The Thin Red Line Between Rejection and Improvement

There’s nothing better than seeing your work marked up with red lines. This probably sounds a bit sarcastic, but it’s true.

I did some writing last week and my friend Matt, who’s helping me with my writing, read through it and handed it back to me with red lines all over it.

Entire paragraphs were crossed out. Unnecessary words cast aside, so the ones that mattered could breathe. Will this paragraph, sentence or even this word make it into the post you’re reading now? If so, then it was meant to be here (no pressure Matt).

It was exciting to see all that red, because it represented a possibility for improvement. I still had to do the work to make it better, but now I had direction for a way forward. It meant that someone else invested their time to make my work better.

Red lines come in all forms. It could come in the form of a simple comment from a friend, a formal review at the end of the year or a disagreement with your spouse. I’ve had my design work lifted up by co-workers only to be slammed by the client later that same day. It can even come in the form of the self-realization that you can do better. In each situation, you’re being given the sometimes bitter tasting opportunity for improvement.

Criticism carries the weight of negative connotation, but like most things, it’s what we choose to do with it that gives it that negative or positive association.

By default, we tend to abdicate this choice and allow criticism to become frustration and view it as a rejection of our ideas and our work. It can be hard to separate our work from who we are, so we take it personally. “If you don’t like my work, you must not like me” becomes the story we tell ourselves.

When presenting something I’d created, my natural tendency was to defend it at all costs. I would hold to the original idea and protect it from the uninitiated (since I was the one who spent so much time on it). But in doing that, it stunted the growth of my work and cut off the possibilities found in other perspectives.

Even if you decide not to take their advice, your work is still better for having viewed it through their lens. If you can learn to welcome challenge, instead of defend against it, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable in the creative process.

The hard work is in choosing to push through pride and ego and making the conscious decision to transform those red lines into the fuel we need to do our best work. And not out of spite for the criticism, but out of gratitude for having received it.

There’s a thin red line between frustration and fuel, between rejection and improvement. Which side of the line will you be on?