critique

The creator or the critic

The best way to change anything is to do something about it. The advice is mostly obvious, yet how often do we find ourselves complaining or wishing for things without taking action?

We want to make more money but find ourselves paralyzed at the thought of doing more work. We want to be more creative but regularly stick with routine or fail to surround ourselves with anything inspiring. We want to turn our hobbies into more fulfilling careers but never dedicate enough time to turning them into our livelihood.

There’s a great way of thinking about this stuff I’ve tried to keep in mind through my own life: if something is important enough, you’ll make time for it.

Generating new ideas, working on side projects, becoming a better creator, writing, meditator, or artist, all require time investments. If you can’t find a book out there you think is worth reading, you should write one that is. If you’re not finding the type of inspiring work in the world you feel you need most, create it. If you’re not happy with your work, start taking steps toward doing different work.

These things aren’t going to happen through wishful thinking or complaining on the Internet. And there isn’t a shortcut to these things happening either, no matter how many self-help books are out there with titles like: “The Secret to Being More Creative Overnight.” If we want these things to occur in our lives, the only shortcut is knowing there is no shortcut.

Dedicating just a few brief moments of our time to the things we want changed can make a tremendous difference. Just five minutes can go a long way.

Five minutes is enough time to strengthen or break apart our assumptions about the work itself. It’s enough time to plan the next series of five minutes in the future. It’s enough time to reach out for help, to gather the necessary tools, or create a formula for how to get from the world of today to the one you’re imagining. Small steps toward big impact. That’s how things happen in the real world.

But nothing happens if you don’t first start. Nothing happens if all you do is send a tweet or rant to a friend.

Of course the critic needs no more time than a minute to construct their argument. The creator often needs all the time in the world just to get an idea put onto the page. One exists in the past while the other presses toward the future, shaping it to fit her vision.

Here’s the thing: if you’re not one, you’re the other. There is no in-between.

You either spend your time wishing you had more time to change things, or you spend it doing whatever you can to make change.



Where to look for creative feedback

To get the most from your ideas you have to get them in front of the right people.

The right people will give you constructive feedback on why your ideas are working and, if not, what you might do to improve them. But the hard part of finding the right people to share new ideas with is finding the people who can look at it both with a critical eye as well as one that can add potential creative value.

We all shy away from the unfamiliar, but embrace the conventional. It doesn’t matter whether your idea or creative work is any good or not if it’s never seen by the people who would benefit from it most.

This creates a conundrum for sharing ideas.

The reliable way to get an idea looked at long enough for it to effectively be evaluated it is to get it in front of those who are at least somewhat interested in it. But the only way to get the most radically novel feedback on an idea is to show it to the more naive around you, those who have no historical biases in the same realm as the idea.

If you’re a painter this means the last person you should show your latest work to is a lawyer, a cafe owner, or even a fellow painter. You’d get more critical attention and better feedback by discussing the work with someone who is an artist themselves, but not biased by traditional painting concepts. A ceramic artist, a sculptor, or a digital designer would be a better bet, as an example.

When you look next to get feedback on an idea, get it in front of the people who will be able to not only evaluate the core of it, but who can also bring a different perspective to it.



Creativity is about facing fears

There’s a moment, after working on something for so long, when you start to doubt it.

You could be a writer working on a novel or an artist doodling on a napkin, and somewhere between when your finger hits the first key or your pen hits the fabric and when you’ve got yourself a final piece of…something, there’s a bright ray of doubt. Often times it’s blinding.

Everyone feels this sometime. For some, the doubt strikes more often than others.

The doubt takes many forms too, but often it’s the shape of an audience, a crowd, or mentor, chanting “This will never work,” or “Nobody is going to care.” Fear of the critic. And there may be value to those warnings. Maybe what you’re doing won’t work. Maybe nobody will care. Maybe you’re working on something that is hopelessly going to end up in a trash pile several years from now.

But the artist (or idiot) presses on. Because he or she has to. At least, that’s how true creatives feel.

There are artists who pickup the pencil because the cute guy or girl in their class does so too. There are writers who type endlessly during the workday because it helps to pay the bills, but once the weekend rolls around that writer is far away from those words and – most importantly – the doubts the writing brings.

True artists persevere regardless.

Artists who paint because they feel it’s the only way they can effectively communicate. Designers and inventors who work because they have an insatiable curiosity about the world around them. Writers who feel that they have something to say, even in the face of knowing that nobody may hear or read exactly what those words are.

For some, creativity is a disease. A real one, not just a psychological theory. Hypergraphia, for example, is the need for an individual to write. It has been traced to imbalances and occasional damage in the brain, commonly in the temporal lobe. Those who have hypergraphia have a very real drive to write.

