Make Being Criticised Your Hobby

If people disapprove of you

From Daisy Goodwin’s ‘Poems to last a lifetime’

Criticism

I believe it is a key element of academic work to master, to a. keep your work moving forward, and b. not succumbing to despair and hopelessness.

When I read Hannah’s poem the other day, I thought: YES. She’s on to something. Read ‘criticism’ for ‘disapproval’ and you have a very good model for academic life.

A few tips on dealing with academic criticism:

1. ‘Make being criticised your hobby’

We’re often afraid of criticism, because we think it means there is something wrong with our work. Worse, sometimes, instead of seeing it as part of the academic game, it becomes about us. Not good.

Fact: academia revolves around criticism. It is its currency. If you want to do well, you need to learn to handle it well.

So why not make criticism your hobby? It would make PhD life all the more enjoyable.

Make being criticised your hobby.
Make being criticised your aim.
Devise new ways of scoring points
In the Being Criticised Game.

2. Criticism is not about you

This is the most important point of all. It’s not about you. Whatever feedback you get, no matter how scathing, and no matter how bad it may make you feel, it is not about you. Academic work has the tendency to lead you to thinking the worst, not only about your work, but also about yourself. It’s so easy to become overly identified with your work. It is yours, your creation, and there are a million things wrong with it apparently. That must mean there is something wrong with you and your thinking. Maybe you are not capable after all? Yeah. Probably it means you are not capable.

Say no to this line of thinking. Challenge it. Defy it.

Put some distance between yourself, your work, and the criticism.
If anything, you’re very good at it
This being criticised thing.

Take the poem’s advice:

Feel yourself warming to the task –
You do it bloody well.
At last you’ve find an area
In which you can excel.

3. It may not even be about your work

One of the problems in academia can be the sheer diversity of approaches and opinions, and especially when you are not yet secure in your own, the cacophony of voices can be confusing at best and disabling at worst.

Once you recognise that the criticism you receive is as much about the bias of the person who offers the criticism, as it is about your work, life becomes easier. Ask yourself why they are bringing up these specific points. Then ask yourself whether they are useful or not. If useful – work with their suggestions. If not, you may have to address why you see things differently. Oh, and sometimes people are raving lunatics. In that case, just laugh. (Maybe not in their presence).

Let them criticise in their dozens.
Let them criticise in hoards.
You’ll find that being criticised
Builds character, brings rewards.

4. Take the risk

Take the risk of being criticised. Sometimes it is easier to hole up and wait until we’re ‘ready’ to face the outside world. Sometimes, when you are really in a muddle, this isn’t a bad thing to do. Sometimes you need time to straighten things out in private. But most of the time, an outside perspective helps clarify. Put your work out there. Put yourself out there. Your voice needs being heard. Take the risk. Show up.

Savour the thrill of risk without
The fear of getting caught.
Whether they sulk or scream or pout,
Enjoy your new-found sport.

5. Give yourself some time to process criticism

Sometimes criticism is clearly useful, and you can act on it right away. Often you may not be able to figure out what to do with it. Its usefulness is still obscured.
Take your time. You don’t have to figure it all out right NOW (it would be nice, but it’s not how it works). See which comments and criticisms come up again and again. It’s one way of knowing which issues are important to address in your work. In the meantime, don’t let yourself be discouraged. Instead, tell yourself you’ve won.

Meanwhile all those who criticise
While you are having fun
Won’t even know the game exists
So tell yourself you’ve won.

Want to learn more about handling criticism? Have a look at my interview with dr. Andrew Glencross. Some good advice there.