how to accept critique

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Def: to separate things or people that are of high quality or ability from those that are not:
The first round of interviews really separates the wheat from the chaff.”
Cambridge Dictionary

I grew up hearing this phrase. It was one of my Mom’s many Mom-isms, parental phrases repeated over and over again that, every time I heard them, made me quietly roll eyes and say “Mahhmm!” droningly to myself. It was especially used in my high school years, when after receiving a lecture or some chunk of motherly advice that my Mom was absolutely sure I needed at the time, she would close her dissertations with a sigh and a “Well, what do I know? I trust you to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Cue eye roll number two.

Leaving behind the days of my youth, I moved forward into the adult world with my eye on my passions. I’ve always been a creatively minded person, with my hands continuously dabbling in music, writing, illustration, and graphic design. And if you are a person even remotely involved with these practices, you know about the unfun part of putting your work out in the open; listening to critique.

It can be gut wrenching to have created something, feel especially proud of it, publish it for the world to see, then have someone find something wrong with it. Even if you’re looking for someone to find something wrong with it in order to get better, it still can sting in a way few other things can.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that our brains are working against us in that regard, whether we want it to or not. In an article published for BBC, psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone explain how, in many scientific reports, people would rather ignore reality, exaggerate their own good qualities, and shift blame onto the one critiquing than accept any comments that could bruise their good perceptions of themselves.

And to the Christian, this comes as no surprise that this is in our very nature. The Bible talks over and over again about the dangers of putting too much stock in one’s self, the very definition of the word “pride”. Pride has been labelled as one of the Seven Deadly sins, and the Scriptures are pretty clear about how God feels about pride;

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.
– Proverbs 21:24

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
– Obadiah 1:3

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. – Proverbs 21:4

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Whoa whoa whoa, Josie… I’m a Christian, I know pride should be avoided, especially in my walk with God. But don’t you think it’s a little much to be saying that feeling good about my own work is prideful? I should like my own stuff, right?” And by all means, like your own stuff! That’s a place many artists would love to be. But you shouldn’t be at that place at the expense of feeling wrathful toward people critiquing you.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
– Matthew 5:22

And oftentimes, we come to this place unwittingly, usually as a result of mistaken identity. In my journeys through the artistic realms, I have found that most artists would say that they struggle far more with insecurity than with pride. They have poured their hearts and souls into every piece of work they have made, and all they want is for people to like their work, and in turn, themselves. It is this mentality that causes artistic types to interpret critiques of their work as personal attacks on their self-worth, a self-worth that has been wrongfully placed in the work of their hands as opposed to their status as beloved of the Creator. Another form of pride to be sure, to try to define your personhood apart from the God who loves you.

So now we’re back to square one. No matter what we do, we are still prideful humans who think too highly of ourselves and the works of our hands. Even for the most tempered, even-keeled artist, it is difficult to prevent ourselves from feeling defensive when we seek out negative comments, even if we want to use them to make our work better. So what should we do?

“Separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Motherly wisdom always proves to be right in the end.

There are two necessary steps one must take in order to properly separate the wheat from the chaff;

  1. Take everything in.
  2. See what stays.

To understand this further, come with me to a wheat farm. It doesn’t matter which farm it is, who is running the farm or how they choose to harvest, because no matter where you go, the process is very similar. First, the farmer brings in the harvest. It does not matter how abundant or scant the yield is that year. They cut everything from the field and take everything in. And they want to, in order to pull in as much yield as possible so they can make as much profit as possible.

Second, the farmer places everything he has gathered into some sort of device. These devices can look very different, but their intent in the same. They stir up all the stalks and heads of grain that have come in, tossing them around in the air. Since the wheat grains are heavier, they bounce back to the bottom of the device and stay within it. Because the husks, shells, and straw surrounding it don’t weigh much more than a feather, they fly away with the wind or the blasting air of an industrial machine.

