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Big Ideas

On Criticism, Cynicism & Sharpening Your Gut Instinct

Criticism is valuable. Cynicism is toxic. Can you trust your gut to tell the difference?

Time and time again, creative people are given two pieces of advice: (1) Listen to your critics and seek feedback, but also (2) Ignore your critics and follow your intuition. Clearly, there’s a powerful contradiction here in need of reconciliation.

Whether you’re starting a new business, debuting a performance, or working with a client, you’ll find yourself in the hot seat faced with feedback – and you’ll have a decision to make. Do you embrace the criticism and change what you’re doing? Or do you gain confidence from being doubted and take solace that all innovation is, at first, misunderstood?Knowing which feedback to embrace and which to discard is perhaps the most important instinct for a creative leader to possess. Nearly every legendary innovation was initially mocked or misunderstood by the so-called “experts.” In truth, scrutiny and doubt are just part of the toll we pay to take the path less traveled. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier.

The question is: When should you embrace your critics and their dogma, and when should you ignore them and carry on?

Savor Criticism, Shun Cynicism

There are two kinds of doubt you’ll encounter in any new venture – criticism and cynicism.

Criticism is doubt informed by curiosity and a deep knowledge of a discipline related to your work. Whether the criticism you receive is constructive or not, it comes from knowledge. Informed insights like “I’m not sure someone would ever pay that much” or “you may not want to outsource that given the high-touch required” may cause you to question your approach.

By contrast, cynicism is a form of doubt resulting from ignorance and antiquated ways. Industry experts will often express doubt based on an ingrained muscle memory of past experiences that handicaps their vision for the future. Cynical statements like, “People will never read a book on a computer” or “Why would anyone want to put their rolodex online?” are famous doubts expressed by experts with handicapped vision.

Knowing which feedback to embrace and which to discard is perhaps the most important instinct for a creative leader to possess.

Doubts and questions can be valuable, but not when they are akin to xenophobia. When investors – and the general public – shun something simply because it is foreign and new… well, this means you are likely one (or more) steps beyond the status quo, which is a good thing! Transformational projects and businesses are like puzzles, and it’s very difficult for the masses to see the whole picture when half the pieces are still missing. In such cases, being mocked or misunderstood suggests you’re onto something.As entrepreneurs, we must savor criticism and shun cynicism by developing an instinct for the difference between thoughtful insights and short-sightedness. This instinct is the competitive advantage for innovators of all kinds, and it comes straight from the gut.

Sharpening Your Gut

Is gut instinct the culmination of years of experience? Is it strengthened by confidence? How do you sharpen your gut instinct? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Calculate the credibility of everything you hear. If you’re talking to a very experienced leader in another field, assess whether she is qualified to have an opinion about your project. Perhaps her perspective should only carry the weight of a potential customer? (If so, keep in mind that customers can’t possibly know what they want at the bleeding edge of what’s next.) But, if she has deep experience in a similar vertical, her insights should be given more credence. Before absorbing feedback, determine how credible and applicable it is first.
  • Separate fear and emotion from logic. Can you consider feedback without the taint of ego or the human fears that we all carry around – namely, failure and embarrassment? I’m not suggesting that you ignore your fears and emotions. On the contrary, you should work to identify the root of them. If you find feedback frustrating, ask yourself why. Often, it means that you are holding onto past assumptions for the wrong reasons or “sunk costs” (past energy and resources you invested that you’ll never get back). I’ve met many entrepreneurs who recognize a fundamental flaw but miss the chance to fix it because they can’t bear to face it.
  • Recognize patterns, but don’t resort to them. No doubt, a big part of gut instinct also comes from pattern recognition. Seeing the same thing happen, time and time again, gives you an instinct for what might happen next. At the same time, years of experience can also plague you with the same muscle memory that breeds cynicism in the first place. The trick is to keep reiterating your thesis for the future as you process information and compare with past experiences. You should review every decision through two distinct lenses: your past lessons learned (often the hard way), and your conviction for what’s next. Sometimes you’ll recognize a pattern and realize that it is meant to be broken.
  • Learn to stomach momentary scrutiny. Your gut instinct won’t add any value if you can’t handle scrutiny. A barrage of feedback is, at best, a bounty of useful insight and, at worst, noise. Whatever you do, don’t avoid the critics. Feedback is a win-win scenario, so long as you develop your gut instinct and let it do its’ thing.

What’s Your Take?

What else makes up gut instinct? Weigh in!

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (40)
  • Pencilneck

    Back when I was on the road as a 20 year old musician, a grizzled old guitar player squinted at me through a roil of Winston smoke and said, “It doesn’t matter what the wannabees in the crowd says, it only matters to two folks: the bar owners and the beer drinkers, and if you make the beer drinkers happy, then the bar owners are happy. Nobody else matters, no matter how much they seem to think it does.”
    Now, as a full-time artist, I’ve discovered that my peers opinions don’t count, nor my mother-in-law’s, or random passers-by, so I don’t ask. 

    The people who count are the client’s. 

