W. Somerset Maugham said, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” These were the words of his character, an artist in the novel Of Human Bondage, so it may not be Maugham’s real view. Or, was it? Honestly, we don’t know, but enough other authors have repeated a similar idea to make me wonder about it.
As a teenager and young adult studying art and creative writing, I grew up with the idea that a critique was useful to provide other’s opinions about my work so that I could improve it. I found some of the comments made during class critique sessions pretty useless. But, feedback was necessary, so I listened to both that which was helpful and that which should be ignored. I noted some people did not make any response to negative criticism because they believed that was not allowed.
When reviewing others’ writing, if I point out what works first, and then what doesn’t work and why, this should increase the number of people that will receive criticism without defensiveness, but it does not do it by much. Over time I have concluded that many people make decisions based on feelings. Using logic to deliver the good and bad news doesn’t make it any easier for them to receive, and I have yet to figure out an emotional way to provide feedback.
For me it was hard to understand why a certain percentage of people tended to reject all criticism until I realized that this was a developed attitude. These people had put in their time and had survived the onslaught of those above them. In their hierarchical view they had risen to above criticism. Anything other than praise was no longer acceptable (unless it was offered by someone far more famous than they were). However, I moved around frequently and was not always aware when I encountered a person who had risen to that status.
The cost of this is unavoidable payback. But that kind of criticism is not all bad. For creative people it results in a desire to be even better. While interviewing college art and education majors about factors leading to creativity for my own research, both groups placed willingness to take risks high on their lists. The art majors said being around creative people was the most important factor. The education majors gave high self-esteem first place, but this did not match the results of students in creative fields. Self-esteem wasn’t even mentioned by the art majors. They preferred honest critiques of their work. Evidently, building self-esteem does not build creative thinking. Those people who have reached the point of only receiving praise may no longer be interested in improving.