As artists, we must to the same thing in order to obtain the life-giving knowledge found in critiques. We first must take in everything. And I mean everything. Every helpful comment from a knowledgeable teacher, and every “f*ck you” from a random internet troll. Everything must be taken into account in order to get the most out of every statement. We need to remember that help can come from any part of the harvest, and we should not ignore grain left out in the field because it seems like there’s a scant yield from far away. Since we are hard-wired to reject statements that makes us feel bad about ourselves, our initial negative reactions and snap judgments cannot and should not be trusted. Any inclination to listen to those off-the-cuff rejections is our pride and misguided self-preservation getting in the way. 

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
– Proverbs 18:12

The second thing we must do is to see what stays. This can be a complicated task, since everybody does this process a little differently. You will need to do some tweaking to find the way that works for you.

Do your best to return to a sober mind. If a negative comment is causing you emotional discomfort, ask yourself clarifying questions; “What about that specifically makes me feel bad?” “Why does it bother me?” “What part of me does it bother?” “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” If something is really bothering you, talk to a friend or loved one about it in order to sort it out. It is by working through the emotional discomfort of highly negative statements that you will be able to let the chaff of negative comments float away. Once you get good at this, taking in and letting go of unhelpful, disdainful comments will become easier and easier.

Once your mind has been quieted, you will notice something interesting has happened. Because you put aside your pride and self-defensiveness and accepted all comments as potential harvest, you have blown away the chaff and are now able to see which critiques can be used as actual nuggets of nourishment for your artistic growth. But even this can become an interesting task if you get some comments that contradict each other. For example, I recently performed Genesis 1 for a class at college. One written critique I got from a classmate said that I should have gestured more during my performance. But another critique I got said that I gestured too much and should have let the story unfold. So now what do I do? How do I find the comments that are not just good, but best for me?

Here’s where we do our quality check with more clarifying questions, this time regarding the critiques themselves; “Do I know who said this?” “How experienced in my field is this person?” “How could this statement apply to my artistic growth?” “How could a different statement apply?” Toss all of the comments around in your mind. Test the critiques against your own artistic journey. By quietly mulling over these grains of wheat you have discovered, you will find that the most nourishing brain food will be the stuff that you use to further refine your craft over and over again.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. – Romans 12:3

But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. – Galatians 6:4

Well, as is usually the case when children come into their own, it is with quiet awe that I can say that my mother’s statement on accepting critique proved to be true. And I hope that in reading this article, you were also able to take it all in, separate the wheat from the chaff, and let whatever grains of truth you find here nourish your soul. If you can let go of the useless chaff, you will find that the heaviness of the critiques you need will stick to the bottom and impact your artistic quality for the better.


on moana, the old testament, and the power of good story

In general, I don’t enjoy watching films very much. My friends will be the first to tell you that when “movie night” is the hang-out activity of choice, I will do all I can to avoid it, stay busy, or try to get people to do something else with me. Since most films have been made for the purpose of cheap entertainment or money-grabbing, they come with plot holes, cliches, unnecessary details, and gross artisanal oversight. Even films with good artistic intentions can have enough flaws in craftsmanship to launch me out of the storytelling experience and leave me feeling like I wasted 2 hours of precious time.

Because of this, I didn’t watch “Moana” when it was out in theatres. I like watching Disney films as much as the next person, but “Tangled” and “Frozen” left me feeling “meh” enough to not want to spend a ton of extra money on the big-screen experience. I resolved to watch it when it was easily accessible on a platform I already paid for. Even when “Moana” was made available on Netflix this past June, I didn’t get around to watching it until about mid-July.

To quickly sum up my feelings, I very much regret not seeing it in theatres. “Moana” is the first Disney movie in a long time to feel like a proper Disney animated film. The writing is rife with the genuine sense of adventure and heart that marks other Disney classics, and the lush, detailed animation feels nearly lifelike at times.

