“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” – Terence Fletcher, Whiplash
Western society is a society that despises ambition, especially ambition that involves competition with winners and losers. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see memes on Facebook and Twitter about “loving yourself for who you are” — no improvement of any kind needed.
So, it was a refreshing, almost traumatic experience to watch the movie Whiplash. For those who don’t know, Whiplash is the story of an incredibly ambitious drummer named Andrew Nieman, being driven to psychological and physical breaking point by his teacher, Terence Fletcher.
Fletcher is the disciplinarian from hell. He’s physically and psychologically abusive and absolutely intolerant of any weakness. The extreme opposite of the cosseting expects-nothing-of-you PC teacher, Fletcher aims to create musical giants, and he does not care how many people he has to break to get there.
Whiplash is an unabashed argument for excruciatingly hard work, ruthless discipline and unbending excellence. It does not apologize and it does not waffle. Unlike other movies, there is no third act where the nasty guy suddenly mellows out. Both Nieman and Fletcher fight each other uncompromisingly to the very end, leaving us with many questions about the world we live in, especially when it comes to individual achievement.
Now, I think the details of the movie’s arguments go a little too far. Contrary to stereotype, many great geniuses in many fields had happy lives, friends and families. They were not all broken-down wrecks who died young. Also, I don’t think even the most conservative person would go quite as far as Fletcher in his methods (though I could be wrong).
But one thing is unquestionably true: hard work and serious discipline are absolute necessities for excellence. Read any serious biography of the great masters in any field, and you will find that they worked extremely hard to hone their abilities. Raw talent and ability is not anywhere near enough – they must be carefully molded.
But as I stopped watching the movie, I wondered – what about people who aren’t Charlie Parkers? What about those of us who could certainly be good and even excellent, but not be phenomenal? Where would Whiplash put us?
I’m guessing both Nieman and Fletcher would tell us to drop out with the other losers you see in the movie, the people who can’t cut it in Fletcher’s jazz band, and who sit around the Nieman family table celebrating their small accomplishments. Ambition, they would say, is only for the greats.
But here I would disagree with Whiplash. I think ambition and a striving for excellence is something that everyone, not just the savants, need desperately, especially those growing up in our present “just be yourself” false self esteem culture.
What can ambition give us? For one thing, excellence and achievement, even if not world-shattering, gives people a sense of self-worth far more solid and valuable than ethereal self-esteem based on hackneyed Facebook memes and cowardly adult “educators”. Maybe you can’t win the World Championship in chess, say, but you could make master or at least rank high in tournaments.
Another issue is what I call “situational excellence”, in which you’re the best at at least one thing within your social circle or family. This situational excellence is something in which you can rightly, objectively take pride in, even if you’re not “the best in the world.”
I see many people in my own life and online who lack nothing in terms of potential. They don’t suffer from physical or psychological disability or serious lack of resources. What they lack, for all kinds of reasons, is drive – a desire to “be all that you can be” as the army slogan goes.
Maybe we’d stop short of letting Terence Fletcher teach in an actual classroom, but I believe his lessons and philosophy, properly adapted, are a much-needed antidote to the current trends of intentional and self-justifying mediocrity and even failure, which helps no-one except perhaps smarmy TED lecturers.