Real, true, creatives are those who have these desires to create, explore, and answer or ask questions because they absolutely have to.

These types of creatives easy to spot too, because they’re the ones picking up art supplies over the weekend. They’re the ones who send a last minute message to a friend to let them know they’re going to be late, they have to finish this one last line of writing, or programming, or of their architectural blueprint, before they can head out.

They become distraught when they find themselves unable to write, or paint, or dance, or create. But within time they’re back at it, almost uncontrollably. As though someone had flipped a switch within them.

But there are doubts. The true creative wonders if they’re creating something utterly useless. They wonder if there’s a real need for artists. They worry that they’re wasting their time or energy.

The difference between someone who is truly a creative and all of the other dreamers is that the true creative presses on in the face of doubt, of not knowing.

Creativity is about facing fears.

The first place to start is by figuring out what those doubts or fears are, and then getting them out of your way.



Three tips for effectively critiquing creativity

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Creativity is less about critique and more about creation. You should never mix the two.

However, there comes a point with any creative work where there has to be a critique in some form. The critique will come either by yourself, from peers, or from customers or audience. Sometimes you’ll be invited to critique other’s creative work as well, of course.

It becomes critically important to know how to critique well. If you can effectively critique your own ideas or work in a constructive way, you’ll end up feeling empowered and driven, with more insights into what to do than what not to do. If you can critique other’s work with equal prowess, you’ll learn about yourself and your style from the critique, as well as become the go-to person for feedback in the future (expanding your personal network).

Learning to critique well is just as much of an art as the art work itself. It requires both skill and practice. But here are three tips to serve as a starting point:

1. Know when the right time for critique is

For some ideas, a critique is vital in the first few stages, after the idea has come about and just begun to develop. For others, it’s only after an idea has reached a more concrete, completed phase that it can effectively be evaluated.

The right time for a critique depends entirely on the context.

If, for example, you’re about to critique the results of your own brainstorming session, it’s likely better to wait until as many ideas are already out in the open as possible before critiquing them; otherwise you stand in the way of possible ideas making themselves known.

This makes sense, as the creation mindset is very different from the critiquing mindset; one requires free-roaming thoughts and a certain openness to what comes as a result, while the other relies on pre-existing concepts for evaluation and comparison. It’s surprisingly difficult to move from one to the other and then back again.

Likewise, if you’re evaluating another person’s work it’s important to know where they’re at with it before you begin evaluation. Do they feel as though the work is entirely complete and ready for a full critique? Or are they feeling stuck on a certain element and hoping your opinion can help them see something they otherwise wouldn’t see? In which case the critique you give should not be a full critique of the work, but solely of where the creator is currently at with it.

The company 42floors refers to this approach as Thirty Percent Feedback, and it’s very well worth exploring.

Before critiquing any work, first identify what the concrete goal of the critique is. Outline where in the process of creation you are. Only then can you consider beginning an effective critique.

2. Be constructive, not opinionated

Avoid using words like good and bad, or phrases like “I like that” when critiquing.

When you avoid these words, your critique becomes centered on the concrete reasons behind whyyour reaction to the idea or work is what it is. It’s those reasons that can be further explored and – most importantly ” acted on.

For example, If I looked at a project and stated: “I don’t like the colors,” that’s not a critique. Such a statement is simply unhelpful criticism. On the other hand, if I explicitly say something like: “The colors look overly muted and that makes me feel like they conflict with the message you’re trying to convey in the work” then suddenly there’s a starting point for discussion and exploration in the work. It’s clear from that statement what needs to be either discussed or acted on next.

When evaluating ideas it’s crucial to do the same. Our gut reaction to something (whether we like it or not) is certainly worth noting, but don’t merely cross ideas off a list because your first reaction is that they’re no good. Instead, take that feeling (of an idea being good or bad) and ask yourself why you feel that way, what is it about the idea that makes you not like it?

3. Invite critiques from your community

The purpose of a critique is often to see aspects of your work or ideas that you couldn’t see yourself.

Presenting the work for critique from a larger community of trusted peers (when the work is ready, of course) is the quickest way to get outside perspective. It’s from those outside perspectives that we learn and grow.

Finding a community that understands these fundamentals to critiquing is just as important as opening yourself up to the critique.

Fortunately quality communities exist and criticisms can be sorted through virtually. Sites like Behance, Quora, even Tumblr and Twitter are all worthwhile for inviting critiques.

No matter where you’re at with your work, a time for critique will come. Ensure you’re prepared.

Photo by Kevin Dooley.