Do Work That Matters
Meaning isn’t limited to certain roles or projects; it’s what we find when we focus our energy and talent, regardless of what shape that work takes. And the rewards increase exponentially when you share it. Discover what’s possible when you think about, approach, and do your work—with effort, patience, and joy.
What If Everyone Hates It (or No One Cares)?
How to Ease the Sting of Criticism and Find Meaning in Your Work
Every one of us has at some point suffered the sharp blade of criticism on our work. Whether it was a total take-down or a glancing, thoughtless blow, it hurts. We can’t help but feel that the criticism is commentary about not just what we made, but who we are, and what we’re capable of.
We’ll do just about anything to avoid criticism or judgment, including say or make things that are safer and less risky, water down our ideas, or say nothing at all. This may work sometimes, but it’s not a recipe for finding greater meaning in our work.
In a piece called “Yes, Your Job Is Important. But It’s Not All-Important,” New York Times columnist and author Roxane Gay says that when it comes to work, regardless of what we do, we all want similar things.
“Mostly, people want something different, something more,” she writes. “They want more satisfaction or more money or more respect. They want to feel as if they’re making a difference. They want to feel valued or seen or heard.”
So how do we do that when we know there’s risk involved? When sharing our work might hurt?
There is a way to ease the fear and struggle around criticism and judgment, and it has to do not with how others see the work, but how we do.
In this piece I’ll take you through four ways to shift your approach so you can create work that has meaning and power—without getting destroyed in the process.
Mine your own criticism for meaning.
I led a workshop years ago to a roomful of writers hoping to sell more stories to editors. I thought it went well, and had some lovely feedback…as well as an email so shockingly rude and mean that it felt like a hard slap across the face. She said she hated the workshop so much she used it to write up her shopping list instead.
I don’t remember this woman’s name or any details—just the specter of a grimace and crossed arms. I knew then as I do now that something else was powering her rage; it wasn’t me. This was about her relationship to HER work, not her relationship to mine. But clearly I haven’t forgotten it!
What came of that? That story inspired an article about criticism that I wrote for the magazine where I worked. And so to that end, I’m glad it happened. It gave me something to work with. Still does. The incident alone didn’t “mean” anything; I found the meaning, and its purpose, by reflecting on it (later, when I wasn’t pissed off).
TRY THIS: Think about a time you were on the receiving end of criticism.
What happened? Was it a snide comment about a presentation you gave? An earnest suggestion you didn’t ask for? Maybe the feedback on your first draft made it hard to try a second. Who gave it? A mentor? Friend? Or some anonymous prick you’ve never met, but whose words hit a nerve? How did the who affect the what?
Take five minutes to write out that scene and how you felt about it. It’s worth writing it out if you’re willing because just doing that can flip on some switches in your brain and help you see connections or call up details you might have forgotten about.
Some, or all, of what a critic says about you or your work, may be misinformed or flat-out trash. But if you stripped away the tone, is there something in there that you could or would respond to if it came from a loving source? That may be the part you keep and consider.
Turn the voice of that inner critic down. Way down.
Access my free mini-course, The Passion Trap: 5 Half-Truths Keeping You From Living a Full Life.
Don't get precious about it.
What do I mean by precious? I mean treating your work like a glass egg, propped on a silk pillow, afraid that if anyone touches it, including you, it will break.
When you’re precious about your work, it ceases even to be an object; it becomes a god, infallible and sacred and very, very important. This doesn’t make the work better or easier, but it can make your own experience of finishing the work very, very hard.
The writer who is attached to and precious about her work will struggle with any feedback, as well as any efforts to revise or improve it, whether it’s a talk you’re about to give or an application you’re submitting. You may, on some level, fear that if a single word or idea is moved, changed, or questioned, the work is compromised—and your own abilities called into question.
It’s one thing to nurture your work. It’s another to baby it.
I was able to sell my book to a major publisher on one condition: I write a different book. The publisher wanted a personal development title, not a book of essays. So I had to make some serious shifts to the structure, format, and approach of the book itself in order to do what they believed would make the book most successful. That wasn’t easy at first, trust me. I dug in my heels. But then I realized if I wanted to do it this way, with this publisher, it was worth giving the work a chance to change shape and form—especially if it meant reaching or helping more people.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that the work—your work—is flexible and forgiving—probably even more than you are! It can handle what you do to and with it. It’s actually designed to change, to shift, evolve.
TRY IT: Get a little messy.
