Mark is a rare breed who knows the ins and outs of feedback, rejection, and criticism. As a poet, he’s been on the receiving end of criticism, and as a former therapist and as a current coach who heads up Lateral Action, he’s been on the delivering end. Mark helps creatives advance their enterprises with business savvy, and he helps business people approach problems creatively.
To further that cause, Mark’s new book can help us gain a key quality to create and launch work that matters - resilience: facing down rejection and criticism on the path to success.
I interviewed Mark recently to talk about criticism. In the first part, Mark and I discussed
- why he chose to write a book about such an un-sexy topic
- how to distinguish arbitrary opinions about taste from helpful feedback on merit
- separating yourself from your work
In this second part, we discuss
- choosing your gate-keeper carefully
- the 48-hour sulk rule and learning from all emotions
- the creative’s and entrepreneur’s occupational hazard
I hope you gain a gem or two about your own experience with criticism and share your insights in the comments below.
Choose Your Gate-Keeper Carefully.
JD: I don’t want to be too philosophical about the nature of our culture, but your book seems to hit on a couple of things I’ve observed in our culture. Let me see if I can say it this way.
There seems to be a lot of resentment among creatives toward what you call the mythic ‘guardians of the gate,’ the agents, the publishers, the editors in the writing field, the agents, and the producers in the music field. People who actually say this isn’t quite good enough or it’s not good enough yet. And with the increasing ‘challenge’ of the publishing industry, and even of the music industry there seems to be a sort of rebellion against those conventional ‘guardians of the gate.’ Do you think that’s true? Do you think there’s increased resentment towards those ‘guardians of the gate’ as it were?
Mark: Well, I think there is to a degree, and it’s kind of hard to sift. I mean on the one hand you can say the brave new world of the Internet is fabulous because it means that a lot of work is getting out there that would never have got past the gate keepers for whatever reason. People are publishing novels that the editors have said, “Well, this is great, but the marketing department says it doesn’t fit within our range.”
Well that’s fine and its not necessarily the editor’s fault, but there’s a frustrated novelist there, and they go and publish it themselves and they find readers who like it and there’s analogies with all kinds of other art forms and creative forms.
And so you can frame it and say they’re the evil old media who have been locking us out of the kingdom and I’m sure there is plenty of complacency and muddled criteria and so on.
I guess from the other side I would speak up for editors and producers and people, a lot of incredibly talented people, people really passionate about what they do and with some very fine-tuned judgment that can actually help to make a lot of work better.
So I worked on this book with an editor, I’ve recently worked on another book project with an editor, and I know both books are a lot better for the editors’ input, so I would say choose your gate keeper carefully.
Make sure it’s somebody who you respect. Don’t just respect them because of the title, but have a look at the kind of work they let through the gate. Is that the kind of work that you would like to see yours next to?
Is it worth you jumping through the hoops of what it takes to present your work within that arena or would you rather put it out more directly? Because there are pros and cons with either way.
JD: I love the idea of choosing your guardian carefully, and I also appreciate the fact that you have self-published this book and yet you did choose your own guardian of the gate. You sought out professional criticism and feedback as it were on this book. I suspect many people often think, “Ok, the gates are down, now we can publish whatever we want, however we want,” and there are no guardians at the gate anymore.
JD: But I know your work; you’re not an advocate of that. In fact maybe because the traditional gates are down it behooves us all the more to seek out really good guardians of the gate ourselves. Could you talk about your decision to work with an editor?
Mark: Well, basically I wanted the book to be as good as possible and I know I’ve got reasonable confidence in my writing powers to actually sit down and write the book. But I know I’m not infallible by any means and I’ve always found that getting really high quality feedback on my writing, you know, whatever it is, is absolutely essential to learning and developing as a writer.
So I would say to anybody considering self-publishing certainly, or producing any kind of art form, if it’s a blog post, then fine, stick that out and see what happens. You’ll get plenty of valuable feedback from your audience. But if it’s something that you really want to put out there and say, “Look, I think this is an album, or a finished piece of art, or writing, I want to kind of endure for a while,” then really I would say it’s essential to get some good feedback.
The 48-Hour Sulk Rule & Learning from All Emotions
JD: Even you and I who have been on both ends of the field can’t always see our own work clearly so I’m constantly seeking feedback and criticism from certain people on certain projects, and I still notice my own tendencies to react and I’ll see the little reaction like, “oh, this person just doesn’t get it.”
JD: And then I put it aside, and you talk about O’Neill’s “forty-eight hour limit” which so precisely to the hour gets at something that I experienced. I wanted to tell you when I got the first editorial letter back from my editor at Penguin for the first edition of The Journey From the Center to the Page, the manuscript came back and I got an eleven-page, single-spaced letter, and I think there were maybe four sentences that were positive that said, “I think you have a lot of good ideas,” and the rest was the details of everything that needed to change. And I could see her red pencil that just made these big loops on page after page so I literally went to bed for forty-eight hours.
