Your Toughest Critic: You
March 2016: several members of SA Creative and our close partner in SA Sponsorship & Fundraising went to the #ACPA16 Convention in Montréal. This was the first ACPA convention to be held outside of the United States, and #RyersonSA took full advantage by sending many delegates from across the portfolio to learn, meet, and present. They were selected to perform their program, Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork: Creating and Managing In-House Creative Agencies, a session they had given multiple times before. What should have been a routine, experienced presentation delivered before a new audience quickly became something else…
The room was huge. Absolutely, ridiculously, almost comically large, and the excess of space made all the more apparent by the low turnout in attendees. As we descended upon the room—this space that was to be ours for the next 60 minutes—we each felt a cacophony of emotions, and made the usual jokes:
“I hope everyone can find a seat.”
“Good thing folks got here early.”
“Is Beyoncé in the building?”
But though our jovial mocking encouraged a relaxed, in control perspective, the next hour passed in a slow, agonizing blur. The session spun out of our control. Timing was off; jokes failed to land; information was muddled, confused, misrepresented. A verbal mess made all the worse by multiple tech disruptions, PowerPoint Fails, and a “disengaged” audience, seeming to frame an unprepared, disorganized, broken performance.
As the audience filed out and the next presenter strutted in, we huddled together for support before slinking off to lick wounds. The inevitable debrief was furious and fast:
“What happened in there?”
“Why was the room so big?”
“We broke our presentation.”
But the real question, the important question, the one underlining every other thought we had, was:
“Why did we fail?”
Because that’s exactly what it felt like—failure. Despite all the evidence (eventually) presented to the contrary, we looked at what we had just done and felt disappointment:
I personally had 4 presentations at ACPA. This specific presentation was 3/4 and 2/3 for that day. My first one that day on #RoadToRyerson felt really good. There was good feedback and the whole experience was encouraging—that feeling of being on fire! I was most nervous for my Pecha Kucha that night, so having this presentation right in the middle was interesting. Because there was a lot of buzz around RyersonSA in general and the earlier presentation, I felt we had created a brand promise of excellence, and therefore when this presentation was done, felt we didn’t meet that promise. It also made me more nervous for my Pecha Kucha, which I think also ended up going well. Funny how we psyche ourselves out.
The line that kept hovering in my mind was, “Not our finest hour.” We work so hard every day to create excellent content, but when given the opportunity to talk about that content at a key moment, we dropped the ball, making it look like a mess—making ourselves look like a mess. I felt like we let ourselves down.
An adage I find myself oft repeating in my role as Coordinator of Student Affairs Creative is, “The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” Riffing on Luke’s aforementioned point, we spend 99% of our time, energy, and attention on animating the presence of the five departments which comprise Student Affairs at Ryerson University. We are obsessed with helping them tell their story. But in this relentless pursuit, the story that is regrettably neglected is that of our creative team. Purposefully focused outwards almost all of the time, we rarely look inwards. And so it caught us all by surprise when we went up on that stage, only to find ourselves out of confidence and out of sync. And as our own toughest critics, the feelings of failure continued to escalate throughout the clumsy presentation. In that moment, our children weren’t just barefoot. They had stubbed their toes, and were wailing for help.
We’re no strangers to failure. So much of our work is creative, and with creativity comes the inevitable, ever-present ally that is failure. In the SA Creative Unit and the Sponsorship & Fundraiser role, we’ve embedded the notion that failure is a part of, and important to, the creative process. We engage, share, and reflect upon our failures regularly, both alone and with one another. We know that by failing we learn, and by learning we become better.
Immediately following the presentation, our former Ryerson colleague Glen Weppler came up and congratulated us; later that night, one conference attendee from the US showed Hamza several pages of notes she took during our session; John Austin had positive feedback to share during a subsequent 1:1 with Hamza (including kudos from a former colleague at NYU); one of our new friends, Andy (from UCLA’s Department of Residence Life) was inspired by the presentation as well. Based on this data, we were actually a success.
But it didn’t feel like a success.
For me, I think it’s easiest to draw parallels to similar moments throughout my hockey career. Not feeling like you played your best but still receiving praise from a coach, teammate, or parent for your performance. You know you could have done better, and perhaps are focused on the small things you did wrong or that just didn’t feel right, but their perspective was completely different. By not focusing on the small things, the outsider’s perspective is big picture and can see the overall success. The other comparison is that of preparedness. We had presented this before and it was a win. Our lineup had changed at ACPA but we didn’t make the necessary adjustments in practise to come up with a new game plan. There isn’t a team out there that just shows up for games. Success is determined by practise and repetition.
And there in lies the power of perspective. To us—fully acknowledging that we are the hardest on ourselves—it was a complete failure. To others, they got exactly what they wanted out of the presentation; thus, a success. Failure, or success, so often is tied into how one looks at an event, a program, a presentation; that person’s perspective on the matter. And how one looks at an event is, inevitably, tied to one’s own emotions. If you feel bad about a thing, you can’t help but perceive it as failure.
For Creative and Sponsorship & Fundraising, our ACPA16 presentation was a great reminder that we are our toughest critics. That when—in our eyes—a project looks its worst, is underdeveloped, or just plain bad, it’s a good time to get a second opinion; to pull back from the piece and gain, as it were, a new perspective. We also feel, however, that our passion for perfection (though we know we’ll never reach it) is a contributing factor towards the quality of our work. Sure, our project might not be as good as we think it could be, and those we made it for may be ecstatic with the results, but that constant hunger for it to be better drives us to make it, just a little bit, better than last time. This drive to critique ourselves helps keep us on the forefront of quality, the edge of innovation, and the cusp of creativity. So long as we don’t let it debilitate our process, our criticalness can be a boon.