dngrheadless001                                                           Critical Mass

January 2013
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of M-U-M.

Nothing can be as empowering, or as crippling, as criticism. Without an objective viewpoint of how things are working, we can’t get to where we want to go, or indeed, even know if we are on the right path. A helpful critique is not just about what is “good” or “bad,” but an exploration of different options, merits, and faults.

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” – Norman Vincent Peale

Self Criticism

My pal Joel Hodgson once said to me that the difference between the work of an artist and the work of a hack was the number of aesthetic decisions made along the way. To the hack, everything is “good enough,” or “gets by.” But merely turning a crank on a box does not make a person a musician.

The artist has many decisions to make because he has an ultimate ideal in mind. He has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve. The path may be fuzzy at first, but it comes sharply into focus with hundreds or thousands of hours of creative choices and a thoughtful reason for keeping or discarding any particular piece. It either fits in the bigger puzzle, or it does not belong. The artist is willing to chip away at the marble, piece by piece, until (like Michelangelo) his David is revealed. These chips seem insignificant when viewed individually, but together they determine the whole. But first, the artist must able to visualize in his mind, what David looks like.

It is imperative that the artist be aware of the quality of his self-criticism. It is useful to be critical of details; it is not useful to be critical of your personal potential. It is counterproductive to shake one’s self confidence with toxic self-talk. Your inner voice can either move you forward or it can cut you off at the knees.

Magic master Dai Vernon could be very sharp and critical of those he felt were not making the slightest sincere effort. “Get out of magic!” was a familiar remark. He had no patience for those who tried to cut in line. But I never saw him drag down anyone who had obviously made a genuine effort. As the scientists say, you have to “show your work.” There is no one right or wrong answer. There is only thinking, or not thinking at all.

It is a fantasy that artists are born with their talents in full bloom – they are the “lucky” ones, they simply will it, and art appears before them. You see the finished product; you don’t see is all the preliminary sketches, the failures and half triumphs, the discouragements, and the renewed passions. This preparation eventually allows them to “get to it” faster, which might make it look easy, because you don’t see all the study and experimentation that came before.

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell gives us a very plausible formula when he claims the key to mastering something is practicing and analyzing a task for ten thousand hours. The key is to keep focused, not just on repetition, but on achieving comprehension; to truly understand something, as opposed to just memorization or pointless skill. Skill is useless without vision.

I love the guitar, and have practiced most every day for fifteen years. But whereas I am a decent player, I still have not invested half the time that I have spent studying magic. When I compare the hours, it is clear why my playing is not as accomplished as my magic. But then again, I still practice every day, and in the coming years, perhaps I will clock in with the necessary hours to attain some mastery – that is, if I evaluate each day’s lessons and learn from my mistakes as well as my triumphs.

All creative endeavors are a matter of problem solving, problems that you yourself create! These problems are what you see standing between you and the ideal you have in your mind, the criteria that will define your effect. Recognize them, and address them.

This is where your internal “judge” comes into play. But make sure this judge is not only the most objective and wise, but also the kindest and most nurturing. Don’t put yourself down and say, “I keep dropping the cards; I’m terrible at sleight of hand.” Instead, ask, “Why are the cards dropping from my hands? Why am I flashing this move? Why is it making noise? How would this be perceived by an audience member?” Focus on what you can change or find alternate procedures.

Confidence and Ignorance

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope

I have often wondered where some beginners or hacks get such great confidence when they have so little ability, wit, or understanding. How does someone fly across the country to audition for American Idol, so confident that people will see their star quality, when their only preparation is singing with a hair brush in front of the bathroom mirror? These people never consider for a moment that they might not have talent. Somehow they have mustered the nerve to get up on a stage in front of millions of people, where it is immediately apparent they have not developed a talent, or for that matter, self awareness. Ignorance is bliss.

Michael Close brought my attention to an official term that has come to be associated with this phenomenon: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Stupid and unskilled people often have a bias that renders them unable to properly evaluate their performance. Whereas you would think they would be insecure about their lack of knowledge, in fact, in many cases this person has illusions of superiority. They have a “metacognitive inability” to recognize their mistakes. They don’t know that they don’t know! Without this acknowledgement, mistakes are not corrected and no growth is possible. Many competent people, on the other hand, suffer from poor self confidence because they assume that others have an equivalent understanding of the subject. As Dunning and Kruger conclude, “the mis-calibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the mis-calibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” Self doubt must be healthy and balanced if it is to drive achievement as we attempt to understand something, or master a task.

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” – Bertrand Russell

Brashness and baseless confidence can temporarily steamroll your way into money and gigs, but without honest self critique, nothing of value is produced. You might “cheat the system for a while,” but ultimately no one wins – neither you nor your audience.