My wife peeked her head in and she said, “Are you ok?” I said, “I will be in forty-eight hours.”
JD: And I was fine after that. I got back and got on my [yoga] mat and said, “I can get through this. It’s not going to be a problem.” And I did, it was fine, but I needed that forty-eight hour window. So could you talk about O’Neill’s forty-eight hour limit?
Mark: Yeah, just before I do…I love that kind of self-awareness and humor that you had when you said, “I will be.”
Mark: Because none of this stuff is about being kind of an emotional automaton and never feeling sad or depressed or angry or whatever. It’s about recognizing that, “Hey, if you’ve just been rejected for that big part, you’re going to feel down,” and this kind of leads into O’Neill’s thing. He says it’s only human to feel bad, and it’s not a good idea to suppress the emotions because Mother Nature sent them to us for a reason.
So Martin O’Neill is a football coach, and by that of course I mean soccer, and he is one of my sporting heroes. He managed my football team, Celtic Football Club, two years ago, and one of the things he said in an interview really stayed with me because he’s a very passionate, animated guy on the touch line, and he said that when his team wins he allows them forty-eight hours to celebrate and feel good about themselves and when they lose they have forty-eight hours to feel depressed.
And he said, “And I want to see them looking depressed,” he said, “I want to see them slumped over on the team bus instead of laughing and joking on the way back from a defeat.”
It comes back to that thing about if you really care then of course you’ll feel down. What’s happening when you get an emotion like that is it’s teaching you.
My friend John Eaton, Mr. Reverse Therapy, one of his big things is that the emotions are always there to teach you something. Sadness is there to teach you.
And if you try and just soldier on without acknowledging that, then that emotion is going to kind of seep out somewhere. And the less you resist it like you said, “I will be, I’m going to go to bed because this is what I need to do to get through this experience but I’ll come back and I’ll be ok in a couple of days,” you know? It’s like kind of rolling with it.
JD: That’s right, it is rolling with it. I think this is so important for us to hear about the value of all of the emotions and not to let them run the show all of the time; to let them have their role, let them have their place on stage as it were. But also not to just, you know, pretend that we don’t have the quote “negative emotions.”
JD: The field of positive psychology is often misunderstood as positive thinking and it’s not – it’s really looking at the role of positive emotions and how to continue to cultivate them. But that doesn’t mean that we suppress the other emotions that we might call negative.
The Creative’s & Entrepreneur’s Occupational Hazard
JD: What’s one closing bit of advice you would give to the readers out there – the designers, the entrepreneurs, the writers about rejection and criticism?
Mark: Ok, so one big thing I think is really important to underline here, and I’m sure you can relate to this, Jeffrey, from your experience of working with people one to one, is one of my reasons for writing the book was I heard the same thing over and over again from people: “I feel rejected, I feel like it’s the end of the world, it didn’t work out, I’m dealing with this criticism, my inner critic is going haywire here.”
And what makes it even worse is when you think, “And it’s just me who feels like this. There’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’m not a real artist or writer or whatever it may be. Maybe I’m just doomed to failure.” And after I heard this several hundred times from clients, I said, “Hang on a minute. It’s not just you.” So this is one of the things that I wanted to say, when you feel like that, it’s normal.
And I’m in a privileged position. I know you are, Jeffrey, because people come to us, they talk to us one to one, they tell us what it’s really like on the inside when people aren’t just putting a brave face on and its remarkably similar.
So if you’re listening to this and you’ve been dealing with some kind of rejection or you’re struggling with criticism and you’re thinking, well, maybe I’m just being over-sensitive or whatever it may be- no, it’s not. This is just an occupational hazard. If you’re doing something creative and original and maybe a bit unconventional, you’re going to have to deal with this. This is the price we pay for creating something and you having fabulous opportunities come out of that. So it’s an occupational hazard.
You know, I don’t think I’ve come across a creative person who’s achieved much, who hasn’t dealt with rejection and criticism at some point. It’s part of the process, but fortunately it’s not the whole thing and as Jeffrey said earlier, “There are sexier aspects to creativity too.”
JD: It’s so true. It’s such an invaluable piece of advice for us to hear. Thank you for that. Mark, where can listeners go online to find out more about your work?
Mark: My website is lateralaction.com, and if people are interested in the book they can go to lateraction.com/resilience and there’s a magic Amazon preview thing there so you can read. I think it’s the first four or five chapters, just there on the site, just to see if you’re interested in learning more about the book.
JD: And I highly recommend that listeners subscribe to Mark’s updates. As you can tell, he’s very thoughtful on all facets of creativity and productivity in a variety of fields. Mark, thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure and honor.
Mark: My pleasure, Jeffrey.
How do you handle receiving or giving criticism? I'd love to hear from leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, scholars, creatives.
Note: This piece originally appeared at Tracking Wonder on December 19, 2012.