    Especially if you show work that’s only 1/2 done, they can’t see your vision, so their comments aren’t valid.  It’s like asking them to taste a half-baked cake!  
    People LOVE to give opinions and tell you what to do, and if you’ve decided to step out into the world and earn your bread and cheese via your aptitudes, then you need to be discerning and ignore most advice – especially unsolicited advice.
    The best idea is to develop the ability to judge advice/critisism/cynisism based on it’s intrinsic merits…if possible; emotions usually get in the way…

  • Liz

    Gut instinct is such a key one. Every time I’ve had a business difficulty, I have realised that my gut instinct was to keep away from that client, or do something differently. Now I listen to that a lot earlier in the process!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent points Scott~

    I’ve found these two points also help me in discerning how to take feedback:

    1. I need to clarify if we both have the same goals and values. If my critic and I are aiming at different targets, it’s natural that we would have differences in opinion on the trajectory of the arrow.

    2. Testing and measuring meaningful results is the clearest and most accurate way to tell whether to accept or reject the input.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Srinivas Rao


    I think the part you brought up about people’s opinions is spot on. My had who is a college professor in agriculture has tried to give me his advice about my career in marketing and I realized in many ways this is like taking advice on how to get rich from a person who has no money. 

    Another thing that I’ve noticed is that people tend to follow the ideas of thought/leaders gurus as if it’s gospel. I think that real innovation occurs when we start solving problems that people dont know they have.  That’s how the echo chamber stops and new ideas surface. 

    I also wanted to say 99 percent is one of my favorite blogs to read. 

  • Angela Mazzi

    Scott, I loved this article-criticism can be so confusing, even conflicting and we often wonder if we ignore advice at our own peril and can second guess ourselves to paralysis.  You offered great tools to help evaluate what’s constructive and what’s just motivated by ignorance, misunderstanding or even manipulative behavior.  I had the opportunity last summer to inter view Dr. Robin Stern, a psychotherapist in NYC who specializes in the long term effects of ‘Gaslighting” or negative cynical comments.  You can read about this, and its effect on creative professions on my blog- let me know what you think! http://thepatronsaintofarchite

  • Matthew

    Thanks for sharing this insight Scott. In a world riddled with critics, cynics, and people who just don’t give a damn, it can be hard to maintain the proper distance from the status quo that I like to keep. As you’ve pointed out, deciphering the difference between the cynic and the critic become key in fueling the creative fire. Thanks for helping to keep my light burning!

  • Scott Belsky

    Thanks Matthew

  • Scott Belsky

    Thanks Elizabeth. Great point about alignment – making sure people have “the same goals and values” before you incorporate their feedback.

  • Bill Reynolds

    I’ve found it helpful in the face of criticism to consider the critic’s potential motivation:  Sometimes they may be spot on, but horrible in their delivery;  other times they may just be victims of their negative experiences/outlook; on rare occasions they may have an agenda.  That helps me to eat the meat and spit out the bones.

  • Michael Reilly

    ‘Calculate the credibility’ would be my key measure, and I do agree with Bill Reynolds who noted that sometimes the delivery is poor, but not the content.

    Also agree with Pencilneck about people offering advice on something half finished – I get this a lot and it is very unwelcome. Without knowing the full rationale and understanding the logic behind your decisions, it is almost impossible to offer considered comment UNTIL all the key elements are in place and ready for critique.

  • Peep

    Yep this is a toughie. I guess since the first caveman chiseled his logo on the cave wall there’s been someone to criticise – whether useful or not.

    I’ve had it pretty much everywhere I’ve worked, bar a couple of agencies as they seemed to understand the creative process. Everyone is an expert. Design and art are so subjective though that you have to be careful.

    Example: I was building a retail website when my boss, who was a buyer and worked her way up to head of ecommerce told me that she didn’t like the design. I probed for more ‘what don’t you like?’, ‘do you have any examples of designs you do like?’ I got a scowl and told, ‘I just don’t like it, ok!’ Luckily I was on a perm role so could churn out idea after idea until one stuck (which is what happened) it didn’t do my mind any good but gave me lots of time to test ideas.

    It’s a bit about education and respect.
    Respecting people in their field. I don’t take the scalpel from the surgeon saying ‘No Doc, I’d do it this way’

    Educating bosses and managers above you that design isn’t just about sitting with crayons churning out pretty pictures or photoshopping their ideas.

    I like people’s opinions, you’ll never stop them having them but as you say at best it’s useful, at worst it’s noise.

  • professional resume

    So nice!

  • Rob Johnson

    I love the advice of learning how to distinguish between criticism and cynicism!

    I have found that it is easy to be in denial when feedback goes against the grain of the project. When stakeholders start to fear we are heading in the wrong direction it can get very messy, very quickly. Some of the main reasons this happens is because  at this point, a fight-or-flight response can kick in and we resort to rash decisions, going against and forgetting many reasons why we chose otherwise.
    I think it’s because we don’t want to look like we are not in control. Feedback can often make us look stupid, especially if you are in an environment where it is assumed you know best.

