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Learning To Take Criticism

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Working in the film and television industry you will find a lot of criticism coming your way. Some people will like what you do, and others won’t. The first few times it happens you tend to feel insulted… then you figure out it’s just the nature of the beast. Expect to be critiqued. I’m not saying you have to learn to love it, but get used to it.

Some people are good with providing criticism because they don’t make it feel personal. They remark equally on what they liked and what they didn’t like. Other colleagues you will find just go for the throat, and tell you in no uncertain terms what you’ve done sucks. There isn’t much of a response to that one. You can choose to argue your case and disagree with them, or you can choose to walk away and chalk it up to experience. Whether you choose to take their advice as to how to make it better is up to you. If it’s someone that’s hired you, the wise choice to make would be to do what is asked, and don’t get all bitter about it.

Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen and you will get conflicting feedback. It’s up to you once again to decide what to take and what to throw away. The highest man or women up the totem pole usually gets final say, so let their words take more weight than everybody else’s. Yes sometimes their ideas will be really stupid but that’s just the way things are. Larry David got to the point on Seinfeld where he realized the broadcaster’s notes were stupid so he chose to ignore them. But he’s Larry David you’re not. May you earn the right one day to ignore notes from your superiors, but until then you’ve got to deal with it.

And if you don’t understand the criticism and what the person is looking for, by all means ask for clarification. Sometimes I do believe people don’t even know what they want. They just know what they don’t want, but have no idea how to fix it. Writers get a lot of silly notes like that. Somebody else says they don’t like something and it’s the writer’s job to take that unconstructive note and turn it into something the person might like better. Asking for a sit down conversation so you can work it through is perfectly viable if you are just not getting what they are attempting to communicate.

All kinds of folks who are not qualified to do their jobs find themselves in the enviable position of calling the shots. Doesn’t mean they are good. There’s a lot of poor communicators out there and trying to understand them and their intentions is like trying to grasp Pig Latin. You’ve just got to do your best, not get demoralized, and if you need some affirmation go to someone you trust and get their opinion. Sometimes just knowing we’re not crazy helps a lot.

If you believe it, fight for it, but realize a lot of the time you are going to lose that fight. You will because you’re still relatively new to the game and your word is not yet golden. Once you’ve been around the block a few dozen times people will take you a lot more seriously, and let you have your way because they trust your instincts, and you’ve proven yourself over and over again. When you’re new, unless you have awards coming out the ying yang, you are going to have to earn your stripes. People are going to doubt and question you, and you need to be prepared for that. Know why you did things the way you did and be prepared to back it up in an articulate fashion without getting your knickers in a bunch. You don’t want to get shrill and combative because you’re feeling undermined.

Women get undermined more than men do… just a fact of life. And yes I say this from experience and the experience of my colleagues. Read a great article by a photographer who happened to get a sex change to become female. What happened to her professional life? She was suddenly doubted and questioned by everybody and “tested” regularly to see if she understood her equipment. She was treated differently and her competency was always in doubt. Yes it’s a fact of life. Prepare to be doubted, prepare to be questioned, prepare to be demeaned…..but be prepared to keep your cool while it’s happening. Remember the commercial – Don’t let them see you sweat. It’s a good one to remember. Just be ready with your answers and don’t get flustered. It’s not about you it’s about them.

That’s the first thing you need to learn in this business. Much of the time it’s got nothing to do with you but is about the other person. Some people just like to see changes made and critique stuff because they can. They like the power play. If you can back up your work with straight talk and a firm voice it’s a lot less likely to happen a second time. You need to find your commanding, non-bitchy voice that sounds authoritative and confident. If you have to, practice on the cat. My voice used to quiver when I had to back myself up, but it finally stopped when I’d done enough of it that it didn’t freak me out any more.

Dealing with criticism isn’t easy for anybody. The worst thing you can do is take it personally. Don’t freak out, stand there, listen attentively, and act don’t react. Take the time you need to formulate the response you want… don’t come off with some knee jerk reaction. If it needs time to let it sink in tell the person that, and you will get back to them shortly with a response. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers immediately. Just say you need to put some thought into it, and walk away to gather yourself. It’s just the nature of a creative industry where there is always a lot at stake. Criticism is something you need to get used to if you’re going to succeed.

Katherine Di Marino

About Katherine Di Marino

Beginning her career in 1994 as the Producer’s Assistant on the TV series Highlander, Katherine was eventually awarded an Associate Producer mentorship by the CMPA on the Showtime series Dead Man’s Gun. She went on to gain a broad knowledge base throughout her work at Peace Arch Entertainment and Omnifilm Entertainment in the areas of development, production and business affairs. During her career she has been involved on many projects including Francis Ford Coppola’s sci-fi series First Wave, David Steinberg’s comedy series Big Sound, the ½ hour dramedy Robson Arms, five Lifetime Network movies, the animated series Pirate TV, along with nine documentaries. She also did two stints at Creative BC as an Analyst. She has done work for over 20 broadcasters and won numerous international awards. Katherine just produced the movie “Rio Heat” – a Canadian/Brazilian co-production featuring Harvey Keitel.