Criticism Sucks

Subtle criticism hurts as much as getting ripped a new one

Posted Dec 10, 2010

     "Let me drive the boat."

     It was the one statement from the Creative Director that I'd come to dread. It usually came within moments of his reading over my shoulder as I wrote advertising copy on my computer.

      It meant, "Get out of your seat; I'm going to start changing your work."

      The changes were seldom significant; he never modified the meaning or the motivation of my message. He never altered my concept or idea, but his little edits still sent a powerful message: my work was not good enough to leave alone.

     Gradually, over the months I worked for his advertising agency, the constant criticism undercut my confidence. Sometimes it was overt verbal criticism, but most of the time I would simply find that my work had been revised without anyone consulting me. A co-worker suggested that he was simply behaving like a dog, who, had to mark his territory; she said he did the same thing to the graphic designers. I couldn't see it that way - to me - it felt like an attack on my ability.

     Before I worked for him full time, I had worked for him freelance. During those days, he praised my work, and constantly asked me to work for him full time. I liked being a freelancer, and was reluctant to take a regular job. Then one day, he made the proverbial offer I couldn't refuse. After that the praise stopped and the criticism began.

     Before I took that job, I had won advertising awards, I had been invited by colleges to teach advertising, and I had successfully created ads that significantly increased the revenues of my clients. I was at the top of my game, an authority on advertising, but the almost daily criticism in my new job took its toll.

      Sometimes I would write copy that mimicked his style just to see if it would prevent him from changing it. He still changed it. By the time I left that job 18 months later, my confidence was gone. I no longer felt like an authority in advertising. I felt like a failure.

      A couple of weeks later, I completed and turned in a new freelance job to a new client. I cringed as he read it - expecting criticism to come at any minute. When he finished, he looked up and said, "This is great! I can't wait to run it."

      Relief flooded my body. I hadn't heard those words in so long - they were immediately fortifying - and I felt my confidence returning.

      Critics think they are doing us a service; they think they are helping us improve our work, but what they frequently do is destroy our motivation by demoralizing us.

      Unbridled criticism given without praise will also destroy relationships. It not only kills self-assurance; it kills love. Whether the recipient is family, friend or lover, the message is clear: "You are not good enough." Some victims of criticism will try to win approbation by changing for the critic, but over time if it is not forthcoming, they will give up.

      This funny observation by radio personality Jay Trachman puts relationship criticism in perspective, "Never criticize your spouse's faults; if it weren't for them, your mate might have found someone better than you."

      There is a place, of course, for criticism; it is part of teaching. So, if you must criticize, be sure to lace it heavily with praise before and after you give it. In order to motivate someone to become better, remember this formula: Praise - Critique - Praise.

      Newspaper editor, Frank Atherton Clark, got it right with this wisdom, "Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist, and coach. He works with people who want to achieve more without sacrificing life balance. Contact Robert at

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