Being creative and productive requires confidence, and the belief that we have something new to say, a new way to say it, and that we are capable of achieving it. But baseless confidence can be a liability without honest, objective evaluation. Strive for balance.

Validation of Contests and Awards

Who would deny the pleasure and thrill of being appreciated by your peers, winning a contest, or receiving an award? Every human being wants to be appreciated. Winning can offer us encouragement to keep going, or indicate that we are headed in the right direction.

It is not, however, an indication that we have arrived.

“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.” – John Wooden

No true art can be measured for value. It is totally subjective to the tastes and sophistication of the observer. You can measure how many dollars an act makes, but this is a measure of commercial value, not artistry. You can put the latest bubblegum music against Bach and Debussy, and the classical would claim the booby prize most every time. Art is not a popularity contest. It is about stretching boundaries and creating something new and beautiful, for its own sake.

A contest has the most value as an incentive, and as a deadline. We are able to super focus our efforts, as the stakes, the rules, and the conditions are very clear. If we win, it can be a future motivator, a reminder of what we are capable of doing when we use this focus. It is a parting of the clouds, not proof that we have reached the mountain top. If winning any award or contest is your ultimate goal, you are limiting your ambitions.

No Kind Words Go Unpunished

“Do these pants make me look fat?” – Your Spouse

No one likes to be criticized, even when they ask for it. Honesty is not always appreciated, or indeed, desired. I admit I am no different. Criticism stinks, even in situations where the person doing the critiquing is well qualified, might have a valid point, and could really improve my act. It’s hard not to take it personally.

But the mark of an intelligent, growing person is that they are able to at least thoughtfully consider another point of view, and explore other options. We can’t expect better results if we don’t change our procedure.

Usually when a person asks for a critique, he or she is really asking for praise and encouragement (or at the very least, simple, easy-to-implement changes). “I think a red handkerchief would show up better!” But what we need to hear may be more painful. “You are flashing.” “That looks suspicious.” “There is no motivation for that action.” These are harder comments to accept, because they will take a substantial amount of thought, time, and effort to correct.

Despite someone saying, they “really want an honest opinion,” you can be sure that there will be plenty of drama and resistance offered to even the most expert advice. If you are paying for the advice, you get what you paid for, but if you don’t pay, you most likely won’t value the time that went into the advice, which includes years of building up that unique store of knowledge. And if you doubt the punishment that awaits the reluctant critic, Google for screenwriter Josh Orson’s article in The Village Voice, September 2009. The title of the article is “I Will Not Read Your #%@** Script!” It pretty much sums up this “lose-lose” situation.

Poison or Tonic?

It is infinitely easier to see the faults in others than ourselves. We can see the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, but not the two-by-four that is sticking out of our own. Other’s flaws seem so obvious, but we tend to build defenses against seeing our own. This creates a “perception bias.” We don’t want to see that move flashing in the mirror, so we blink. If we can just keep our eyes closed, we can cling to our fantasy of competence.

Before you go off critiquing everyone in sight, first ask, what qualifies you? What is your motivation? How well do you know the person, and would they value your opinion? Why should they listen to you? Maybe the person has considered many more options than you, and settled on this one for a good reason, reasons you could not understand.

“Criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.” – Emmet Fox

I occasionally hold workshops where participants demonstrate routines for me and the rest of the class, and I offer coaching. I realize this can be nerve wracking, but it is far more valuable than a lecture or even private lessons. You not only learn specifically what you, yourself need to work on, but by watching the performance and coaching of others, you learn much more that applies to all of us. There are many common mistakes we all make, points that may not have otherwise come up in our own critique session.

I am very careful of the language that I use in addressing an individual’s issues. My sole purpose is to be of help to the student, not to parade my authority and make them feel small. Phrasing and tact is important. It must build, not destroy.

It is a cruel truth that many teachers, in and out of magic, are tactless and unspecific, and this makes them bad teachers. Knowledge is one skill, teaching is another. Teaching is not just about “facts.” It is building a spirit of curiosity and confidence, and serves as a road map for learning on our own.

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” – Frank A. Clark

Critiques must be phrased in terms of what the student can do and can change; it must not simply be the pointing out of flaws. If the student is given something to live up to, they will strive to reach it. If they are torn down, they may likely toss in the towel altogether. I want to motivate students to look deeper, to invest more of themselves, and to reach their potential.

So be careful of how you critique yourself and others. No one has yet to build a statue in praise of a critic. This may be for the best, because the birds might just give them a taste of their own medicine. 

Copyright 2012 by John Carney and CarneyMagic. 

Not to be reproduced without express consent of the author.