It’s been a while since I opened The Book of Awesome
But last week I really needed it. I’d written a short feature for a magazine that I love, and it came back with edits from the person who had commissioned it. They were all perfectly reasonable requests, and I did them.
Two days later, it came back again, with even more changes added by a second editor. I didn’t agree with all of these, so I pushed back on some, but did the rest.
The next day, there it was in my in-box again, with even more marks added by a third editor. Some of the changes requested seemed pointless, absurd. But by now, the fight had gone out of me. I made the new changes. And with them the feature felt flat, without spark or style.
Which was something editor four didn’t hold back on telling me when he sent it back for more rewrites, a day later. At this point, I knew what I needed.
The Book of Awesome is an archive of praise.
This is where I keep thank-you letters from people I’ve interviewed. Cards from flowers PR people have sent to me, after something I wrote went down well. The lovely hand-written postcards that Michelle Lavery, my brilliant editor at the Telegraph magazine, used to thoughtfully send if she particularly liked a feature. Print-outs of emails, or readers’ letters. Notes of things various people have said that made me glow with pride.
There’s a blurry selfie of me with a very drunk man at a party who could quote whole lines of an album review I wrote for The Guardian well over a decade before. Wrapping a sweaty arm round me, he bellowed at anyone who would listen: “This woman is sooooo FUNNY!!!!!”
There’s even an entry from a beach barbecue where the children present decided to give the adults awards. I won the prize for Most Respectful and Polite Grown-Up. (And I’ve no idea why this made some of their parents snort with laughter.)
The Book of Awesome is deliberately ridiculous.
If anyone else saw it, I would be mortified. It has a picture of a trumpet on its cover, because I’ve never been good at blowing my own. It is covered in love hearts and gold stars, because the kitsch somehow makes it more acceptable. Obviously, I keep it hidden on a high shelf.
But here’s the thing about my silly scrapbook: it works.
When my confidence has been knocked, or there’s been a painful rejection. Or when I’m feeling down about myself or my work, I flick through its pages. And it reminds me that on the whole, I’m pretty good at what I do.
We’re all excellent at remembering criticism.
We’re not so good at recalling praise. One cutting remark about something you created can stay in your head forever. The fifty things you did well that same year? Forgotten, almost as soon as you’d completed them. Along with the couple of things you did brilliantly.
The Book of Awesome started as a reminder, a way to to celebrate wins, and record my achievements. I wanted to give myself something to turn to in those inevitable times when things aren’t going so well.
I encourage all of my coaching clients to make their own books, after an incident a few years ago. I was doing some media coaching with a young singer, who showed me a cruel comment under a YouTube promo for her latest single. “Look!” she wailed. “They all hate me!”
I did look. And it was true. Some of them did seem to hate her. As much as anyone can really hate a complete stranger, simply on the basis of watching them perform a song.
We can’t please everyone. Or even try to.
I pointed out that this was good. After all, she’d set out to provoke a strong reaction with her music. She knew it wouldn’t be for everyone.
Then I started reading out the other comments, from people who loved what she was doing. Who felt she was speaking directly to them.
After the first few, she begged me to stop. But despite her pleas, I carried on reading out positive comments posted under this video and her previous clips for the next 20 minutes, relentlessly. Because I wanted her to remember it, to use it as armour.
If we own our quirks and uniqueness, and if we make work expressing how we truly feel, we’re going to get criticism. (In fact, we’ll also get criticism when we’re not being authentic, which is even worse. Even the most abject people-pleasers can’t make everyone happy, all the time.)
Anyone who puts their work out in the world will attract a handful of haters. Sadly, it’s become the price of being visible, in a digital world where any bitter individual can post comments, instantly and anonymously.
Putting your work out there makes you vulnerable
It’s hard. And scary. Most creatives are sensitive. It’s one of our superpowers, how we make work that touches others. But to put what we’ve created out into the world, we need protection. Some strong armour for the days when the haters get to us, our work isn’t going smoothly, and the chorus of inner critics are particularly loud. Along with our old, familiar friend, Imposter Syndrome.
It’s important that we celebrate wins. That we remember the positive feedback, rather than dwelling on the negative. And that we collect it, for when we need it.
After our session, the singer started her own version of The Book Of Awesome. She called it Fabulous Me, and put a glittery pink unicorn on the cover. I’d imagine it’s now pretty full: this year, she was awarded her first platinum disk in the US.
Rejection hurts. Criticism hurts.
As for the article, I sent editor number four a round-up of all the previous emails and changes, asking if he could please get everyone together and decide what was wanted before I did any more work.
A few days later, I got an apologetic message from the original commissioning editor. She had been away. The office had been full of holiday and sickness replacements, she explained, and my article had been passed around in a circle, with everyone feeling they needed to make changes because it had landed on their desk.
“You know we love your work,” she added. And I do, now that she’s told me.
But I printed out the email and put it in The Book of Awesome, just in case I forget.
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