I’ve read some good articles lately in the blogosphere on how to take criticism. Most recently Dane Ortlund has written some wise advice. A month or so ago, I read a good piece over on Aaron Armstrong’s blog. I left a comment on Aaron’s blog that I’ve decided to turn into an article.
Today I want to discuss constructive criticism towards our work. I’ve had some practical training for this in college. In the many art classes that I took, a third of our grade was based on our ability to critique. When our assignments were due, they were displayed before the whole class for a critique session. Talk about a great motivator to not slack on your work! The students were to point out both what they liked about the work, and what parts they may think the creator has fallen short. It was to be constructive, both sharpening our skills of discernment and helping the artist improve. We were careful with our words, as we all knew that the artist had invested time into this piece, and was now sitting there in front of the whole class. This was a very vulnerable position for the artist, and a sticky situation for the one offering critique. If we were just being nice and giving a velvety critique, our own grade would suffer.
Do you see the necessity of this part of our grade? As growing artists, we needed to learn how to take critique. We had to learn to listen to our peers, and begin the hard work of filtering these educated opinions for the benefit of our work of expression. Not all of the critique would be true to the direction we wanted to go with our piece. Which advice do we follow? Maybe we completely disagree with the first criticism offered, only to find out it is the consensus of the majority of the class. In this case, we need to evaluate whether our perception of our own work is delusional. Maybe we are not properly communicating how we intended. From this we needed to decide whether our piece had enough redeeming qualities to improve upon, or whether to abandon that project all together. We began to learn how to listen to criticism without taking it personal. This is truly a life-long process. Even the most diplomatic of criticisms is usually hurtful. We weren’t to merely develop thick skin and let it bounce off. We had to really listen and try to grow from it.
It was a humbling process. But nonetheless, I was still in my college-phase, and I learned even in this setting how to get by without really giving my all. Part of it was laziness, and part of it may have been fear. You see, I was decent at art, but there were some amazingly gifted students in that program. I knew that I would never be able to pump something out to their caliber. So if I just worked hard enough to get a good critique and grade without embarrassing myself, I could nurture the secret knowledge that I wasn’t giving my all when my work was sitting next to the really great ones.
But my Scottish professor saw through my prideful neglect. He pulled me aside one day during class and said, “Aimee, you are producing ‘A’ work, but I am going to start giving you ‘B’s’. Do you want to know why? Because this is not ‘A’ work for you. I know you can do better. Why aren’t you giving me your best? No matter, you can decide if you’re satisfied with the ‘B’s’. I just wanted you to know that my grading scale has changed with you.” This is one of the greatest pieces of critique I’ve ever received. He read the work to tell him something about the artist. Then he gently pushed back, and asked the questions that I needed to ask myself. Now, how was I going to respond?
In front of class with our own work displayed, we were highly aware that we were critiquing a vulnerable person just like ourselves. Since our work was up there too, we were humbled in our critique of others. Some experiences in life stick stronger with you and continue to work for your growth. This is one of mine that I continually need to remember for both sides of the criticism coin because I so often forget. The vulnerability my classmates and I had reminds me that everyone is made in the image of God, the Creator. That must always be before me in both my giving and receiving constructive criticism.
We were created to work. But not all work is equal. Many people will produce better work than my own. Thankfully, my work doesn’t determine my standing before God—the Lord Jesus Christ’s does. This is liberating! I can give my best, and Christ will bless my efforts with his intention for my work. I have the freedom to just lay it out, let others help me improve, and go at it again. God’s standards are high. They are perfect as a matter of fact. On my own, I can never measure up—there is no getting by with good enough. But Jesus Christ made himself vulnerable on our behalf. All of our works of unrighteousness were put on display over 2,000 years ago on a cross. And his perfect work was applied to us. Does our work now reflect our grateful response? Do we labor with both humility in ourselves and confidence in the One who is transforming us into his own likeness? He’s the one who took it personal. And he is the one who will personally be the advocate for his people on that last day. For this reason, those who look at our work should be able to see our joy in the artist behind it.