However, the thing that took me most by surprise was not the high-quality writing or the detailed graphics, but how close the story, specifically the music, ended up striking my heart. At the climax of the film, as Moana realizes where the Heart of Te Fiti belongs, she sings a reprise version of the song heard when she met the ocean for the first time at the very beginning of the film. I did not understand why, but the first time I heard it, I nearly broke down in tears. It felt so powerful to me how the quiet song of the sea was now being sung again as the way to ground Te Ka and bring Te Fiti back to life.

The emotion of that moment stuck with me, and made me realize the beauty of the purposefulness in the songwriting and arranging. That song Moana sang, “Know Who You Are”, is the back half of one of three musical bookends, marking the conclusion of the film and its story by its reflection of the beginning song, “An Innocent Warrior”. The other two bookends are the opening song “Tulou Tagaloa” and its reprise “Voyager Tagaloa”, and the song “We Know The Way” and its reprise at the very close of the film.

Upon looking at the translations of the Samoan songs “An Innocent Warrier” and “Tulou Tagaloa”, we see just how much each of the three bookends establish and reaffirm each of their presented themes and the themes seen throughout all of “Moana”. “Tulou Tagaloa”, the song heard during the opening credits of the film, is sung to the highest deity of Polynesian culture, the creator Tagaloa, and says;

“Pardon us…
Pardon us…
Oh Tagaloa.

Look down
Upon our world
Look down
Upon our world.
The light
[I stand before you]
It is good and beautiful
[My desire (homesickness)]
Look down
[The journey has begun]
At how beautiful our lives are.”

“An Innocent Warrior”, the song sung when Moana first meets the ocean, is translated to;

“Your eyes so full of wonder
Your heart, an innocent warrior
My dearest one
There’s a task for you
Let it flow over you
The freedom you feel
And your deep thoughts
Our young girl
Have you come
Our young girl
Your eyes so full of wonder”

It was after looking up these translations that I realized just how much “Moana” reflected common themes found throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Whether it be Abraham, Gideon, Elijah, or Hosea, the great prophets and followers of God all have a similar tale to tell; they were all called by God to accomplish a specific task for his people for their overall benefit. This great call was the thing that pulled them through every adversity, allowing them to conquer every doubt, fear, and enemy that stood between them in order to complete their divinely ordained end goal.

In the story of “Moana”, we find a story constructed in almost exactly the same way as any of those ancient tales. A young girl, divinely chosen by the high creator, is given a task to perform in order to set her people right again. In the fullness of time, she begins to set out to accomplish that task, finding doubt in the ocean and in herself to be constant companions along the way, causing even the creator’s chosen one to question the legitimacy of her entire journey. And yet, in the face of all of this, she chooses to trust the call that was given to her, carrying out her task to its fullest and allowing her people the freedom to commune with the ocean as they once did so long ago.

This story arc, unspoken and undefined but communicated through a tight cohesion of visual and auditory storytelling, is what spoke to me on such a guttural level. As a Christian, I know in very real terms what it’s like to feel called out to by an incredible God that I am drawn to so deeply. I know what it’s like to feel that relationship so strongly and tangibly at some times, but at other times doubt everything about ever experiencing it. And to see someone, anyone be able to not only pull through that adversity, but fully accomplish everything that was set before them fills me with such passion and hope that it leaves me breathless.

That breathlessness is the power of good story. It is the same power that makes telling and retelling all of those Old Testament recordings so important to the Christian walk. You could tell a person that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. You could even summarize the experiences of Christians long past and present them as clear evidences of God’s faithfulness. But through the power of artistry and craftsmanship in storytelling, these truths can spring to life in astonishing ways, allowing emotion and empathy to carry them to the most raw and primal parts of the human soul. That is why good writing matters. That is why thought-through visuals matter. That is why the arrangement of six songs in a bookend formation poetically written in both English and Samoan to tie together a story based in Polynesian mythology matters.

“Moana” may not exactly be a Christian story. But it is a well-done story, told with excruciating care and attention to detail. And I have found that when it comes to catching the sparkle of God’s truth in media, whether it be found in ancient Hebrew texts or in a big-budget Disney blockbuster, it may be all that matters.