Focusing on Beauty

This week, I finished reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance. In one of the last sections of the book, he talks about an experience he had at a storytelling workshop lead by master storyteller Jay O’Callahan. Each participant would tell a story, receive feedback, and then tell it again in order to improve their craft. This sounds standard enough, but there was a catch: constructive criticism was not allowed.

Instead of pointing out the weaknesses in another person’s storytelling, participants were instructed to only point out specific strengths.1 The method proved effective. After receiving positive feedback, participants would improve their storytelling in the next round. Strengths would get stronger and weaknesses naturally faded away.

O’Callahan explains the motivation behind this method:

If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice the beauty.

His reasoning gives me pause for two reasons. One, it provides a deeper motivation for positive feedback. As one who defaults to criticism, my efforts at pointing out positives in a design are often shallow. I do it because I think I should. But O’Callahan is not talking about a false buoying of self-esteem. He’s concerned that we don’t lose the heart and soul of the art we create. With this motivation, positive feedback becomes genuine and enriching.

Two, O’Callahan’s method sends a gentle but somewhat startling warning. By definition, focusing on something other than beauty excludes our attention from it. If we only look at weakness, will we stop noticing beauty all together? This is the great danger. Blindness to beauty deadens our souls and, ironically, prevents us from reaching the goal of criticism – making something great. I don’t believe that critique is unnecessary, but honing an adoration of a beauty is essential, not only for great design – but for our hearts.

  1. O’Callahan calls this “Appreciations.”