The Only Way to Become Indifferent to Criticism: Become Indifferent to Praise as Well

London, 2014
London, 2014

I love attention. I hate criticism and negativity. I want everybody to love me, to love my photography, and my writing.

Contrary to popular belief, I actually have very thin skin when it comes to criticism. I pour my heart and soul into my work— whether that is my blogging, my photography, or teaching.

But I still get criticized a lot despite my good intentions. Every since I was a kid, I always wanted to please other people. More often than not, pleasing other people was more important than pleasing myself.

But I think it is impossible to go through life without pissing someone off. Even if you have the best intentions in the world, you will always inadvertently hurt somebody, offend somebody, or upset somebody.

Why do we care about praise?

I think in the end of the day, we all want to be loved. We want to be loved, appreciated, and acknowledged.

It is a deeply social need. We need social support, community camaraderie, and friends & family to keep us mentally healthy and sane.

When it comes to our photography, we treat our photographs like our children. We want everyone to love our children (even though our kids may look ugly). But regardless of how ugly your kids are, you will always think they are beautiful.

So when people might not like your kids, think that they are ugly, or untalented— you take it personally.

The same goes with your photos. You put your energy, hard work, and sweat into your photos. If anyone criticizes your photos, it feels like they’re criticizing you as a human being. Like somehow by making boring or “bad” photos, you are a boring or bad human being.

My need for affirmation

I thirst for recognition, and I love getting affirmation as much as anybody else out there. Getting lots of likes, favorites, comments, views, and other forms of social media love is like crack cocaine. It feels immensely good, and puts us in a state of euphoria. But after a while, we become addicted, and we always need our “hit”. If we don’t get that “hit”, we become agitated, frustrated, and sometimes depressed.

I think the true path to freedom is to not give a shit about what others think of you. That means putting more weight into what you think of yourself, instead of what others think of you.

Some of the best photographers I know (Josef Koudelka is one of them), didn’t give a flying fuck about what others thought about their work. This is what Koudelka said about creating work that makes you happy (and disregarding what others say):

I don’t care what people think, I know well enough who I am. I refuse to become a slave to their ideas. When you stay in the same place for a certain time, people put you in a box and expect you to stay there.”

Koudelka continues in another quote:

I always photographed with the idea that no one would be interested in my photos, that no one would pay me, that if I did something I only did it for myself.”

The reason Josef Koudelka pursued his photography is because he was intrinsically motivated (driven by his own inner-will), rather than extrinsically motivated (driven by the admiration of others).

Of course no photographer is an island onto himself. We all need honest feedback and critique to improve our work and vision. Even Josef Koudelka carries around prints and shows them to his colleagues, friends, and fellow Magnum photographers to hear feedback.

But I think there is a difference between trying to get honest feedback & critique from other photographers and trying to please other people. You can still stay true to your own artistic vision and not care about what others think (while getting honest feedback and critique).

For me, there are certain photographs I love that I know that everybody else hates. I don’t share these images online, I keep them for myself. I know the “objective” reality that nobody loves these images. But I still stay true to myself— I shoot lots of photographs that nobody else will appreciate but myself.

Disregarding praise

One of the lessons I’ve learned from Nassim Taleb, the Stoics, and Zen Buddhists is that to truly become immune to negativity and hate, you have to also become immune to praise.

That means that when people praise you for you and your work, you can’t take their words too seriously. This means that when you are also being negatively criticized, you won’t take their words too seriously either.

One lesson that I learned from Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh from his book: “How to Love”, when people negatively criticize you can say, “You are only partially right.” And also when people praise you, you can also say, “You are only partially right.

Overcoming the need for praise

So I guess what I’m getting at is this: don’t become too addicted or dependent on getting lots of “likes”, “favorites”, views, or comments on your photographs. Free yourself from the tyranny of social media affirmation and feedback.

The amount of likes/favorites you get on social media isn’t a measure of how good you are as a photographer, it is only a measure of how many followers you have on social media.

For example, on most of my photographs I typically average hundreds of likes/favorites (even if the photos aren’t very good). I also know I’m not the best photographer in the world, and having a lot of followers doesn’t mean I am a good photographer. It simply means that I am popular on social media— nothing else.

Trust me, I find it hard to resist the allure of social media. Part of the reason I stay active on social media is that I find it the best way to spread my ideas. Honestly at the end of the day, I put more value on my blog and ideas than my photography. My photography actually comes second for me.

Resisting being addicted to praise on social media

I also know that I am not immune to wanting praise, and the happiness I get from page views, comments, likes/favorites/etc.

So what I do to better resist the allure of being suckered by external metrics?

