I have to say…I’ve had so much fun reading your questions and writing these answers! It’s very therapeutic and relaxing, and I can’t wait to do this more with y’all :) The question this week is from @Heather_Pants (I know youuuu), and she asked:
How have self-reflection and constructive criticism helped you improve as an artist?
Good. Question. This one hits riiiiiiight at home, which means…story time :)
When I was 15, I made the decision to attend the boarding school Phillips Academy in Andover, MA (otherwise known as the “High School Ivy” or the “wow…you’re like…reaalllly preppy” school). As much as I loved my Kentucky home, I knew I needed a more challenging academic, music, and social environment. In my first week of classes at Andover, it hit me like a train that I was surrounded by some of the best and the brightest students in the world. Andover is considered a feeder school for the Ivy League (in these past three years, 39 kids went to Yale, and 37 kids went to Harvard). Politicians like the Bushes, actors like Olivia Wilde, coaches like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, and children of great musicians like Yo-Yo Ma had all attended there. I had officially arrived at the school of hard knocks.
And in my first trimester, I did terribly in practically every course.
My ego was severely bruised. I thought I had some semblance of intelligence and brain power, but my grades didn’t reflect that at all. When the semester was over I returned home mentally shattered and for the first couple of days I moped around my room. My dad finally came into my room and said something I’ll never forget:
“Kevin. You can’t cry over what’s past. All you can do is learn from your mistakes. Figure out what went wrong, understand your weaknesses, and tackle them.”
My dad was giving me one of the best pieces of advice I’d ever received, and all I wanted to do was feel sorry for myself. But in that moment, I could either let my feelings get the best of me, or I could stand up and take charge of my future.
I took his advice. By senior fall, I made the high honor roll.
That’s why I’ve grown to love constructive criticism. It not only gives you the opportunity to enhance your abilities in whatever you’re tackling, but more importantly to shape your character. When you fail and obtain constructive criticism from somebody, how will you go about handling it? Are you going to crumble and be stifled by it? Or are you going to be, as Steven Convey puts it in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the “creative force of your life” and fight the good fight? Your decision will make a world of difference in your quest to better yourself.
Now whereas constructive criticism allows you to improve your skills with critical feedback, self-reflection is the zen that allows you to evaluate whether the goals you’re pursuing are even the right ones for yourself and, if not, change them. That way, the constructive criticism you receive will only advance you in the right direction because you're chasing after the right goals. That was what my entire break before my second trimester at Andover was about as I pondered the question what was my main goal for being in boarding school? I knew I wanted a challenging environment, but was the challenge in becoming friends with the best and brightest? Was it getting out of my comfort zone and trying new activities? Or was it studying 24/7 to get the grades necessary to attend an Ivy League school? After lots of self-reflection, I came to the conclusion that my main goal was to understand how to be an efficient person; how do I think, learn, overcome weakness, and accomplish the goals that I set for myself with efficiency? Recognizing this fact gave me a focal point for the rest of my time at Andover. When I returned to campus, I immediately sought academic counseling. After some testing, the instructors revealed to me that my first trimester failures were not because I wasn’t intelligent, but because I had no idea how to manage my time. The teachers explained to me that every second of the day is important, and people from CEOs to Presidents to successful entrepreneurs all have weekly goals and daily schedules locked down in detail so they can efficiently execute them. Therefore, I needed to organize myself so that my time would always be spent well. Had I not reflected on my goals at Andover, I would have never found this type of constructive criticism in my formative years that have been key to my success thus far.
Since deciding to become an artist, I’ve seen that symbiotic relationship between self-reflection and constructive criticism as an essential part of almost every aspect of my business. When Pentatonix met the day before the audition of the NBC TV show “The Sing-Off”, we did a lot of self-reflection on our goals as a band. Was the purpose to have a little fun on the TV show then go our separate ways? Or was it something more? We decided that for the TV show, we wanted to create a mainstream a cappella sound, so we honed our style in pop, electronic, and dubstep genres, and we primarily sang chart-topping hits. Now years after winning the show and gaining more experience in the industry, we’ve refined our goal as creating a definable sound that showcases the beauty and power of voices-only music in a hip and artistic way that’s not novel. Every single time we work on a new arrangement, we’re very critical and honest with each other during the process. We may say things to each other that sounds harsh, and there are arrangements sessions that can get uncomfortable because of musical disagreements. But at the end of the day, we don’t take the criticism personally because we know we’re all there to accomplish the same goal. Now that we’re transitioning to original music, we’re getting constructive criticism from our label Sony/RCA and songwriters about how to take our music to the next level. And we do listen. We want this first original album to be something our whole team is proud of, and ultimately something that our fans would enjoy.
Self-reflection and constructive criticism have been foundational tools in my development as a artist and a person. Take some time to think about who you are, what are your gifts, and why you do what you want to do. Maybe you don’t figure it out at this very moment. That’s ok; I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I was 20. However, when you do figure it out…the constructive criticism will only be that much more helpful :)