critic. One of them, sure, but like many people, I wrap myself each morning in the warm blanket of my ego and hubris. My self-awareness is good, but not great. In many cases, the issue is lack of introspection. In others, it’s simply “not knowing what you don’t know.”
To plagiarizer a post I wrote on choice and marriage four years ago:
“When you were a child, you discovered that you had flaws. Odds are, this was such a devastating realization that you tucked all these flaws away, choosing instead to highlight your good side to the outside world. You built an ego to protect yourself. And you probably went almost your whole life and even most of your dating life hiding inside of this, leaving all of the ugly on the inside where no one could see it. Then you decided to get married, and not only did those imperfections surface–they were hit with a damn spotlight. It’s like living under a magnifying glass for the first time in your life. Things you didn’t know you were bad at all of a sudden become very sensitive topics, like wounds you ignored and left to fester. And having a spouse to see these little uglies just adds insult to injury. “
Criticism undermines the ego, offering a quick blow of self-doubt to the sternum. Our natural response is rejection; we bristle, we puff up, we lash out… We defend our egos at all costs. But like the cartilage of a boxer taking repeated hits to the face, impact is how we grow. Each tiny break needs care, requiring evaluation, time, healing, and rebuilding. And, to quote Aron Wright: “You always build it better the second time around.”
But who has the right to criticize? How dare someone point out where I can improve when they, themselves, are imperfect?
There’s a scene in Wild Things Will Roam where two characters are hiking at night. To maintain safety and direction: “She’d hit the edge of the beam, then stop. Clicking on her flashlight, she turned around to light his path. He’d overtake her, a game of leapfrog in the darkness. “
Criticism can work similarly, when offered by someone more expert in a field, or someone you respect. Having brokered a path in the darkness, those with knowledge can turn and shine their light backward, illuminating the way for others.
During a recent Ashtanga workshop, instructor Chris Guzik explained a similar teacher/student relationship (illustrated below). Though someone may seem far more advanced than you, they are also adrift in a vast ocean of knowledge. They can help you cross the expanse and, hopefully, facilitate your growth to the point where you may even outpace them. To do that, they may have to offer a few suggestions.
The ocean is deep, you guys. Our works are works of art, constantly refined and built upon, always improving. Our motto in the gym (and in life), is “Leave Better Than You Came.” Doing this demands change, and knowing what to change usually comes at the end of some form of constructive criticism.
What if criticism is unkind, or unwarranted?
In this case, introspection is key. We must ask ourselves, are we being defensive? I’m a serial benefit-of-the-doubter, but often if someone offers cruelty in their criticism, it’s in response to a perceived threat. Remember, we defend our egos at all costs. Our fortress, we respond to any siege in kind. Unprompted cruelty or lack of kindness is often made in defense, and you must sift through the words to see if there’s anything to be gleaned. Sometimes, the work needs improvement. Sometimes, the relationship does.
April has been a month of reaping the results of great criticism and instruction. I hit my 100kg competition total goal. I’ll complete my 200hr Registered Yoga Teacher training tomorrow after 6 months and, aptly, 200 hours. And lastly, I’m nearing the end of #CampNaNoWriMo and my fourth draft of WTWR. I can’t help but get excited about how this story has developed. This time around, I took a scalpel to my beloved work. I took the notes from my beta readers and editor, and commenced a massacre–nipping, tucking, pulling, plucking. Much like Darrow in Red Rising, Wild Things Will Roam has been heavily carved. The result is the strongest work I’ve ever created (so far) and I can’t wait to share it.
So if there is art to make, we must likewise train ourselves in the art of receiving criticism. Let it be the light that points where we can improve so that we can grow and blossom further.