Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

When To Judge Your Work

When you’re doing creative work, whether it is writing a novel or writing code that sings, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging your work and yourself too harshly. After all, we decide to work in an area that we ourselves love as consumers - you design an app inspired by a beautiful app experience, or write books because you love the work of others. You know what is good, and when you fail to see it in your own work it can be heart-breaking. You criticise your work, holding it up the high standards you know you like in the work of others and want to see in your own work.

However, judging your work while working on it can be brutal to the creative process. You try to make whimsical connections and let your imagination run free, while the critic on your shoulder sternly commands that you get back to the straight and narrow path, don’t run after stupid ideas that haven’t been tried before and might possibly lead you to fail epically. This critic always fails to mention that your whimsical ideas might lead you to do something so different that it takes people’s breath away, that you could succeed beyond your wildest dreams. That any art that stamps out the possibility of jumping off a cliff also stamps out the possibility of taking off soaring over the edge.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be so in love with your work that you can't see any flaws, which means you don’t grow and improve at your craft.
Scott Young’s recent article on this topic provides a good balance between maintaining humility and having the will to keep working. His theory is that we should judge our past work with the same sense of critique that we might bring to someone else’s work - taking note of missteps to correct in the future. When we are composing our current work however, we should avoid critiquing it harshly, especially as that might prevent us from having the will to complete it.
As a writer I can see the flaw in this - that if I don’t critique my work while I'm doing it, won't I end up putting out work that isn’t good enough, thereby affecting my own reputation? On the other hand, with each project I go through phases where I'm convinced that the work is terrible and there’s no point in continuing. Usually the looming deadline and the spectre of angry colleagues forces me to push through these feelings and complete the project - and the end product is much better than I thought it would be.
When I don’t have an external deadline, and the only person who will be disappointed if I didn’t finish is me, it’s harder to silence the voice that states that the work is really terrible and you should abandon it pronto. Often, if I can ignore it, I will end up with work that really is quite good, even though it can invariably be improved further. It won't get that chance though, if I get demotivated enough by my self-criticism to give up at that point. Not only that, I believe that every project that I have completed, even the ones on which I can look back and cringe that I had the temerity to write such drivel, have taught me much more than anything else.
Thus, whatever reservations I may have about sacking my inner Judge Judy for the duration of my project, its tempered by the thought that it will be that much easier to get to the finish line. Besides, didn’t your grandma always tell you that you can catch more flies with a drop of honey than a gallon of gall? Well, shouldn’t the same advice apply to nurturing our creative instincts? After all, a little honey may go a long way.
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