    One fix for this is to cultivate a culture where correction is assumed to be part of the process and all decisions are filtered through the ladder of inference. All decisions, even easy ones, should be “QA’d” if they are in response to a change in action due to feedback. Otherwise you may just be chasing your tail 🙂

  • John

    Very good blog. Gut instinct should be more directed towards the personality. Is the client cynical?

  • Mark Armstrong

    I’d never come across the term “sunk costs” before– the idea that we can’t bear to let go of time and energy we’ve invested that hasn’t paid off and never will.

    What a powerful insight, best part of the post IMO– many thanks!

  • Hazel

    A truly worthwhile article. Now, in my septuagenerian years, I thoroughly embrace my gut instinct in any situation, because not doing so has led me into the realm of disasterous happenings. Dilly-dallying only makes it more probable that you will go against your gut feeling, and learn to regret it – adding remorse, guilt, anxiety – even panic – all of which are extremely hard to deal with on their own.

    Gut instincts are magical!

  • Syd

    Could their words be used as a suggestion (whether they are being mean about it or not), or is it a bigoted statement – ‘no one will ever read books on the computer’ or ‘make the paper in your handmade journal more compact, therefore easier to travel with.’ It may even be worded ‘The paper in your journal is way too big. I don’t like it.’ It’s all a matter of perspective – can you easily switch it around to be a suggestion? Then ignore their tone of voice and simply pull the suggestion from their words. ‘No one will ever read books on the computer’ cannot be turned around easily, so ignore it.
    This also requires self-confidence…I am preaching to myself here!

    – s

  • Matthew Wagner

    The hardest thing I’ve come to face is a client who gives you feedback, then when you begin to explain your theory, their only response is “do as I say”. This feedback is useless, hinders our ability to progress(not only as professionals, but as an industry), and restricts that clients advancement through accepting modern trends. Feedback isn’t limited to creatives and designers, but expands to any and all professions. This is a good read for anyone in any industry.

    Words to live by! Nice one.

  • Tom

    I’d add “keep score” to the list.  Some people have a good track record of being right.  Others do not.  It’s important to keep a mental list of the people who’s opinions you respect and take them seriously — even if you don’t agree with them every time. 

    While I agree, in principle, that surrounding yourself with negative, cynical, people probably isn’t a good idea; ignoring good advice because you don’t like the tone of the messenger can also be foolish.  You want to embrace good advice, regardless of its packaging.  Surrounding yourself with cheerleaders (i.e., the people who see everything as “great”) can lull you into in false sense of security.  Looking for people you respect is just as important as finding people who are “credible.” 

  • Design Rehab

    One of the most important things to keep in mind when deciphering
    between unwanted cynicism and useful criticism is being able to “judo”
    the feedback – Acknowledge the cynics comment, build on the idea and
    essentially further the feedback with excitement. I’ve always found to
    interpret with an open mind retort with a methodical approach.

    The main problem with us designers is the batch of self-made koolaid
    that we consume daily. A fresh pair of eyes should always be welcomed.
    As a designer, I always have a “go-to feedback crew” who will always
    offer unbiased opinions ultimately setting up a better conversation with
    the cynics.

  • Scott Belsky

    Great point here, and that self-made koolaid can be a tasty-yet-dangerous concoction. Agreed.

  • Scott Belsky

    “Keep score.” Such a great point. Thanks for adding this Tom.

  • David

    Hi Scott
    Thanks for this post. I work with Simon S. and as you know he talks a lot about gut decisions and gut instinct. Our “gut” is directly linked to our limbic brains, which control decision-making and behavior, but not language. 

    A gut instinct is one that is often difficult to put into words, but we feel like it’s the right thing to do. When working on a new project or a new idea, we have to be clear about its purpose or Why we’re doing it in the first place. Once we have that clearly in our minds, we can more easily filter the criticism we receive to see what will help us get closer to our purpose or vision and what won’t. 

    Thanks again for everything you guys do and why you do it.

  • Mohammad Ruhul Kader

    feedback is critical no doubt but when it traumatize you its really critical to handle and what you should do it just “not giving it a shit”. Thanks Scott for such a great write up.

  • Negotiation Fox

    @Mark Armstrong – good point.  Whether you’re a fan of Donald Trump or not, he is a good example of a successful person who is not afraid to walk away from a deal that no longer makes sense, regardless of how much money he may already have invested in it.  Stanford Business School Professor, Maggie Neale, does a negotiation exercise in which she auctions a $20 bill.  The rules she sets are that you lose whatever you’ve bid, even if you’re not the winning bidder. You’d be surprised at how much she ends up getting for that $20 bill, because people are simply unwilling to lose, i.e., they get too caught up in the investment they’ve already made.  But does it make sense to pay $22.00 to win a $20 bill?  An artist’s time is worth money, and if feedback from qualified adjudicators consistently indicates that you’re going down a path that will not produce a return, I think you need to have objectively computed a point at which you will cease to invest…unless of course, you can afford to keep going just to prove a point.  That’s a luxury most artists don’t have. 

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