The Psychology of Rejection & Criticism with Mark McGuinness
Criticism can embolden creative insight and output.
Posted Feb 07, 2013
Just the thought of receiving criticism for ideas and works - especially creative ones - can paralyze otherwise successful people. And yet experience and research keep bearing the same dictum: Criticism and even rejection don't just "make us stronger." They actually can embolden our creative ideas and output.
So, I was heartened to see that Mark McGuinness, one of my favorite colleagues, has penned a book on the subject.
Mark McGuinness is a rare breed who knows the ins and outs of feedback, rejection, and criticism. His rich background bespeaks that experience as well as his Tracking Wonder spirit: a poet who once served on the board of the literary journal Magma in London, a former psychotherapist, and a business coach with an MA in Creative & Media Enterprises.
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, his new book can help us gain a key quality to succeed - resilience: facing down rejection and criticism on the path to success.
I interviewed Mark recently to talk about criticism. In this first part, Mark and I discuss
- why he chose to write a book about such an un-sexy topic
- whether or not a person can cultivate resilience
- how mindfulness helps build resilience
- how to distinguish arbitrary opinions about taste from helpful feedback on merit
- separating yourself from your work
Why a Book About Rejection?
JD: You’ve taken on a subject for a book that’s really not the sexy part of creativity, and yet it’s a subject that is timely and necessary for us to hear. How did you know we might need a book about rejection and criticism?
Mark: Well it’s funny, because it’s one of those things that was staring me in the face literally for years without me really seeing it. A bit like a Magic Eye Illusion. I teach a free course online. I send people an email a week with a lesson covering a different subject that’s relative to creativity and having a creative career. And originally it was supposed to be twenty-five weeks.
Then near the end, I thought, “Well, I suppose I better cover rejection and criticism.” So I threw that in which means it was twenty-six weeks, a slightly odd number. And then at the end of the course I asked people which three lessons were the most helpful, and to my astonishment, the one that stood out like a country mile was the one about rejection and criticism.
And as soon as I saw that, I kind of - I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience -but I kind of had a moment of looking back through all my years of coaching clients, and I realized, “Wow! I’ve been dealing with rejection and criticism for years and I haven’t really noticed it as a discreet subject.”
When you try to do something creative and different, you have to deal with rejection because you have to apply for lots of opportunities - you want to get published, or get a part, or get on the team, or get the great job, and you get rejected a lot. And then of course assuming you can get past that, and you can get your work out, or you can get yourself on stage, or through the door of the agency, then you have to deal with feedback, and criticism, and people saying, “Hey, that’s not so good.”
Can Anyone Build Resilience?
JD: One of my readers posed this question to you, which I think gets to the timeliness of your book’s subject on resilience. She asks, “Are we hard wired or not for resilience? Is this just something that we’re biologically born with disposition-wise or can we actually train ourselves to be more resilient?” Obviously you’re going to lean toward the latter I assume with your - [laughter]
Mark: The book doesn’t say you’ve either got it or you haven’t, no. [-laughter-]
JD: You know you’re a trained therapist. You’ve worked for a long time with people. Have you found that there are people who are more receptive to the idea that they can actually train themselves versus others who just don’t think they have the resilience gene?
Mark: I’ve certainly come across people who would say, “Oh, I just don’t have ‘characteristic X’. That could be confidence, it could be resilience, it could be willpower, it could be self-esteem or whatever, you know? And I guess I’m always a little bit skeptical about putting labels on ourselves and saying I can’t do this because I don’t I have some mysterious property.
Now you can come across some people and they seem to have huge reserves of energy and resilience and enthusiasm or whatever you might say. So it’s not to say that there isn’t any variation.
But here’s an analogy: I’m about five-seven and this friend of mine is six foot, two inches at least and about four feet wide, and he chops down trees for a living. So physically you can see, now, if you’re looking at physical strength and resilience, I think my smart money would be on Big Mark rather than me.
But if I were to say, “Well, you know I’m not a huge great tree trunk of a guy. What’s the point in me building up my own physical strength and flexibility?” Clearly that would be nonsense. I mean it’s just like saying, “Well I’m not strong, so I’m not going to go to the gym.”
There are things that you can do if you want to build your resilience, change the way you think, change the way you act, change the way you communicate with people, and it will make a difference.
How can I change my own behavior? My own thought? My own communication?
Mindfulness & Resilience
JD: Let’s dig in there a little bit on the ‘how.’ You offer so many suggestions in this book, and one of them that I think many of our [readers] will appreciate has to do with mindfulness. It wasn’t something that I was expecting to find in a book about rejection and criticism. Could you elaborate on how developing a mindfulness practice is a means to build this resilience we don’t think we have, the resilience gene?
