Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

On Criticism, Cynicism & Sharpening Your Gut Instinct

Time and time again, creative people are given two pieces of advice: (1) Listen to your critics and seek feedback, but also (2) Ignore your critics and follow your intuition. Clearly, there’s a powerful contradiction here in need of reconciliation.

Whether you’re starting a new business, debuting a performance, or working with a client, you’ll find yourself in the hot seat faced with feedback – and you’ll have a decision to make. Do you embrace the criticism and change what you’re doing? Or do you gain confidence from being doubted and take solace that all innovation is, at first, misunderstood?Knowing which feedback to embrace and which to discard is perhaps the most important instinct for a creative leader to possess. Nearly every legendary innovation was initially mocked or misunderstood by the so-called “experts.” In truth, scrutiny and doubt are just part of the toll we pay to take the path less traveled. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier.

The question is: When should you embrace your critics and their dogma, and when should you ignore them and carry on?

Savor Criticism, Shun Cynicism

There are two kinds of doubt you’ll encounter in any new venture – criticism and cynicism.

Criticism is doubt informed by curiosity and a deep knowledge of a discipline related to your work. Whether the criticism you receive is constructive or not, it comes from knowledge. Informed insights like “I’m not sure someone would ever pay that much” or “you may not want to outsource that given the high-touch required” may cause you to question your approach.

By contrast, cynicism is a form of doubt resulting from ignorance and antiquated ways. Industry experts will often express doubt based on an ingrained muscle memory of past experiences that handicaps their vision for the future. Cynical statements like, “People will never read a book on a computer” or “Why would anyone want to put their rolodex online?” are famous doubts expressed by experts with handicapped vision.

Knowing which feedback to embrace and which to discard is perhaps the most important instinct for a creative leader to possess.

Doubts and questions can be valuable, but not when they are akin to xenophobia. When investors – and the general public – shun something simply because it is foreign and new… well, this means you are likely one (or more) steps beyond the status quo, which is a good thing! Transformational projects and businesses are like puzzles, and it’s very difficult for the masses to see the whole picture when half the pieces are still missing. In such cases, being mocked or misunderstood suggests you’re onto something.As entrepreneurs, we must savor criticism and shun cynicism by developing an instinct for the difference between thoughtful insights and short-sightedness. This instinct is the competitive advantage for innovators of all kinds, and it comes straight from the gut.

Sharpening Your Gut

Is gut instinct the culmination of years of experience? Is it strengthened by confidence? How do you sharpen your gut instinct? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Calculate the credibility of everything you hear. If you’re talking to a very experienced leader in another field, assess whether she is qualified to have an opinion about your project. Perhaps her perspective should only carry the weight of a potential customer? (If so, keep in mind that customers can’t possibly know what they want at the bleeding edge of what’s next.) But, if she has deep experience in a similar vertical, her insights should be given more credence. Before absorbing feedback, determine how credible and applicable it is first.
  • Separate fear and emotion from logic. Can you consider feedback without the taint of ego or the human fears that we all carry around – namely, failure and embarrassment? I’m not suggesting that you ignore your fears and emotions. On the contrary, you should work to identify the root of them. If you find feedback frustrating, ask yourself why. Often, it means that you are holding onto past assumptions for the wrong reasons or “sunk costs” (past energy and resources you invested that you’ll never get back). I’ve met many entrepreneurs who recognize a fundamental flaw but miss the chance to fix it because they can’t bear to face it.
  • Recognize patterns, but don’t resort to them. No doubt, a big part of gut instinct also comes from pattern recognition. Seeing the same thing happen, time and time again, gives you an instinct for what might happen next. At the same time, years of experience can also plague you with the same muscle memory that breeds cynicism in the first place. The trick is to keep reiterating your thesis for the future as you process information and compare with past experiences. You should review every decision through two distinct lenses: your past lessons learned (often the hard way), and your conviction for what’s next. Sometimes you’ll recognize a pattern and realize that it is meant to be broken.
  • Learn to stomach momentary scrutiny. Your gut instinct won’t add any value if you can’t handle scrutiny. A barrage of feedback is, at best, a bounty of useful insight and, at worst, noise. Whatever you do, don’t avoid the critics. Feedback is a win-win scenario, so long as you develop your gut instinct and let it do its’ thing.

What’s Your Take?

What else makes up gut instinct? Weigh in!

More insights on: Innovation, Leadership

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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