Handle feedback like a Calm MotherF*cker

A Calm Mother Fucker doing Yoga.

A Calm Mother Fucker doing Yoga.

Yes, I worked on the title for this post for quite some time. 

It reminded me of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction.

Jules Winnfield would go about his day-to-day, getting shit done and brushing off the worst of the day with a cool, calm and collected ease.

That's exactly how you should be when receiving feedback—Jules Winfield—a CalmMotherFucker.

Last week I spoke about creative leadership and there’s a whole bunch of value in that post which I hope will help you pave the way towards working as a creative leader in your career. Be it a design leader or someone who works in strategy, digital or brand development.

This week I’m giving you the framework to deal with feedback in exactly the way a creative leader should. 

With CalmMotherFucker ease.

One of the more difficult things we face as creators is to listen to critique of our work.

Our passion and drive to do great work has us believing that we should be in a state of constant creative output and that output should be nourishing and dammit, creative! 

This is the ego of the creative person. This is normal.

This also means it is extremely difficult to have someone else review and critique our work. It’s a situation most creative people avoid.

Be it design ideas, creative ideas or strategy, I’ve seen it and it’s all the same—when it comes time to review work, something clicks in the mind of the creative person and a defensive wall goes up.

A red-faced wall to be defended.

Then there are people who handle feedback with an ease that has you wondering what they’ve been smoking. These people practically beg to have their work critiqued and dismantled fully knowing that through this process, something better comes of it.

I’ve worked as a Strategy Director, UI Designer, Visual/Graphic Designer, Art Director, Creative Director across digital, advertising and design — in all of this work, I’ve managed to listen to and provide quite a lot of feedback. 

There hasn’t been a time where I haven’t felt a pang of fear when someone looks at my work and provides a critique or review of it. Be it a strategy I’ve developed or a design (visual, UI or otherwise) that I’ve poured my heart and soul into.

Do you know the feeling?
I think you do.

I’ve come to realise that this feeling is simply my ego, and ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a form of self-preservation. Ego after all means ‘self’ in Greek. Trust me, it does.

Knowing this, I’ve managed to learn to overcome the feeling of fear and apprehension when someone reviews and/or critiques my work.

I hope for three things after you read this post:

  1. I hope you’ll be better equipped to receive feedback next time you have your work critiqued and/or reviewed.
  2. I also hope you’ll be better equipped to ask questions and qualify to better understand the feedback you’ve been given.
  3. And finally, I hope you understand with clarity, the role feedback plays in creating outstanding work and in turn I hope your own work will improve.

Here are my suggestions for you.

Mitigate the risk from the beginning

If you could mitigate the risk of receiving bad/negative feedback that makes you feel completely demoralised, would you?

Of course you would.

This fear occurs when we feel like we haven’t done enough. When we’ve focussed our efforts on a small range of ideas and feel that the scope of what we should’ve done was actually wider.

It occurs when we believe we know something to be true and we’re just not sure the client feels the same way. Like a niggling feeling that they said ‘San Fransisco’ and we’ve paved a journey towards the South Pole. 

To avoid this, when you’re briefed, asked a shit load of questions. Ask all the dumb, embarrassing questions you’ve avoided asking in the past. 

Do not leave the briefing until you're 100% clear.

(Please read that sentence again. I made it bold for a reason.)

Once you’ve received the brief, ask for it in writing. If they don’t have it in writing. Write it down yourself and ask them to confirm that you’ve captured what they need correctly. Be diligent. Be annoying. Make sure that you and your client have exactly the same understanding of the brief.

No assumptions.

Once you’re briefed on a task of developing ideas, generate as many ideas as possible. Don’t be precious. Just generate. This will allow you to feel good about the amount of work you’re doing as well as stop you from falling in love with that one idea you’re hoping will succeed, and fearful of being torn apart. 

Involve the person who is going to be providing you with feedback in the process of creating the work they’re going to be critiquing later. Yes, involve them. 

Ask them to join you for a few minutes each day — ask them to workshop ideas with you. Involve them, give them buy-in into the process and they’ll feel as much ownership of the work as you do.

Risk. Mitigated.

Open your mind

In one of his movies, Bruce Lee said to be like water. A simple scene in a simple movie—but the words were taken from his journal of philosophical writings on life.

To empty your mind is to have clarity of thought. To have perspective. To listen and absorb the world around you.

If you’re feeling stressed and anxious about receiving feedback, or proud and defensive in protection of your work—ask yourself why you are feeling this way and don’t point to anyone else with your reasoning. 
Get perspective in that the feedback is not about them or you. It’s about the work you've done.

If it becomes personal then you have nothing to worry about you've just found out the easy way what a loser the person giving you feedback is.

Negative feedback of your work should never be personal. 


If you’re mind is open you’re thinking clearly and focussed on what the person who is giving you feedback is saying.

Yes, listening is a given. It's the cost of entry into The CalmMotherFucker Club.

Everyone knows that.

You need to be listening out for facts and opinions.

You must distinguish between fact, fiction and opinion.

  • If you forgot to deliver something — fact.
  • If ‘it’s not quite there yet’ — opinion.
  • If they ‘actually meant science fiction when they said innovation’—fiction, they're talking shit and making shit up on the spot.

Learn to listen out for these nuances in the feedback you’re given and you’ll be in a better position to ask questions.

And by asking the right questions, you're going to get the most value—if you're not listening, you'll be asking redundant, useless questions. If you have any questions to ask at all.

A good listener engages in the conversation—they expand the ideas the other person is communicating and is sure to be focussed solely on what the other person is saying, laptops and devices are nowhere in sight.

Don’t defend. Ask questions.

The moment you start rationalising why you did what you did is the moment the person giving you the constructive/negative feedback realises they’re right.

Don’t defend yourself—it’s an obvious sign you’re on the back foot and not interested in moving forward.

Instead, ask questions that qualify the feedback so you can understand where they’re coming from. You never know, you might be completely swayed and end up agreeing with all the negative feedback you’re being given.

Fail gracefully and learn from the experience

It has become a design thinking cliche to ‘embrace failure’ and ‘fail forward’.

What is a failure if you haven’t learned anything from it? I wrote a little about this last week in What skills do I need to stay relevant?

Failing is a type of natural selection. A way to weed out the unnecessary or the extraneous and continue forward with the good, strong and relevant stuff.

Get used to it. It will happen and it will happen often.

Get perspective on failing. Don’t fear it. It’s completely natural to not always win. In fact those who fail more tend to be the strongest and more resilient.

Keep our ego in check

In the last ten years at Tank I’ve worked hard to create a culture where our people aren’t afraid to fail in their pursuit of doing their best work. 

It hasn’t been easy and we’ve tried many things. From segmenting our people into teams, to structured and un-structured critiques. All were miserable failures, but we gave each our best shot.

The one thing that kept us from succeeding was ourselves. Our own inability to embrace failure. Moving to a flatter structure, and hiring for attitude and values has helped a lot too. (More on that in other posts.)

I’ve seen designers crumble because of pride, ego and arrogance.

I’ve seen creative people and business-minded people fear failure and fall into a heap of anxiety in the face of not ‘winning’.

Why is it that some people simply can’t face losing? Be it an unsuccessful presentation, a bad review of their work or performance?

The fear of failure is debilitating and in my opinion is a sign of an ego that is afraid to be shown up. What is the difference when someone is arrogantly confident in succeeding and someone who is afraid to fail because their weaknesses will (finally) be brought to the fore?

Not much. 

Both are protecting their ego from the pain of failure.

Once you learn to see your ego for what it is, and the emotional state that brings you to this point of self preservation; the sooner you’ll be able to rise above it all.