The Critical Advantage
By Samuel Patrick Smith
One of the most difficult things to do is to accept constructive criticism. As entertainers, however, we must receive and process feedback about our performances if we want to improve. An ancient proverb says, "Those who listen to constructive criticism will be at home among the wise." I would add, for today's entertainers, that those who listen to constructive criticism are more likely to achieve higher levels of success than those whose egos won't let them hear.
Oh, this is hard! Nobody likes to be criticized, and it's easy to be defensive when we are. But there are some principles to keep in mind which will help us benefit from constructive criticism.
The first thing to notice is that the ancient proverb says, "Those who listen to constructive criticism...." It doesn't say we have to believe it! The first step is just to listen and not fly off the handle. I've done it both ways, and the listening is always better.
Listening to the criticism, and considering it before reacting, gives you an opportunity to ask yourself some key questions. For example, Who is telling me this? The old phrase, "Consider the source," always applies. If customers are telling you they are offended by something in your show, that is worth thinking about. If the criticism you receive is silent (not getting repeat bookings), that is worth thinking about, too.
On the other hand, if the negative feedback you receive comes from a competitor or someone who may not have your best interests at heart, take it with a grain of salt. But do take it. Sometimes even a source which is not well-intentioned can help you make the right choices and improve your life and business.
Years ago, a friend of mine lost his company and reputation through the efforts of someone he considered a friend. But this very negative experience led him to reflect deeply and painfully on his life, get counseling, and go on to rebuild the trust of many friends and family members. During the next decade, he influenced many people in a positive way, and when he passed away five hundred people paid their respects at his funeral. The negative feedback he received, though deeply painful, actually improved his life and the lives of many others.
Of course, a lot of constructive criticism we receive won't be nearly as life-changing. It may be as simple as someone saying, "I couldn't see what you were doing with that coin trick," which results in your changing the handling, using larger coins, or eliminating the trick from shows with larger audiences.
In addition to spectators offering valuable feedback, I've found that others in show business often have insights we need to hear. An example of this was told to me by David Ginn, who as a young man at a magic convention was asked to appear on an evening show. After the show, David, still in his tuxedo, was milling around with others in the dealer's room. Jack Chanin, many years David's senior, took him aside and told him that a professional performer should not wear his show clothes off stage, that it gave the appearance of wanting to attract attention to oneself. David took that advice, instinctively knowing that it was right. Years later he passed Jack Chanin's advice along to me, and I was genuinely grateful for the feedback.
Another performer who offered constructive criticism to me was Fetaque Sanders. He once remarked, "You have a tendency to rush your lines. Slow down the delivery of your punch lines." He was absolutely right, and while I would have preferred, of course, to be considered completely perfect, I benefited more from being told the truth. Of course, the advice came from a source I trusted, someone with my best interests at heart, and a true professional who knew what he was talking about.
In addition to considering the source, however, there are three more things to remember about constructive criticism. First, be very slow to give it. Not everyone is as mature as you are! Second, when you are criticized, remember that sometimes other people are right. And third, when you are criticized, remember that sometimes other people are wrong. All you have to do is listen, say thank you, and process the information. If a change in what you do makes sense, do it and thank the person who pointed it out. If the suggestion doesn't make sense, thank them anyway and move on.
You will have done your part by listening to constructive criticism. Then, like magic, you will be at home among the wise! As an entertainer, you will also be at home among the highly successful, and that will give you the critical advantage.