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Fear of criticism

I’m still not sure whether publishing these thoughts is actually a good idea, but articulating them in the form of a blog post has become strangely therapeutic for me and (sort of) makes up for the lack of colleagues who help carry the emotional burden of running a business.

The launch of issue 7 on Tuesday last week was followed by a bit of an emotional meltdown the next day when my own box of magazines finally arrived in Melbourne. I always open that box with a fair amount of apprehension, aware that I will probably find something that is not ‘right’, that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. Proofing print products is difficult, especially when done under time pressure and from half way around the world.

Within seconds of opening the box I spotted (to me) a very obvious problem with the cover that sent a shock wave through my body. I won’t tell you what it is – I want you to enjoy the magazine without any preconceived ideas. You can either see it or you will never notice (great!). So far none of you have voiced any complaints. I’m not sure whether that’s the case because you guys view the magazine with unbiased eyes or you’re simply too kind to let me know.

Unless you are in publishing or produce physical products, you’ll probably find it difficult to empathise with how I felt at that moment. After spending hundreds of hours working on something so personal and close to my heart, discovering a very blatant problem in the final product can instantly shatter your self-confidence.

I went through the whole spectrum of emotions: anger, despair, disappointment. I could have easily burnt the whole box of magazines right then and there without even opening a single copy. The biggest source of anxiety and distress came from a fear of disappointing you, my readers. I imagined being judged, being criticised for selling a second-rate product, for not living up to the high expectations of the eagle-eyed designers that make up most of my readership.

The day before I was on cloud nine. The launch went really well and I was feeling great about myself from getting so much recognition for months of hard work. And it all went to sh*t when I opened that box.

Worse even, any accomplishments I’ve had in the past no longer mattered. For the rest of that day, I felt like an impostor, a feeling that, ironically, Christopher Murphy describes so honestly and bravely in the very magazine that caused all this pain. By Wednesday evening I was actually contemplating about alternative career options. I really haven’t felt this down in a long time. And all this pain came from a simple cover!

In retrospect, the ‘faulty cover’ was probably just a trigger. Weeks of deadline anxiety and a lot of anticipation from everyone, including myself, built up to that single moment of receiving the actual magazine back from the printer.

It took me a couple of days to pick myself up again, largely thanks to my girlfriend’s incredible sensitivity and unshakable positivity. I’m personally still struggling to appreciate the magazine for all the things that I got right. All I see are the few mistakes I made.

There are a few lessons I learned:

  • I need to triple-check and proof critical sections even if it delays the release date.

  • As my girlfriend pointed out: “it always takes you a while to come around.” Like many other creative people, I go through phases of liking, then disliking, then despising, then eventually feeling OK about my work again. It’s a love-hate relationship that keeps me on my toes and, hopefully, helps me hone and sharpen my skills with everything I put out.

  • I’m very lucky to have such an incredibly positive and encouraging audience. As more people follow and listen in, anticipation and expectations increase accordingly, putting a lot of pressure on me to deliver a great product. I love the fact that a large part of my readers are some of the most creative folks I know, but designing for designers can also be enormously intimidating.

  • Had I received the wrong kind of feedback on that forsaken Wednesday, I think it would have taken me on a serious downward spiral. It reminded me to be mindful and empathetic when judging other people’s work. Mistakes happen to the best of us. Often the author/artist has already lost enough sleep over it, so be kind in the way you deliver your (honest) feedback.

  • You may easily dismiss this little story with a notion of ‘first world problems’. Of course, there are certainly more serious issues, even though it’s hard see that when you are down. It always helps to remind ourselves that it all won’t matter in a few years. As time passes, nobody will judge you for a faulty print, a misplaced pixel or a buggy script.

The most important take-away for me personally is the realisation that my work is too closely tied to my level of happiness – with myself and life in general. It’s the typical dilemma of business owners and entrepreneurs: you made this thing and at some point this thing makes you. It defines you. Self-respect and self-worth go up and down with it.

I don’t yet know how to break out of that cycle, but I’ll have to try harder in order to make it sustainable – not financially but emotionally.

Phew, that was deep. :)

Dispatch
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