A very simple version is to just sit either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor; being aware of the sensations of sitting; focusing your attention on your breath, coming in and out through your nostrils; and then just trying to observe what’s actually happening moment by moment.
What thoughts are going through your mind without trying to get too attached; in fact you try to get a little bit detached from them and not so much caught up with them, but also without trying to stop them either.
It’s not about trying to completely blank your mind and be calm and serene.
What I suggest in the book is if you practice this for twenty minutes a day then what happens is overtime you become more and more present in what you’re actually doing in the here and now, present physically in your body. You become more aware of your emotions, and crucially, you become more aware of the thoughts in your mind and how you can sometimes make things worse or alternatively making things better according to the way you interpret it; the way you think about it.
Say I write a book, and I send it off to a publisher, and it comes back rejected, and this is the third or fourth time this has happened. Here’s where if you’re not careful, you’re actually going to be undermining your own resilience because if you start to say, “Oh gosh, well I guess that means I’ll never make it as a writer, or I’m just not cut out for this,” or you start thinking, “Well, I know why they didn’t do that, and then why is it that only certain types of people who aren’t me get…”
You can turn it into this huge kind of psychodrama. But actually all you know is that you got turned down and it could have been for all kinds of reasons.
So if you’re practicing mindfully and you know what your tendencies are then you’re not going to feel fantastic in the moment. But at least you’re not making it ten times worse by playing this disaster video in your mind.
JD: Right, right. So mindfulness is in a way a process of becoming aware of your emotional patterns. How you tend to react when you get rejected, or react when somebody criticizes your idea, your writing, your business idea, your workshop idea…
JD: And so, by becoming more aware of your reactions, you can kind of head off at the pass the wild herd of downward-spiral thoughts that are about to take off, right?
Mark: That’s right. Yeah, you can get out of the way and they can stampede over the cliff. But you don’t let them sweep you along with them. Yeah, [-laughs-] that’s a nice metaphor.
Distinguish Taste From Merit: Ask for Specifics.
JD: So that makes a lot of sense, too. Just not getting swept away; not getting stampeded. You offer so many fruitful objective criteria both to receive feedback and to actually give feedback. So if you’re receiving feedback on your writing, or on your art work, or on your business idea, and somebody says, “Well this is not a very good idea,” you give four or so categories of how you can actually come back to that person giving feedback or criticism to see if it’s objective or not, right? Could you review some of those criteria with us?
Mark: One of the things I think people get really tangled up in is when they start having a conversation about some kind of idea, or a prototype, or a book, or a painting, or whatever. People start coming in and critiquing, but they’re not really clear about what their criteria are, what their judgment is based on.
I was reading Fiona Sampson, writing about modern poetry, and I think she says, “Very often we confuse taste and merit.” She’s talking about poetry, but it applies to a lot of things. Something can be very well-written and very accomplished poetry, but if it’s not the kind we like then we dismiss it and say it’s no good.
One of the things I suggest is say you present something and you’re in a live dialogue, or this can even happen in email or other communication, and somebody comes in and they say, “I don’t like it.” Now immediately the natural response is to defend it, or to get hurt and withdraw, or even to, you know, we’ve all been in situations where it’s escalated into an argument. But what I suggest you do is just try and say, “Well ok, what is it specifically you don’t like about it?” And try to get some sense of what their criteria are. “Can you give me an example of something you particularly don’t like? And maybe even a counter-example of something you think would work better?” so trying to get it down to that level of specificity.
Separating Yourself from Your Work
JD: That criteria helps us separate ourselves from the work itself. We so identify with our work and with our ideas, that if someone is criticizing our work, somehow they must be criticizing us personally.
JD: And the objective criteria removes that personal attachment, and so, sort of the mindfulness, plus the objective criteria helps further remove our personal attachment to our work.
Mark: Yes, and this is a really important point, Jeffrey, particularly as you know in relation to creative people, because we’ve got a very strong tendency to identify with our work. It’s not just something that we just churned out you know nine to five, clock in, clock out, well ok, done that, leave that alone. We put our heart and soul into it. It’s not bookkeeping. [-laughs-] With apologies to any bookkeepers who may be listening.
If you put your heart and soul into it, it will hurt. And I say in the book actually to a certain point, it’s supposed to hurt. Because if it doesn’t you’ve stopped caring. However, you need to be able to find a way of managing that in the context while you’re getting feedback.
In Part II of the interview, which I will publish soon, Mark and I discuss
- Choosing your gate-keeper carefully
- The creative's and entrepreneur's occupational hazard
What have been your experiences with rejection and criticism that you've learned from? Anything you'd like to add or ask Mark?
This piece originally was published at Tracking Wonder on December 17, 2012.