Here are some strategies I’ve employed:

1. Hide analytics:

On my wordpress blog, I used to obsess over the amount of pageviews, traffic, and comments I used to get. The days when my traffic went up, I would feel phenomenal and ecstatic (I guess like how stock traders feel). But on the days it would go down, I would feel like I was a failure. But following pageviews is a horrible measure to track your self-worth, as obviously whenever I blogged or reviewed a camera my pageviews would go through the roof. If I just followed doing things purely for pageviews, my blog would turn into another gear porn review site. I love doing book reviews and I believe in the idea of “buy books, not gear” — even though these book reviews get very few pageviews. I do it because I know that is what is important to me.

Because I know I cannot resist looking at pageviews, I have purposefully hid them from my front page of my blog. Therefore this helps me have a state of calm.

2. Hide apps

I also have a problem on my smartphone: I am addicted to certain apps like Gmail, Twitter, Instagram. To avoid constantly checking my social media apps every other minute (like I used to do), I intentionally “hid” my apps from my application drawer (something possible on Android). I found when these apps were “out of sight” they were also “out of mind”.

So if you find it hard to resist checking your social media all the time and being dependent to how many likes you get on Instagram, take it off your home screen. Perhaps bury it somewhere in your apps drawer, so you check it less frequently. Or even more drastic: if you’re addicted to it, just uninstall it from your phone.

3. Not take praise too seriously

I love getting praise, but I have tried to train myself to not take praise too seriously. If I took people’s praise too seriously, it would cause me to fall into complacency.

I think as a photographer, it is worse to have everyone say, “Oh my God, I love your photos, you are awesome” rather than having people criticize your photos. If you are just getting your ass kissed on social media, you will become big-headed, and never strive to become a better photographer.

If you are getting criticized on social media, it shows you’re doing something right— you are trying something different and slightly offensive, which is causing others to have an emotional reaction to it. I think you can better measure “success” as a photographer by how many critics you have (rather than fans).

So when people compliment me, I try to thank them for their kind words, but then try to quickly forget their praise, so I can continue to work even harder.

4. Avoid looking at feedback until a week later

I also have another rule when it comes to images on social media: I try not to look at how many favorites/likes/comments I get on the images until at least a week after I upload an image.

I am still curious about the feedback I get from my images, but waiting a week before checking helps me build discipline and emotional disconnection from that praise I will get online.

5. Realize that nobody gives a shit about your photos

I know this sounds harsh, but honestly at the end of the day, nobody gives a shit about your photos.

I don’t say this to be mean, I say it to liberate you.

For me, I know that at the end of the day, nobody gives a shit about my photographs. They might find some of my photos interesting, but sooner or later they will move on, forget about my photos, and live their lives.

I am greatly impressed and admire other master photographers, but honestly at the end of the day— I am so ego-centric that I care about my own work more than their work. So in a sense, I don’t really give a shit about their photographs, I am more interested in learning from the masters so I can learn how to improve my photography.

There are also some psychological studies which prove this: they call it the “spotlight bias”. The concept is that you think that people are always looking at you, judging you, and analyzing you. But honestly, nobody notices you as much as you think they notice you.

Let’s say you’re about to go to a party and you have a small stain in your shirt. You honesty think everybody will notice at the party and feel conscious. But at the end of the party, nobody notices.

You buy a new watch, pair of shoes, or a purse. You think everyone will notice your new little accessory and praise you for it. But very few people ever notice (or give a shit).

You think that you buy a new camera and suddenly everyone will be super excited for you. But franky speaking, nobody gives a shit (if they do give a shit, they might be more jealous and spiteful towards you, rather than being happy for you).

And at the end of the day, after you die, nobody is really going to give a shit about your photos either.

Make sure you give a shit

So what is the solution to all of this negative-self talk I am mentioning?

Even though nobody might give a shit about your photos, make sure you give a shit about your own photos.

Our lives on this planet are short. So why not make it count?

Give less shits about what others think about your work, and give lots of shit of how you think about your own work.

Create work that makes you happy, fulfilled, and excited. Always strive to grow, evolve, and mature visually and creatively. Don’t fall to complacency, which can often happen from praise from other “yes” men, and what also happens in art circles where it is (mostly) about mutual circle-jerking.

Create photos and art that you give a shit about. Nothing else matters.

Learn how to give less shits

If you want to become immune in terms of what others think of you, I recommend reading these other articles:

  1. Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography
  2. Nobody Gives a Shit About Your Photos
  3. How Many “Favorites” Or “Likes” Are Enough?
  4. My Top 10 Sources of Discontentment in Street Photography
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