In an interview with Business Insider, Jeff Bezos gave one of the best responses ever when asked how he handles critics. The Amazon founder and CEO had this to offer: “With any criticism, my approach is –and what I teach and preach at Amazon– when you’re criticized, first look in the mirror and decide if your critics are right. If they’re right, change. Don’t resist.” When asked about specific criticisms, he added, “There are two kinds of critics. There are well-meaning critics … but there’s a second kind of critic, the self-interested critic.”

I would like to add, among the self-interested critics, there are 5 unusual but not uncommon types of criticism. The following list contains real interactions I’ve experienced.

I’ve performed in front of all kinds of audiences. I’ve garnered an enormous variety of reactions from people from all walks of life and tried to document them as carefully as possible. Despite an overwhelming variety of positive feedback, the unfortunate truth is that the comments which stand out in my memory are the negative, unusual, and untoward criticisms I’ve encountered. It turns out that our brains have a negativity bias.

Research shows that we give more weight to negative words. In fact, we have a “greater sensitivity to unpleasant news.”[1]

Listed below are 5 common types of criticism, pulled from the pages of my 29 years as a musician and assembled with a few thoughts on how to deal with them.

“That’s not real music”: How to deal with 5 types of criticism at your gig

The “Are You Retaining Water?” Critique:

Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he used to tell this to his competitors at the Mr. Universe competitions to unsettle them and instill pre-performance angst, thus giving himself a slight competitive edge. [2]
  • What it sounds like: “Did you just start learning?”; “Is this a work in progress?”; “Are you a little ‘off’ today?”; “Are you hungover?”; “Are you really going to wear that?”
  • Motivation: to gain a competitive edge; to see if you’ll fold; to see what kind of effect they can have on you; for sport.
  • Intended to: throw you off, instill angst, reduce your confidence, and make you self-conscious.
  • How to deal with it: Recognize the motivation behind the comment and focus on your performance. Don’t start making changes just because Mr. Universe pointed something out. And if he spoke the truth on some level, don’t allow him to witness the effect his snide remarks have on you, if any. Don’t give him the satisfaction.

The “That’s Not Real Music” Critique:

I was once informed of this at a gig where it was obvious that the music I was performing was not suited to the audience.
  • What it sounds like: “That’s not real music. Santana, Hendrix … that’s REAL music.”[3]
  • Motivation: to dismiss anything that falls short of their infallible views; inability to celebrate one another; unwillingness to give credit where credit is due; perhaps no motive other than alcohol; older and closedminded; stuck in a foregone era of music; the idealization of the past.
  • Intended to: put you on the defensive; create rifts between people; polarize groups of people into one camp over another, and perhaps to set themselves up as an “expert.” See Critic #1
  • How to deal with it: Don’t bother engaging in an argument with those who think this argument will ever arrive at an objective truth.  Objective truths are harder to come by in music; it’s usually a setup. It can be difficult to argue without sounding like you think you’re better than the icons.

The “Well I Can Do that, Too” Critique:

I heard this once while stepping off stage — even as the audience was still clapping.
  • What it sounds like: “Yeah, I can do that too;” “I own a few of those guitars;” “You’re not special.”
  • Motivation: disappointment in themselves that they haven’t followed their dreams; disbelief that anyone other than themselves could deserve this; or the childlike response to attention that another receives.
  • Intended to: demoralize; prove that you’re not special; demonstrate that applause is unwarranted. Critiques like this are usually levelled by someone who can rarely stand that anyone other than them is in the spotlight.
  • How to deal with it: Change the way you perceive this criticism by reminding yourself of the following: There is only one YOU. They can’t be you. And if they can, at best, they’ll be a poor carbon copy. People can buy the same guitar, dress the same, but no one will ever be you. Your only goal should be to remain authentic. What everyone else is doing shouldn’t distract from your cause. [3]

The “Just Look at Him” Critique:

I’ve heard variations of this about myself and others, and what’s funny is that the critic is merely exposing their pettiness.
  • What it sounds like: Variously superficial comments that have nothing to do with your competence.
  • Motivation: jealousy; pettiness; immaturity; ignorance of what an actual critique should accomplish.
  • Intended to: attack personally rather than professionally; criticize the way you carry yourself; your clothes; your aesthetic choices; etc. Basically everything but what is actually useful.
  • How to deal with it: All they can do is speak to the subjective or to some other aspect besides your competence. For example, actors often receive more controversy from what they are wearing than any performance on film.  In philosophy, attacking the person instead of the argument is a fallacy. It also reminds me of that time a book reviewer criticized author Malcolm Gladwell’s afro [4] rather than some aspect of his work. If you were not that awesome, they wouldn’t even bother. If all they can come up with is a personal criticism, you are probably doing well.  

The “Rain On your Parade” Critique:

The first time my band’s song received radio play in Austin, one person asked, “Yeah, but wasn’t that a local station?”
  • What it sounds like: Any attempt to minimize the things for which you feel accomplished; any attempt to reduce your success or sense of accomplishment down to near worthlessness.
  • Motivation: varies; inability to celebrate one another; ignorance of the importance of community, support, and encouragement; ill-will; “upset … that they could have stood where you are if they’d had a little more courage or perseverance.” [5]
  • Intended to: instill demoralization; bring you down.
  • How to deal with it: Take note of who is happy for you during the little successes. Those who are happy for you are your friends. Those who are not, pay attention, because they are not for you. Surround yourself with people who are happy for you every step of the way and don’t seem inconvenienced by your success. And learn to celebrate others the same way. It demonstrates goodwill and maturity.

Conclusion:

Remember: Critics are not your enemy — they come with the territory for anyone who is brave enough to enter the arena — rather, fear of criticism is your enemy. Fear of criticism has kept more people from releasing their art, from performing and even from creating altogether. Don’t rob the world of your contribution to music, art and the written word to avoid the unpleasantness of outside opinions. Instead, enter the arena with the confidence of someone who doesn’t know they have flaws and the wisdom of someone who knows and targets those flaws. Enter the arena like someone who doesn’t ask for permission. Enter the arena like you belong there.

The discomfort that comes from the possibility that you will be criticised is worth enduring for the opportunity to stay in the game.