One way to ease the rigidity and build trust in your work is to play with it! Revise, rearrange, change, explore. Worry less about making it perfect or preserving it as is, and see what happens when you open your mind and aren’t afraid to get a little messy. This is where insights tend to emerge. Trust the work. It can do a lot more than you think, and if you let it, help you go from precious to powerful.
Understand where the work ends and you begin.
I teach a method and approach to generating work and ideas that uses writing as a tool for self discovery and self expression (whether you see yourself as a writer or not). It’s called The Gateless Method, created by developmental editor and best-selling author Suzanne Kingsbury, and one of the hallmarks of the process is the rule that we separate the creator from the work.
You create your work, whatever shape it takes, but the work is not you. It has its own purpose, its own design, its own lifecycle. How we reinforce this when we’re in workshop together is by eliminating criticism from the equation, and focusing instead on what’s working. We also do not address the writer directly; we talk about them in the third person, referring to them only as “the speaker” or “the narrator.” That way the creator is kept safely apart from a discussion of the work.
This allows the writer to listen without fearing the feedback, and isn’t put on the spot to “answer” for her work. When you adopt this mentality in your own work, it allows you to see the work as a separate thing with its own job and purpose, and even its own needs—and addressing them doesn’t have to feel like you’re performing surgery on yourself.
TRY IT: Do not disclaim—or defend.
Another rule in this method is that we do not provide a preamble to our work that includes a litany of excuses and reasons why it’s lousy or we’re bad at this. It’s a waste of time and energy, and broadcasts insecurity, and distrust of the audience. It also does nothing to protect you from criticism. Skip the disclaimer.
Let your work speak for itself. You’ll be surprised at how differently it, and you, are received when you don’t feel the need to explain why it is what it is.
By the same token, skip the defense. If someone criticizes your work—in a meeting, a workshop, wherever—reacting on the spot to defend your work doesn’t actually help. One way to handle it on the spot is to allow that person to feel heard (which is usually what they want most anyway), acknowledge the concern. There’s a difference between making a case for your work and being defensive, and it’s always better to digest that feedback in private than to react on the spot. The more anxiously you cling to your own work, the more others question whether you’re doing that because it’s actually a better idea…or just your idea.
Don't care less - care more.
We all want to feel passionate about our work, and know that it matters. And putting our full heart and soul into the work is part of what makes that work mean something.
The problem is that if you’ve been bitten by criticism, or ignored completely, you’re going to be hesitant to try again.
You might have one of two responses:
Fuck it. I’m not doing this anymore,
Fine. Whatever. I don’t even care.
You and I both know that the “Fuck it” or “Fine” mentality does not yield powerful, meaningful work. The problem is if we get hurt or spurned or flat-out ignored, we might assume meaning comes at too steep a price.
Also, I don’t believe you when you say you don’t care. Nice try.
In fact, I have found the opposite to be more rewarding: It feels better to care more about the work, to find that thing that I most value about it and about my contribution to it.
When I do, the caring eclipses everything else. I’m not going to let someone else suck the meaning out of things with their thoughtlessness. Why do they get that privilege?
It’s because I value the work that I do, regardless of the form it takes or whom it’s for, that I am able to do great work, revise or change it as needed so that it does what it needs to do—and to let go of it when it’s time.
I, like every other first-time author, went through many phases en route to publication. I cried because I feared it didn’t matter, and then cried because I knew it did. I wrung myself out for that book, and I’m proud of it.
But it’s not mine anymore. Once you put it into the world, it ceases to be yours alone. It belongs now to the person who buys it, the person who reads it. Do 1-star reviews hurt? Sure. And I also know for a fact that some of the people who love me the most did not read the book. Whether or not they read the book has nothing to do with how they feel about me.
You are not your manuscript, your podcast, your presentation, or the thing you craft and sell. We are not the things we make, but those things do not exist unless we care enough to make them.
When you care enough about the work, you do not worship it like a god or worry everyone will break it. You believe in it to do what it needs to for those it serves, regardless of what some people think.
TRY THIS: Go all in.
Think of a project, for work or for yourself, that you’re currently stalled on or worried about. Rather than pump the brakes around it, where can you hit the gas? How can you invest more of your attention in the work itself, and less in trying to gauge future reactions to it?
When you lose yourself in the flow of work, you tap your energy and the work’s full potential. What ways or methods can you employ to practice trusting the work itself? Where can you be generous with yourself and it? No one ever got anywhere without caring, and no one cares about your work like you can.
If you liked this, you’ll love the book.
Download a free chapter of Unfollow Your Passion: How to Create a Life that Matters to You.