One of the most painful aspects of watching American Idol—aside from the shameless exploitation of the deluded—is seeing how difficult it is for some of these young singers to handle criticism. When praised, some seem to inflate like puffer fish; when criticized, some grow defensive, even spiteful, making personal attacks against the judges. What they fail to realize is that their reaction to criticism is every bit as important as their performance, and maybe even more telling as to whether or not they will be able to survive the music business.
I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be critiqued on television in front of millions of people, but I do know that listening only to praise and lashing out at criticism does very little to help an artist grow. When I was participating in writing workshops in college, there was a rule that when a student’s story was discussed in class, the author was not allowed to speak. We were not allowed to react to, defend, or explain anything. It was an enlightening exercise. Silence forced us to digest a comment instead of offering a knee-jerk defense. It reminded us that every reader’s opinion mattered and every story, no matter how wonderful, had room for improvement.
Learning how to handle criticism was probably the single greatest lesson I learned from those early workshops. Once you put your work out into the world, it’s open to all kinds of comments from readers and reviewers. There will be heady praise. There will be indifference. And at some point, all of us will have that terrible moment when someone writes something about us that is misunderstood, unflattering, or even malicious and there will be little, if anything, that we can do to defend ourselves. In all cases, I think we would do well to receive our critiques with calm detachment. Some praise will feel surprisingly inflated and unearned. On the other hand, even the most scathing review might hold a kernel of truth. If we orient ourselves toward constant improvement rather than the all-or-nothing goal of perfection, then we will not use criticism to gauge our worth as artists or people. Instead, we will use it as a tool to improve our work.
Yeah, I know—easier said than done.