My BFF Steve Morton and I used to play a lot of music together. After one sparsely attended coffee house gig many years ago a guy in the audience came up to us and said, “Man, you guys got balls.” To this day I still don’t know if he meant it favorably, as in, Wow, it takes courage to get on stage and I admire you for that, or, if he meant God that was awful and how dare you. Learning how to be a performer is hard. But the hardest thing by far is learning how to navigate audience feedback.
Every performer knows that the only people who come up and talk to you after a show are people who really liked what you did. Therefore, their opinions give you a false sense of awesomeness. None of the people who were bored or underwhelmed bothered to bring that to your attention.
The same dynamic holds true for writers, teachers, and artists of all stripes. Compliments come your way far more readily than rebukes. People who don’t like your stuff just ignore you. If you want to improve, you have to be your own harshest critic. You can’t really trust what people say, especially in the early years. Your friends and family just want to encourage you. “Great set,” they say. “Good job.” Thank them for their support, but don’t believe a word of it.
And then along came social media.
Now everybody really is a critic.
In the digital anonymity of the Age of Yelp every tiny flaw is photographed, videotaped, and posted for all to see alongside scathing essays articulating the myriad ways you suck.
But Yelp isn’t all bad. It’s been a great help to me, especially when I travel. It quickly lets you sort through a long list of local restaurants and hone in on the best. You can’t trust those guidebooks in the hotel room – they’re just paid ads. Yelp, on the other hand, is beyond the reach of the chamber of commerce, much to their horror. Businesses live in fear of Yelp, and rightly so. Yelp is nothing more than the hive-mind reacting immediately and without filter.
It’s funny to watch some restaurant owners log on and try to respond to critics. Some take a conciliatory tone and apologize for the negative experience, vowing to improve. To me, that’s a good sign. Others launch into open combat, attacking their critics. I tend to stay away from those places.
Maybe it isn’t so complicated. If you’re a restaurant and you serve thoughtful, well-prepared, flavorful, creative, wholesome food of any genre in a clean, beautiful, fun environment staffed by decent, kind, attentive employees your Yelp reviews will be golden. If your restaurant smells like wet gym socks, you serve (gasp) canned refried beans and you haven’t changed the oil in your deep fryer since the Bush administration, people are going to talk.
It’s the same with songwriting, painting, poetry or any creative endeavor – bring together the right elements, put in the years of disciplined training, work hard every day and learn to trust yourself. No song, or plate of food, is going to please everyone. But if it’s good, it will find an appreciative palate.
And what about the naysayers? What about those bold, opinionated folks who feel the need to point out all of the ways your work falls short?
Give them a moment of your attention. Take in their criticism. They may be pointing out a weakness to which you were blind – a weakness that needs correcting. But bear in mind that no opinion, no matter how well articulated, is a fact. Sometimes critics know more than you and their observations help steer you toward higher quality output. Other times they are simply using your work as a sounding board, an opportunity to demonstrate their cleverness and alleged superiority. It takes great skill to navigate the hurtful assessments levied against us by our most vocal critics. Have the courage to listen. But don’t linger. Let it roll off your back like water off a duck.
In the end, it is we who must decide what good means. And we have to take full responsibility for working diligently to achieve it. Creating anything means you will be misunderstood. The only way to avoid being misconstrued or criticized is to produce nothing. Sit on your bed, don’t move, don’t say a word and don’t create anything. Oh wait. Somebody will probably criticize you for that too. Damn. Turns out there is no way to avoid negative criticism. So what the hell – might as well create something.
The process of giving birth is always painful. It’s bloody and it’s messy. The newborn thing is unformed, indeterminate, and waiting to be molded by a thousand different internal and external factors. Yet we can’t stop making things. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. We use these hands with these opposable thumbs and these minds and these hearts to fashion new works from the raw materials around us, wrought with the hammer, anvil and fire of our own experience. How can you not be hurt a little when someone thinks your baby is ugly? And yet you’re head over heels in love with it anyway. You nurture it, and draw sustenance from the conviction that somehow, someway, the world will be just a tiny bit better off because this thing was born. This faith, this naïve confidence, is easily misconstrued as arrogance or Narcissism. But don’t let that stop you. If you have something to say, say it. Don’t let the naysayers in the peanut gallery shush you. If someone unfairly criticizes your album, your restaurant, your book or your painting, just say, “Thank you. Can’t wait to hear your album, taste your food, read your book or see your painting.” Creativity is courageous, criticism is cowardly. It’s easy to sit on the bench, not play and criticize the players.
So all this new social media isn’t really new after all. Open forums like Yelp and Facebook simply give voice to what were formally private thoughts and impressions. As creators, as artists, as restaurateurs, we have to turn this new reality to our advantage. In this strange new age of universal journalism – every phone a television camera, every schmuck a media mogul – we have to learn to thrive.
Instead of being defined by the new reality, you have to define it.
You have to learn how to Yelp yourself.
What do I mean by Yelp yourself? You have to carefully assess your work from every conceivable angle and ask yourself all of the hard questions. You have to learn to see your work through every eye, hear it through every ear – you must, in effect, become the hive-mind, the crowd source, the omniscient Zeitgeist. An entrepreneur who fears feedback is an entrepreneur doomed to fail. Learn how to put up with a couple of grouches. But also learn to read feedback as invaluable data that helps you hone your gift into its sharpest focus and deepest impact.