Student: Do I have what it takes to be a professional?
Teacher: No.

Observer: Why crush the student’s spirits now?
Teacher: If the student believes me and gives up, then she doesn’t have what it takes. To be a pro in this business, you have to take a comment like that as a spur to work harder.

Being able to bounce after a failure, set-back, or critique is an important life skill. Set-backs, failures, and partial successes are the building blocks of experience. Without the ability to turn failure in to learning, people give up on dreams.

For example, I write stories. As a child, I wrote tall tales and fantasies: wild, wacky, and wonderful – but derivative and full of clichés. As a tween, I turned to more realistic work and starting exploring the effects I could achieve through more subtle use of language. These efforts were of mixed quality – often showing promise, but sometimes failing utterly. One piece that failed got a scathing critique from my English teacher and I stopped writing fiction except when explicitly required for class. I just stopped. I took the critique as a statement of failure and gave up. I was not resilient.

In my case, the need to tell stories and work with language continued. As a teen, I wrote poetry and starting directing plays. I failed to develop the courage to pursue theatre professionally, though I had enough skill to justify the attempt. But, I was not resilient enough. I took a few rejections too personally and gave up.

And then, in my mid-30s, I watched as my brother ran his first marathon and decided it was time to accomplish some of my big goals. And that meant developing grit and resiliency.

It is not an easy task, overcoming decades of training in giving up, but it is a necessary one. For the past few years, I have been consistently pushing myself, learning, and developing. And, I have submitted my work and been rejected. Each rejection hurts and each rejection gives me an opportunity to strengthen my ability to recover and keep going.

I find myself asking how I developed the habit of surrender. Somewhere along the line, I learned to value myself only when I was succeeding. At the same time, I had no practice in working through a challenge to achievement. I grew lazy and apathetic. Perfectionism and an awareness of how far my attempts at writing fell short of the ideals I set for myself combined to make me think it was impossible that I would ever be good. And I had no external guide or mentor to nurture, support, and push me.

Now, I know I need external goads, so I have put some external pressures in place, pressures so strong they scare me. I have asked people who are either better writers or more demanding readers than I am to read and critique my work. These are not only people I want to learn from, but people I want to respect me, people I want to impress. I don’t expect to impress them with my work now, but I hope I can at least demonstrate an admirable work ethic and growth curve. I expect to be kicked to the curb often as I strive to learn what they have to teach me.

In my youth, I would never have felt safe seeking out a challenge where I expect to fail at first. Now, I recognize that without the willingness to be a beginner and to risk failure and embarrassment, I will never develop the skills I desire.

I wish I had learned to be resilient earlier in my life, but I trust it is not too late for me.


Kate writes about creativity and story-telling as tools for making sense of the world at www.katearmsroberts.com.


3 thoughts on “Resiliency: On Bouncing Back from Criticism

  1. Thanks for this stimulating article. Healthy criticism can help refine our creative talents and projects, enabling our pursuit of excellence. But when criticism is based on excessive perfectionism or an unrealistic self concept, it can be destructive and self-limiting, eroding our creative assurance and vitality. Creativity coach and psychologist Eric Maisel declares, “Criticism is a real crippler. I’m sure that you know that. But you may not be aware just how powerful a negative force criticism can be, how much damage it can do to your self-confidence, or how seriously it can deflect you from your path.” – From my post: Toxic Criticism and Developing Creativity http://shrd.by/t85aGk

  2. Thank you for your courage to bounce back. Resilience is important, of course, but sometimes it just does not work and you need something else to go on.
    So what happens when you get kicked to the curb so often – because of others being jealous of your budding talent – that you do not have the strenght to get up anymore? When time after time, you rise again, push yourself to continue, to improve, to surpass yourself, and time after time you get pushed back because of jealosy, power, ignorance and greed? Resilience is not always the best nor the only answer. You need to learn from your mistakes and from your failures before bouncing back. You need to learn how to protect yourself and how to recognise and deal with unjustified criticism. Pure resilience might make you repeat the same mistake over and over again, don’t you think?
    Society certainly does not reward you because you are ‘only’ talented and seem to merit encouragement and success. There’s more to it than that. Humans are not straightforward nor honest, unfortunately. In my opinion, it’s more a question of power and self-interest. And finding a guide or a mentor is no easy thing – there are very few people who are willing to take on such a role, because that role requires some sort of altruism and interest in the other. Perhaps even to such an extent, that the mentor will see his/her student rise above him/her, thus losing power and possibly respect. Positive criticism is wonderful indeed and very important especially to the gifted, but how many mentors and guides are capable of that?

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