Managing Criticism

OW! Thank you, sir! May I have another?!

When I belonged to the Sonoma County (CA) Woodworkers Association back in the early 90’s, the group hosted an annual competition and exhibition at the county museum. One of the benefits of submitting a piece was that you could request peer feedback during a pre-show critique. Although only about 15% of us in the group were professionals, most members approached their work just as seriously as we did, so the sessions were a great opportunity for thoughtful review by knowledgeable colleagues who really cared about the craft.

I always got something out of it, whether it was a suggestion to use better quality hinges or to pay closer attention to my veneer layups. Did the criticism sting? A bit, sure, but I guess I was primed for it, having grown up with three sisters who were unabashed about pointing out my personal failings. In fact, I’ve learned that constructive criticism can actually be a spoonful of medicine, even if it makes us purse our lips in protest. The problem is that our faulty filters can all too easily mistranslate what people are saying: “Um, you cut your dovetails backwards and that blob of epoxy filler looks like bird droppings” can too easily come across as “Your work sucks. You oughta just quit.” 

But inviting criticism shouldn’t raise the specter of the fraternity pledge in Animal House requesting another paddle whack from the sadist Neidermeyer. What you want is basically the friendly concern of a fellow chimp picking your nits. So go ahead and ask for it. But make the most of it by approaching it sensibly. For example, just pointing and asking “Whaddaya think?” may simply get you “Looks good!”, which doesn’t really help you out, even if it’s honest. Instead, target specifics: “Does this wood combination work? Is this molding too prominent? Does that splinter you just got from rubbing the edge hurt?” This tack can yield some real food for thought: Hm-m-m, maybe cherry and oak aren’t such great color companions. Or, yeah, the molding is a great transitional element, but it’s just too big. And perhaps I should sand my edges a little better. 

Also, be mindful of whom you ask, especially if you’re looking not only for the bad, but the good, which is valuable intel too. My friend Walt, for example, is never short of thoughtful criticism, but everyone knows you don’t go fishing for compliments in his lake. And keep in mind that sometimes things are just a matter of taste. After all, Barry Manilow probably wouldn’t be your go-to guy for a critique of Kanye West’s latest rap album. So don’t hold up your Shaker chair for review by a rabid fan of recycled pallet furniture. That said, remember that valuable input can come from anyone.

The point is, if you want to up your woodworking game, learn to listen, but always keep a grain of salt on hand. And if you’re veneer-skinned, you probably shouldn’t ask for my sisters’ opinions. Or Walt’s. 

And definitely watch out for Neidermeyer.

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