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Iteration

Why Your Inner Critic Is Your Best Friend

Are you constantly going to battle with your Inner Critic? It doesn't have to be that way. Learn how to respect your Inner Critic, while still keeping him in line.


The Inner Critic gets a lot of bad press, especially among blocked creatives who wish the nagging critical voice at the back of their mind would disappear. No wonder there’s so much creativity advice on how to banish, silence, or obliterate the Inner Critic. By the time the creative thinking gurus are done, the Critic’s had a tougher pounding than an extra from Kill Bill.

But do you ever wonder why the Critic keeps coming back for more? Could it be that the Critic is actually a very important part of your creative process?
If you think about it, you’d be in big trouble without an Inner Critic. Without some kind of internal quality filter, you’d be happy to churn out any old rubbish – and join the ranks of mediocrities. A finely honed critical faculty is one of the things that separates a creative professional from the legions of amateurs.
In the words of musician Mike Monday:

A good producer and a great producer have the same number of ideas – some good, some great. But a great producer will know the difference.

And the great producer’s Inner Critic is the difference that makes the difference. Because the great producer has listened more keenly and thought more sharply about music, she has a more powerful and useful Inner Critic.

So the Inner Critic isn’t the enemy, just an over-zealous friend who’s delivering the criticism too forcefully and without considering your feelings. We all have friends who do that from time to time.

The trick is to get the Critic back “onside,” delivering genuinely constructive criticism. Like the inspiring mentor who urged you to do your best and didn’t accept anything less – but with a supportive and encouraging tone of voice.

Criticism and Creation Are Not Mutually Exclusive

One of the sacred cows of the creative thinking industry is that we should separate idea generation, execution, and evaluation, so that they don’t interfere with each other. But my experience as a writer and coach suggests that this isn’t how many creative professionals work.

When I’m writing, I’m reading, evaluating, and tweaking as I go. I’ll write a few sentences then pause and go back to read them through. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious I haven’t quite captured the thought or image, so I’ll make a few changes before I go on. If I get stuck, I’ll stop and read through the whole piece, trying to pick up the thread of inspiration where I lost it. Once I see where I got tangled up, it’s a relief to untangle it and get going again.

For all of this, I have my Inner Critic to thank. And I hear a similar story from many of my coaching clients, who include musicians, designers, filmmakers, fine artists, and all kinds of other creative disciplines – so I’m pretty sure it’s not just a writer’s thing.

One of the sacred cows of the creative thinking industry is that we should separate idea generation, execution, and evaluation.

Yes, it’s helpful to have designated times when you’re mostly focused on dreaming up ideas, or tinkering with a prototype, or getting the first draft down as quickly as possible. But the next time you’re doing this, you may well notice that you’re bringing your sharp critical intelligence into play even at this stage – so you’re improving the work even as you create it.

It’s also helpful to have dedicated time to review your work, especially toward the end of a project. But even as you critique your work, you’ll probably find yourself itching to do some hands-on remodeling or redrafting – calling your freewheeling imagination into play as well. Once again, creation and criticism work hand in hand.

How to Get the Critic Back on Your Side

So what difference does all this make to your work on Monday morning? Here are some suggestions for incorporating the Inner Critic in your creative process in a more useful way. Experiment with one or two of them at a time, to see what works best for you.

Before you start work, take a moment to reflect on the advantages of having a finely honed critical faculty – such as understanding what makes a good piece of work, knowing how to assess your own work and improve it. Sometimes this kind of appreciation is all it takes to get the Critic to quiet down.

You might find it helpful to use one workspace for drafting/sketching/experimenting, and another for reviewing your work.

Before you start work, take a moment to reflect on the advantages of having a finely honed critical faculty.

Another thing to try before you start work is telling yourself, “I’m not really going to start just yet, I’ll just make a few sketches” – or scribble a few notes, or practice a few scales, or the equivalent for your creative medium.

When you’re working, if the Critic starts telling you what’s wrong with the piece, ask yourself, “So what does the work need instead?” or “So what do I need to do to make it better?”

If the Critic keeps interfering, promise yourself that you’ll do a critical review at the end of this stage of execution – so you can afford to ignore her now and keep your momentum going.

You and Your Critic

When have you been most grateful for possessing sharp critical judgment?

Do you agree that your Inner Critic is – potentially – your best friend?

Any tips for utilizing your critical faculty more effectively in the creative process?

Comments (48)
  • Matthew

    Another nice piece Mark. My inner critic probably is my best friend, though I get mad at him often enough. We’ve recently made strides in developing a more productive relationship, which has been quite nice. Thanks for the tips.

  • Studio K&M

    Enjoyed reading this. We’ll definitely keep this in mind when trying to develop diverse content for our blog. Thanks for the post! -Studio K&M, http://www.studiokandm.com

  • Erica Heinz

    Good post, I think an important part is that the Critic needs to appear at the end, it’s a separate phase from the creative part. I’ve heard it explained as the Head/Heart dialectic, we want to let the heart lead, but then use the head to execute.

