Just about every creative I’ve ever coached has had a very sharp and active Inner Critic.
And you know what? That’s a good thing.
If you find yourself resisting this idea, maybe because you know what it’s like to suffer with an over-active Inner Critic, then pause for a moment and consider all the mediocre work you’ve encountered in your field. You know, the half-baked stuff that looks like it was put together in five minutes. The stuff devoid of taste, originality, authenticity, and/or basic craft skills.
This is the kind of work produced by people with an under-developed Inner Critic, or even no Inner Critic at all. Your Inner Critic is your own Critical Faculty, which is essential to producing great work. It’s the part of you that can appraise a piece of work and tell you what works and what doesn’t—and why. The part of you that knows you can do better and can point you in the direction of how.
And yes, it has a downside. Left to its own devices, the Inner Critic can run amok, giving you a constant negative critical commentary, not just on your work, but on you as a person.
‘You’re not a real artist,’ it tells you. ‘You’ll never amount to anything. What makes you think you can achieve anything worthwhile when you churn out crap like this?’ Ad nauseam.
The Inner Critic can be hard to live with, yet a finely honed Critical Faculty is one of the things that separates a successful professional from the legions of amateurs.
So how can you get the benefits without the downside?
Think of a highly-trained sushi chef. One of his prized possessions is a razor-sharp knife. The sharpness is essential for the delicacy and precision of his work. So the knife needs handling with care and attention.
But what does the chef do at the end of the day? He puts it away. Safely out of reach. Where it won’t injure anyone. Then he leaves work and spends time with his friends and family, enjoying the fruits of his labours. Next morning he comes back refreshed and sharp for a new day’s work—just like his knife.
What he doesn’t do is stick the knife in the back pocket of his jeans, or sling it in his rucksack, or twirl it casually in his hands as he saunters home from work, or use it to point or gesture while he’s having a beer with friends or dinner with his family. He knows what damage the knife can do, so he leaves it behind with his work.
Treat your Critical Faculty like that sushi knife.
Keep it sharp and finely honed—by keeping up with the latest work in your field, as well as learning from the Old Masters. Engage your peers in discussion about the merits of the work you discover. Read critiques and reviews of other creators’ work and think critically about what you read. Get expert feedback on your own work. Learn to assess your work with a coolly objective (not over-critical!) eye. Write articles or give talks about your creative heroes, articulating why you think their work is great.
The more you consciously exercise your Critical Faculty, the more you take ownership of it—so the less likely it is to manifest as a low-grade, nagging voice at the back of your mind.
Be particularly watchful for the fatal shift from critiquing a piece of work to criticising yourself. Whether or not you’re a ‘real artist’ or a deluded amateur isn’t for you to decide. What is up to you, every day, is to get better at appraising your work and making it better.
And at the end of each day, put your knife away. Let go of the urge to critique, and don’t take it seriously. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt until tomorrow morning, when you can start afresh.
You can hear an audio version of this article in this episode of the 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 5’11”.