Figuring It Out: The F Word

It was 12:30 AM when I opened The Very Bad Email. I was pulling some latent teenage behavior and staying up really late just because I can. Bored but not tired, I grab my phone to troll Twitter, check my email. And there–as jolting as running into your ex on a date– it was. It started out mildly enough, then slowly bled into unpleasantries, and ended with the pièce de résistance of words like ‘all wrong,’ ‘off the mark,’ and ‘barf.’ It was from a new client of mine and I was crushed.

I’m not sure how to say the next part without conjuring a lifetime of bad juju upon my household; but this does not happen to me a lot. I am blessed to work with clients and agencies that appreciate and hire my wordsmithery for a wide variety of projects. They know me, they enjoy my voice, they value my work. I live most of my working hours in a pretty safe, supportive environment (perhaps too safe, but that is a different discussion, for a different time.) So when I receive feedback that is of an intensely negative nature, I tend to always take it very personally.

I know. This is exactly where I’m supposed to know better; where I’m supposed to instinctively remember that I am not my work; that you cannot win them all, that this is a cold, dark world where people are reactive, judge too harshly, or use words like ‘barf’ to express themselves. But instead what I did was throw the phone down, lay there fuming, and in spite of myself, shed a few solitary, angry tears. Slowly I worked my way out of the funk (not before re-reading the onslaught a few times, like a verbal wreck on the side of the road) and started pondering the standard variety of questions that arise in type of situation: Was the client right? Should I have done a better job? Could I have? Should we sever the working relationship here and now? Do I know where he lives and is it unethical to TP his house?

But then I realized that these weren’t the important matters at all (except the last one). What mattered most was that in that moment, I had equated criticism with failure. Do you ever do that? Sounds like a rookie move, I know. But too often, I take negative feedback and give it more weight than it deserves; letting it define my work, my talent, myself. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say something a little crazy here: criticism isn’t a sign that you are failing, it’s an indication that you are succeeding.

It means someone has formed an opinion about your work; your art. Which means that someone has seen/read/heard/worn your stuff! Which means that your work is out there. Where it belongs. And what is more indicative of success than that? Or at the very least, of growth (and aren’t the two linked, afterall?)

One of my favorite books is called The War of Art, and there’s a quote about this very thing: “The professional…reminds himself that it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.” And it doesn’t always feel that way. It certainly didn’t that night, reading those words. But in my experience, things don’t have to feel true all the time to be true.

So for whatever you are doing–that thing that you love too much to not do–, remember that the blows may come (and by may I mean will), there will be loss, there may even be booing (or barfing). But you? You’re in the arena.

And that’s a win.

How do you handle the F word (failure), Everygirls? What is the difference between criticism and failure? Does this apply relationally as well as professionally (ooh, an article for next time).