  • Mike Monday

    My inner critic was just struck dumb when I was quoted on one of my favourite blogs!

    Great post Mark, and a refreshing reminder that in the pursuit of completion we mustn’t forget to listen to that pesky voice in our head at some point in the process.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Mark: Another brilliant tip. I’ve written about my and others’ Inner Heckler. A few weeks ago, a client and I discussed some matters very similar to what you’re suggesting. Her Inner Critic was hyperactive. So she started befriending it in a sense, talking to it, assuring it it would have its role later, once she had finished a sizable portion of her project. Two weeks later she reported that the Inner Critic was still present but near so nasty. I’m forwarding her this link today.
    Thanks, again. Jeffrey
    http://www.trackingwonder.com

  • Preeshel

    Our inner critic is like brakes in our cars , which save us from future Accidents.

  • Tomas Luoma

    Wow Mark. Good stuff again.

    For me, the Inner Critic works best when I return to my project after a good night sleep. This takes time though.

  • Gibsongoff

    You nailed it with this one, Mark! Great article.

    When I was a youngster my dad worked the tugs for a while on the Chesapeake Bay. I had a chance to go along sometimes in the summer, acting as a deckhand. One day the skipper allowed me in the wheelhouse and asked if I wanted to drive the boat.

    The huge 5 foot wheel stood before me. The captain calmly said “steer for that buoy straight ahead’. There were no white caps out, but the seas were rolling pretty good. A wave offside to the bow and the boat moved in a different direction. I spin the wheel the opposite direction.
    The boat started to come about. Then way past the mark! I spun the wheel the other way. She started coming around, then again way past on the other side.

    …”just an over-zealous friend who’s delivering the criticism too forcefully and without considering your feelings.”

    The skipper stepped up and calmly said ‘keep this knot at the top of the wheel within 6 inches of center. Let the boat come back to the mark. Here you go . . “.

    …”Sometimes this kind of appreciation is all it takes to get the Critic to quiet down.”

    I went at the task with a new appreciation. The critic of my criticism of his boat was gentle, instruction, and clearly knowledgable. I trusted my critic. And I smoothed out. We went to the mark. (They only let me drive the boat for about another mile :-(( ).

    Gentle criticism. Finding personal balance. Trusting in what others, and more importantly YOU know.

    You’ve nailed the elements Mark! Great post.

  • MichelleDEvans

    Great post. Thank you

  • Roger von Oech

    Good stuff, Mark (as always). Best wishes for a good Twenty ‘Leven!

  • Michel

    What about considering inner critic as just another “angle” in the creative process, as an additional (and deliberately challenging) point of view that can bring more/better/alternative ideas.
    As explained in the post, no deep disruption is therefore required between generation and evaluation. To push the id, evaluation should also be creative (to anticipate the risks, the potential failures …).
    Make sens ?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Makes a lot of sense to me Michael, that’s pretty well the way I see it.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Roger. I was wondering over Christmas what you would have to say about the number of syllables in 2011! Not nearly as elegant as last year, eh?

    Hope it’s a good one for you.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, creative work often needs marinading – maybe there’s another post in that…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, AND it could also be like the accelerator, pushing us to go further…😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Jeffrey, I sometimes take a similar approach with clients, it’s great when the Best Friend starts acting like one!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh, my work here is done.😉 And thanks for a great series over at your blog.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ummm, to me it’s more a matter of emphasis – I think it’s worth involving the critic from the start, although he/she/it takes centre stage more towards the end. I agree about the head/heart analogy.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I hope this turns out to be the year the two of you really start to get along with each other.🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    Great story! And the analogy fits perfectly. But I’ll take your word for it as far as boating goes…

  • Ted Bilich

    Mark, this is an excellent article, but I disagree with the notion that the inner critic is in fact one’s best friend. The problem faced by most creative people is inhibition, not excess. Many people don’t accept the possibility that they could be creative because they are afraid to take the risks associated with creativity. Yes, the critic has his (or her) place. But he is not a friend. I think Steve Pressfield’s War of Art nailed this point. I talk about creativity a fair amount on my blog (http://www.tedbilich.com), and I am really interested in the subject. So thank you for writing this — I will Tweet about it, and I’ll likely blog about it as well. Best – T

  • Mike Kammerling

    Completely agree with this sentiment Mark, the inner critic is the thing that separates the good from the great and helps us sift for gold from the creative vomit pipe that is our brain. Once again, an enlightening piece from you.

  • Edwina @FASHION+ART

    Smart article. Our inner critic can really kick the poop out of us but that’s not a bad thing at all once you get it in check. As a writer, a designer, an artist, that inner critic, allowed free reign but under control (it takes years of practice) is the only thing that stands between you and complete humiliation sometimes. Embrace it.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Interesting. But you still advocate seperating execution from evaluation.

  • Mark McGuinness

    No, not separating… they go hand in hand. It’s more a question of emphasizing one more than the other at different stages.

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