Criticism is an interesting thing. I actually blogged about it here earlier. I hear lots of it, and frankly, nearly all of what I hear, both personally and professionally, is absolutely deserved. Sometimes it hurts and I have to admit that my ego gets bruised. With this said, one of the benefits of getting older is a little more patience so I guess I see things differently than I used to. (I’m able to keep from showing it for longer).
It’s an interesting time in our industry. The status quo has been rocked a little by a pretty vigorous and fairly wide spread vein of criticism, much of it centered on the industry’s luminaries and their workshops, promotional activities, etc. Frankly, I find little of this surprising. I’ve been hearing a lot of it back-channel pretty much since I started at Pictage (one year ago today). There is a part of me that is glad that the voices of those who are frustrated are now expressed beyond the back-channel, ‘don’t tell anyone I told you this,’ emails that I so frequently received. It is only when criticism is heard that improvement can happen. It’s hard, but true.
Yesterday though, I got an email from someone who feels unfairly castigated by these new voices. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to ‘out’ you, but I’m not going to give you the reply you want either). So, you need to make a decision if you’re reading this, right now, and your decision is pretty simple. Do you want to put on the “big boy,” “big girl” pants and take it and get better or are you going to decide that the world is against you and stick your head in the sand? (A warning here... When you stick your head in the sand guess what’s up in the air for all to see?) ...
Ok, If you’re still reading congratulations, you’re serious about your career and you want to learn and get better. Learning and getting better are rarely painless. You know that at heart. The question is, can you take a deep breath and decide to do it? Or will you just discount this as yet another unfair slam? Here’s another hint, now’s when it’s important!
There’s a thing I’ve learned about criticism. (and like I said, I’m pretty much an expert on being criticized!), If you can get beyond the pain of being insulted (even creatively or unfairly insulted) then you will get to a place where you can begin to see themes in what is being said. When it comes to criticism it isn’t the emotion or the vitriol or the castigation (supposed or otherwise) that matters, it’s the themes. Here’s what I mean.
Are a number of people criticizing you for the same thing? Are they right? If they’re right what are you going to do? What’s your response. How will you get better? To be sure, there are always outliers and these can be discounted or ignored, but the central theme of criticism is ALWAYS something you can learn from. To be successful, you MUST learn from these things or you will quickly become irrelevant. (and irrelevance, in spite of the size of your ego, means you’re ‘out.’)
Seeing these themes of criticism and responding to them is one of the hallmarks of the most successful companies. (and the inverse is also true!) Adaptability is the key to long term success. You can’t simply be the flavor of the month - every month - all year long. The current culture is too attuned to authenticity as a marker. So, staying true to yourself is paramount. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t show by your actions and your words that you’re hearing what’s being said and you’re responding. Here’s some examples...
Are you being criticized because you talk about photography and you’re not a great photographer? (For my other readers, insert any other business here. Both of you. I promise it still holds true). Ok, Find someone you trust and have them evaluate your work. Oh - I know. It’s your art and your expression. I get that. But the trick with Photography is that it is in part technical. If you are not the master of the technical side, if the results you get aren’t on purpose, then the criticism is warranted whether you like your work or not. There are two solutions. Endeavor to become the master. Seek out someone who can help you along. Heck, make others a part of your journey. We all suck at stuff! Or, stop talking about photography and just talk about what you’re great at! Either one works.
Are you being criticized for talking about the business side when your studio is in a shambles and everyone knows it even though they don’t say it? Well, this one’s a little harder. I have to admit that I actually agree with the folks who say that if you’re going to preach effective business practices you need to have practiced them first. I think it’s an interesting fact that there are few of the folks who run very successful businesses who are out speaking about it. There are two reasons for that. They’re busy. (If your business is successful you generally are!) They don’t like to speak. (for don’t like to you can substitute ‘hate,‘ ‘won’t,‘ ‘don’t feel qualified,‘ etc...) With this said, there are absolutely some notable exceptions, (a few on the road right now in fact), and their content is well worth the time and energy for their attendees.
In both cases you actually gain significant credibility (and lots of followers) by admitting your shortcomings and saying, ‘hey, here’s what I’m doing about it.’
As a parting thought I think it’s also important to point out two things. One, that there are lots of folks out there who offer terrific content, plan thoroughly, evaluate their effectiveness exhaustively, and who, because of all of this, definitely positively impact our industry. This is one of the unique things about the photography space and something I’ve come to really appreciate. (which makes it doubly important to listen to the criticism!).
Second, and probably equally important, is the fact that some of what is going on is the marketplace’s fault. “Why did you attend this seminar.” “Because this person has a lot of followers.” “Would you have attended the seminar if they didn’t?” “Probably not.” “Was the seminar about how to have a lot of followers?” “No, it was about (fill in the blank).” Well, then candidly you made a dumb decision. Get over it. Learn the lesson. Move on.
This will be my last post on this subject for a while. To be honest, I don’t mind the criticism at all, and I’ve frankly enjoyed some of the more humorous interactions. With this said, I’m not a huge fan of some of the cheaper, less constructive criticism, and that can be just as destructive in that if someone hears enough of it they simply lump all of what they’re hearing into that box and go on without changing. That’s natural. We’re only human.
And that last thing is probably important for all sides to remember!