Illustration by Frederique Matti for this article.
A fairly well-known and respected graphic designer once openly criticized something I had written and shared publicly. He did a poor job with his feedback however, as his only remark—in its entirety—was: "This guy doesn't get it.”
The feedback stung, but it also made me question the designer's intention and understanding of what he was criticizing.
"This guy doesn't get it.” What was the "it” he was referring to exactly? How might I begin learning how to "get” whatever "it” was? What could I do to improve and become as seemingly aware and insightful as the critic? He failed to provide any answers. His criticism was hurtful and loud, but ultimately useless.
Of course criticism is important: it can expose us to perspectives we weren't aware of, uncover flaws in our work, and help us identify areas for learning and growing. Criticism can be generative and help us create a more complete picture of whatever it is we're trying to do. But some criticism, while obnoxiously loud, will lack any real substance.
Knowing when to tune-in and probe or when to ignore criticism is valuable. It will save you time, help you avoid headaches and heartaches, and get you to a place where you're growing and producing good work rather than obsessing over the impossible pursuit of perfection.
In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:
When you take risks, insults by small men, those who don't risk anything, are similar to barks by nonhuman animals; you can't feel insulted by a dog.
In my example story, this once noble designer may have had some great years of experience, but if the only guidance he can muster to a fellow designer is: "you don't get it,” he's wasting his time. He wasn't helping me, or any of his dutiful followers, just barking like an obnoxious dog.
When you hear or give criticism you must consider whether it's additive or generative—is it offering anything that can be built on?—or is it neutral or subtractive?
If I had listened to the criticism—if I had taken the words to heart and believed that I wasn't "getting it,” if I had done anything because of the criticism—I'd be no better off. Absolutely unchanged. Because I wouldn't have had the slightest clue as to any reason the criticism might be true. What was the argument to be made against whatever "it” was I wasn't getting? What was the way forward, toward understanding?
I would have learned nothing if I had taken the criticism seriously, because that's exactly what the criticism had to offer me: nothing.
Former VP of Design at Twitter, Mike Davidson, recently wrote about unhelpful feedback:
You should treat your critiques as investigations or explorations and not conclusions.
It's easy to get distracted by the moans of the critical chastiser, drawn to their own conclusions and fully convinced everyone else should agree with them. They're the ones who speak up the most, even when they have nothing real, founded, or valuable to say. They bark simply because they want to have a voice, they want to be heard.
Here's the thing: the unhelpful critic usually doesn't really understand what it is they're criticizing in the first place.
While many people are initially reserved in their feedback—either recognizing they don't have an understanding from which to give feedback, or because they're working through their thoughts—the unhelpful critic immediately leaps at the opportunity to make a sound. They have to make it known they're there.
You're better off ignoring unhelpful critics because you'll learn a lot more—a lot faster—if you just keep on doing the work.
Rather than paying attention to the unhelpful critic, you'd be better off trudging forward, patiently seeking the advice of more insightful reviewers. It does you no good to give into the sound of distant dogs barking.
And here's the thing: unhelpful critics are easy to identify by a singular, prominent, characteristic. What they say is ultimately devoid of any path forward.
Their criticism typically dead-ends or leaves you with more questions than answers. Instead of helping pave a potential way forward, they seek to put an end to your thinking or executions. They are not additive, only subtractive. They do not ask questions or seek to understand, they only bark definitive expressions.
They don't have a solution or a clear way to improve the work themselves, so they offer none. All bark, no bite.
Phrases like: "I don't like that,” or "This is weak,” or "You don't get it,” are all incredibly useless phrases when it comes to feedback. What such statements attempt to provoke they miss by not providing any substantial evidence for or—and most importantly—ideas on how to improve the very thing they find themselves critiquing.
This type of feedback signals a shut down; the critic doesn't want to engage and the receiver is less likely to want to either. "This is wrong, so don't bother.” A much better approach is through asking questions, probing to develop empathy and understanding, grounding the conversation or feedback in a common language.
You should take this all to heart, not merely as a way of knowing who to pay attention to when getting critiqued, but also as a measurement of your own ability to give quality feedback.
If all you have to offer is a singular statement, devoid of any path forward, odds are you don't really understand what it is you're trying to say.
Again a quote from Mike Davidson:
A good rule of thumb is: if a problem seems simple to you, you probably don't fully understand it. You certainly might, but you probably don't.