If there’s a defining feature that sets apart smart creatives who are able to sustain themselves at a high level of performance, it’s thick skin. They’re persistent in their work and resilient to outside opinion and rejection. They’re able to put themselves out there, time and time again, and deliver. And while this might appear to be a natural talent, it’s far from it. It’s a skill that takes years to develop, and it begins with renegotiating expectations.
Many talented people struggle with this–entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, writers. While they might be brilliant in their work, when it comes to putting themselves out there, they end up demoralized or enraged by the slightest hint of criticism.
This becomes a downward spiral that throws off the entire creative process. Even if you are able to correct course, it’s an unnecessary distraction that disrupts your focus and pulls you away from more meaningful work.
Internal vs. External Expectations
To offset this and develop the thick skin required to put yourself out there, you must first differentiate between internal and external expectations, assigning each their proper weight. Internal expectations–the expectations you hold for yourself and your creative process–should always take precedence.
How your work is interpreted, received, or recognized, is beyond your immediate influence. It’s not that this is completely irrelevant, but it should matter far less because it’s an unreliable metric against which to measure yourself. The greater the importance you assign to external expectations, the more dependencies you introduce, and the higher the likelihood that you’ll end up pissed off, burned out, or distracted from the work that matters most.
Self-sufficiency is the path towards effectively managing expectations. In the opposite direction are dependencies–evidence of placing a premium on things you can’t affect.
When you prioritize the internal expectations you hold for yourself, you naturally develop the thick skin required to put yourself out there and consistently produce at a high level. Instead of seeking value in the recognition, you begin seeking value in the creative process itself. And this is the only sustainable path forward.
Turn your attention back to what’s within your control. Put in the work. Focus on your craft. Create something that resonates with you. When you limit the external dependencies and surrounding noise, the more relaxed, concentrated, and effective you will be.
Feedback vs. Criticism
This is not to say that you shouldn’t seek feedback–which is critical to further developing and growing your skills. But feedback is to criticism as internal expectations are to external expectations.
In other words, the source is fundamentally different. Feedback comes from fellow creatives with skin in the game–the doers–who are taking risks by putting themselves and their work out there. These are the people whose opinions and judgment you should respect most. Criticism comes from insecure bystanders, shouting from a distance, who are incapable of creating anything meaningful of their own.
The intention behind feedback is also different. Criticism is often shallow and malicious in nature–focused on breaking you down. True feedback, from an inner circle whom you respect, is diligent, constructive, and objective. Its purpose is to challenge you to improve yourself and your craft.
In short, it’s about growth–which is a painstaking process in its own right–not about praise, telling you what you want to hear, or making things easier. It’s up to you to draw the line and determine who has your best interest in mind.
Create Your Own Momentum
When the inevitable criticism does come, use it as motivation and redirect that energy to create momentum of your own. With the right perspective, it becomes almost laughable.
Consider how much time and energy it took that person to criticize you–it consumed them. Nothing is a more sad, ineffective use of time–so let the childish tantrums end there. Refuse to allow yourself to be distracted by those without skin in the game. Their opinion holds no validity.
For most talented, hardworking people, it’s just a matter of time. Which means you need to find the energy to keep going–to continue creating. The more dialed into yourself that you are, the less outside opinion should matter, and the more resilient you’ll be in your creative process. If you rely on external validation to keep you going, you’re going to have a short career.
A meaningful, fulfilling creative life demands hard work and tough decisions. Those who aren’t cut out for it will lean towards the path of least resistance, as defined by mindless consumption or shallow criticism. It’s easy to live that life.
If easy is what you want out of life, feel free to join the ranks of the unremarkable.
But those who make a difference show up, bust their ass, and sustain themselves at that level by having their expectations in order. They’re able to differentiate between internal and external expectations, valuing self-sufficiency over dependencies and feedback over criticism.
If you take the time to develop these skills–resilience, persistence, and mental toughness–outside opinion will lose its grip and you’ll be able to better carry your own momentum forward.