What! “Well – I think it looks like an avocado with a sperm in it.” Wow! That is what a close friend declared about something I had just painted. And it was in front of a group of friends. I had envisioned a seed planted deep in the dirt, preparing to spring forth with a sprout. It was the oddest evaluation that I can recall ever hearing.

I took up painting just a few years ago before starting in Toastmasters. A year ago – maybe even six months ago – that pronouncement from my friend would have been an arrow to my heart. I could feel the visceral yearning to physically retract from her comment, to quietly retreat to lick my wounds alone in my dark cave of insecurity. That kind of experience can completely wilt one’s budding creativity and explorations in whatever area you are working in, including Toastmasters.

Many famous artists have been publicly criticized and rejected for their work, including well-known names like Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh. Picasso’s work, for example, was severely criticized as “schizophrenic” and even “satanic” in the beginning. During Van Gogh’s lifetime, critics dismissed his work, stating that his “crude, heavy, sloppy brushstrokes” created amateur, strange, and intense work. In his first 20 years, Monet had his work repeatedly rejected with statements that it was ‘formless, ugly and unfinished.’

These artists’ works are revered now, and they are viewed as innovative masters of their craft. But what would have happened if these artists had listened to the critics and just given up? As creators, it is our responsibility to show up and do the work, creating our best while striving to maintain an appropriate level of concern about how others view our work. Wow. Easier said than done!

Criticism can hold us back from creating. In the book “Art & Fear,” the authors assert that our inner critic prevents us from doing our BEST work, and external criticism – criticism from others – can prevent us from doing our OWN work. Both types of criticism can be difficult, and it takes both practice and skill to overcome them. Plus, criticism in the arts, including the speaking arts, seems to sting more since what we create is very personal. Our results, or lack of results, can often be experienced immediately, sometimes even before the paint dries! Today we’ll dig a bit more into external criticism, like the comment about my painting looking like an avocado and some thoughts on handling it.

Presenting our work to others can be scary, especially when we begin our creative pursuits – whether through painting, working with clay, or learning to speak publicly. When I started out as a painter a few years ago, a negative comment could completely deflate me. It would be weeks before I’d take up the brush again.   We are usually more sensitive to criticism when we are beginners because we have not yet developed enough skills to feel good about our work. Therefore, these comments can hit especially hard at this most vulnerable time. We all have received hurtful comments or have heard others’ disparaging remarks about another’s work. How do we deal with these comments in a healthy way?

First, it’s important to realize that these comments are frequently more of a reflection of the commenter than on the quality of our work. So I have learned to ask myself a couple of questions to qualify the comment. First, do I respect the opinion of this person? If the answer is yes, I will see what I can learn from their comment. What can I do to improve my work – and is this a change I want to make?

I also try to put the comments in perspective. For example, in my Toastmaster’s club, after every one of my first five or so speeches, one of my fellow members would comment, “that was really good for your first speech!”  Clearly, that member wasn’t paying attention. One comment about a painting, a speech, or another creative endeavor does not reflect my past success nor dictate what my successes will be in the future. It is important to take a long-term view and not get caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs.

I also value having a couple of trusted friends who can offer a fresh perspective. Some artists belong to an art group for this purpose. You probably belong to at least one Toastmasters group.

Lastly, other factors determine an outcome or acceptance of my work. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the quality. For example, in the painting world, the viewer could prefer more realistic or more abstract work. Or, they could like a particular type of subject matter, such as figurative versus landscape. In the public speaking world, maybe the audience member prefers “just the facts” or always wants a bit of fun. Criticism does not always mean that the work is not good. Sometimes it simply means that the timing is not suitable for the work to be accepted, or it is not what was expected.

So what happened with the “avocado with a sperm in it”? Though I initially thought I was immune, instead, I ruminated on the comment for a week. During that time, I lost all interest in painting. Sometimes, when I don’t feel like doing a “real” painting, I’ll make myself do some brush practice or other drills to keep painting. In our Toastmasters world, we continue to attend meetings, practice with Table Topics and perform meeting roles like Speech Evaluator.

Later I decided to talk to my friend about what she shared. Can you believe it? She couldn’t even remember saying it (!) She apologized and explained that her comment was really about her frame of mind that day, which had little to do with my painting. Aristotle said, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” When we put ourselves out into the world, there will be those who reject what we offer. Receiving criticism is an unfortunate part of being a creator of any kind, but it is up to us to choose how to react. We cannot control others’ comments, but we can strengthen our resolve to continue doing our best work and letting go of negative commentary.

Written by: Cathy Sewell L4 Pres Mastery Sec. Club # 08203 Redwood Ramblers District 101