Home / Professional Development / How To Handle Criticism

How To Handle Criticism

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Sir Winston Churchill

As a new professional of any sort, you’re likely going to receive a lot of criticism. This will likely be uncomfortable. Especially given the special snowflake syndrome prevalent in modern American education. Everyone’s a winner! Let’s all be incredibly concerned about our feelings! This might be nice from an emotional self-worth perspective, but next to worthless for preparing a person to thrive in an environment where criticism and applied deconstruction is the norm – e.g. – a law office.

Criticism Is A Necessary Part Of Becoming Good At Anything

Although I think everyone has gotten the message at this point, I’ll repeat it here anyway – law schools do not prepare lawyers for practice. It would be nice if they did, but largely they do not. There is a shift in legal education to try and change it, but that doesn’t really do much good in the here and now. Once law students get out of school and enter the real world, they soon realize that they are expected to learn on the job. It’s trial by fire. 

This isn’t unique to lawyers of course. We’re not special snowflakes either. Almost any college or graduate degree claiming to adequately prepare you for what it’s like to actually do that job in the real world is full of it. There is a world of difference in learning how to do a thing, and actually doing the thing. And when you begin to actually do the thing, if you have any self-awareness, you’ll realize that you’re not actually that good at it.

But while you might have some notion on the nature of your performance, no one can really give themselves an accurate self-assessment. This is especially true if you are new to an activity or pursuit. You don’t know enough to gauge your performance. If you actually want to improve, adapt, and grow, you need rely on those with more experience and training to give you feedback – which is why criticism is incredibly valuable.

Criticism is a necessary part of improvement.

Criticism is a necessary part of growth.

Criticism is a gift

Criticism Provides Purpose And Growth

Looking at criticism as a gift is difficult. Not many people are taught to think of it in that way. But criticism is definitely a gift so long as you have the right point of view. You must possess a growth mindset. If you do, then criticism provides you clarity of purpose and an opportunity to grow.

Clarity of purpose. Criticism is largely about discouraging bad behaviors practices. Criticism helps you define your role. It helps focus your work product. Without criticism, you’re likely to flail about, not knowing whether you are going to hit your target or not. Criticism provides you the chance to know exactly what you are meant to be doing.

Opportunity to grow. When people face little in the way of danger, adversity, or criticism, they become fragile. Never facing criticism means that you are never being tested. That you’re likely doing the bare minimum and never attempting to reach beyond your current grasp. If this is the case, you aren’t trying to grow. But if you want to grow, then criticism becomes cultivation. Criticism is a guidepost, a pruning that lets you know which way to go. (Nassim Taleb wrote a book on this topic worth reading.)

bonsai growth criticism

Not All Criticism Is Equal

Criticism is distinct from “hating,” as the intent of criticism is to encourage growth. This is an important distinction. You must learn to evaluate criticism on a case-by-case basis. Some people may think they are offering you criticism, when really they want to make you feel inferior. Their criticism is not about helping you, but a reflection of their own doubts and insecurities. When someone offers this type of criticism, you should let it pass over you without consideration. 

This is why it’s important to understand that, just like your relationships, not all criticism is equal. 

  • Criticism from mentors = extreme value.
  • Criticism from seniors = high value.
  • Criticism from peers = mid value.
  • Criticism from juniors = low value.
  • Criticism from strangers = little value.

The nature of your relationship with the person offering the criticism determines how you should take it. When someone you respect and consider a mentor offers criticism, it’s likely worth taking to heart. If an anonymous online troll offers criticism, you might dwell on it for a bit, but it’s not worth losing sleep over. 

How To Handle Criticism

When you do receive criticism, it can be difficult if you are not used to it. But there are a number of things you can do to help prepare yourself when handle criticism. 

  • Set your ego aside. It can be tough to do, but realize that the criticism (if it’s valid and valuable) is not a personal attack on you.
  • Pay attention. This might seem self-evident, but when criticized, people often start making excuses or build defenses in their mind. Don’t. Give the criticism its due attention.
  • After you’ve received the criticism, deconstruct it and ask yourself what is useful about it. Re-state it in your own words. Try to understand the perspective of the person who gave the criticism.
  • Create actionable behaviors or processes to address the criticism. If criticism goes in one ear and out the other, it’s next to useless. The person offering the criticism has given you an opportunity for growth, but you are still the one who has to make that growth actually happen.
  • Measure your results. You’ll never know if you’re improving if you don’t examine your actions. Expect mis-steps. Fail, but fail forwards. Focus on continual systematic improvement.

With the right mindset, and the right relationships, criticism is a tool that propels you forward in your career. That’s why it’s important to cultivate relationships with people that will force you to grow and change. If you’re not receiving criticism on occasion, you either don’t have enough trusted relationships in your life, or you likely aren’t saying or doing anything that important.

If that’s the case, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone, take some risks, and grow. 

Share This